Costs and Benefits

03/June/2009

It’s nice to believe that people are rational. The whole field of Economics is based on this supposition: folks do what it’s rational to do, benefits have to (at least, eventually) be greater than costs, and so on.

The mystery of grammatical gender is: What are its benefits? What is the practical use of knowing die Gabel (“fork”) is feminine, and der Löffel (“spoon”) is masculine (in German)? How does it facilitate communication? What useful knowledge does it convey? In what way does it improve people’s lives?

There must be some cost to employing grammatical gender. The cost of using grammatical gender in a language — for kids learning, students studying, teachers teaching, writers writing, editors editing, and so on — must be greater than zero when one considers the value of time, not to mention salaries of teachers, writers, editors, and so on. Whatever the value of costs > 0 may actually be, we have to assume that the benefits must be even greater: benefits > costs > 0. We can assume benefits > costs because rational people wouldn’t spend their limited effort, money, and time employing grammatical gender if it weren’t providing them with benefits of greater value.

But what are the benefits? (Other than knowing which form or an article, adjective, or pronoun to use, which is rather circular reasoning: “We need the to know the noun’s gender to know how to form the related article, adjective, and pronoun … and we need the article, adjective, or pronoun formed correctly because they have to agree with the noun’s gender”; it’s as if one had a tower with a flashing red light on its top and someone asked what the tower was for, and the only answer was, “This tower is needed to hold up this flashing red light.” And then, when asked what the light was for, the only answer is, “The light is to make sure no one runs into the tower.”)

Economic rationality would imply that there have to be some benefits that arise from a language having a system of grammatical gender, such that said benefits are greater than the costs. If this weren’t the case, wouldn’t people have abandoned grammatical gender long ago?

Yet it’s evident that grammatical gender has been a feature (a feature or a bug?) of many languages for a very long time. Only a few “gendered” languages are now free of grammatical gender. This raises the questions:

  • Are there benefits that are not known (at least not to this author)?
  • Does the idea of “language rationality” not apply?
  • Is the whole concept of economic rationality a false assertion?

Or, my favorite:

  • Are “gendered” languages moving towards being grammatical-gender-free, albeit, v…e…r…y … s…l…o…w…l…y?

We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

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