Archive for the 'Arguments and Reasons' Category

What can (can’t) come next?


Is this the reason for grammatical gender?

… grammatical gender appears superfluous to a lot of people. But, studying Dutch, one of the favourite kinds of questions is fill in the blank sentences. For example:

Hij leest de _____.
He reads the _____.

There are a number of coherent possible answers, but the obvious one in English – book – is ruled out by the article de. Boek has the neuter gender, and cannot have de as its article. Krant – newspaper – can go here nicely though.

McWhorter suggests that features like grammatical gender – among other things – are a sort of cruft that a language accumulates over time – that there is a kind of universal basic language structure that doesn’t have those things, and that creoles all, to some extent, resemble this basic grammar. It is a kind of resurection of Bickerton’s universal language bioprogram. Now, this is simply wrong if one considers languages like Michif creoles – the position that McWhorter takes in his book. Michif has absorbed all the complexities of French nouns and of Cree verbs at the same time, making it by his standards an incredibly complex language. There are ways to get out of this hole, but they all involve seeing Michif as something fundamentally different from a creole. As far as I can tell, Mufwene’s approach still seems to explain the data better.

But the thought that occured to me was that complex and seemingly unnecessary features like grammatical gender can serve to reduce noise in oral communications. Languages that mark grammatical gender in articles, like Dutch or French, sharply reduce the number of words that can follow them given their context, while the amount of information that has to be stored in the lexicon to make this gain in noise reduction is very small. In French with just two genders, it’s just one bit of information per noun. I suspect that by losing grammatical gender, Haitian Creole has had to create other distinctions to compensate. The thing is, given a reasonable corpus, this hypothesis should be empirically confirmable.

Presumably other grammatical features could be evaluated in the same way. Furthermore, instead of simply offering up a more sophisticated version of Martinet’s hypothesis, it seems to me one could recast his core claim: Feature loss in languages should be less likely to occur to the features that most add to noise robustness. This hypothesis can cover a lot of ground – it can explain creolisation not as incomplete acquisition of substrates, but as the result of speakers with different language abilities – some fluent, some marginal – devising mechanisms to increase the noise robustness of their language.

I.e., grammatical gender helps the listener to follow what the speaker is saying by making it easier to anticipate what words can (and can’t) follow a particular — masculine or feminine — article.


Grammatical Gender is Useful


Grammatical gender has its advantages presents an example of a case where grammatical gender is actually useful.

Grammatical gender is a pain in the ass for people who speak English (or Turkish, or …) to learn. But it can have advantages, if only by accident. Consider the English sentence:

He removed the manuscript from the briefcase and cast it into the sea.

What went into the sea, the manuscript or the briefcase?

In French, these words happen to differ in gender, so the pronoun neatly disambiguates the sentence:

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et le jeta dans le mer.

has “le jeta”, meaning that the manuscript (masc.) went in the drink, whereas

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et la jeta dans le mer.

has “la jeta”, meaning that it’s the briefcase (fem.) that got drowned.

Of course, there are other ways to express this distinction. In Bislama, the English-based creole of Vanuatu (a Pacific island nation), you’d say

Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem, hem i sakem long solwota.

to dunk the manuscript, whereas the briefcase goes under with:

Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem pastaem, nao hem i sakem kes blong hem long solwota.

These will be easier for people who read Standard English to read if I respell them thus:

Him he take’em-out paper belong case belong him, him he chuck’em belong saltwater.


Him he take’em-out paper belong case belong him past-time, now him he chuck’em case belong him belong saltwater.

Note the difference between blong, which is specifically possessive (the case “belongs” to him) and long, which is a general-purpose preposition, both from English belong. English can use “of” for both, but Bislama sharply distinguishes them.

A similar example is this sentence:

And then there’s my friends Brian and Edith; he wants to go to the mountains, she wants to go to the beach.

It’s easy to imagine someone saying that in a conversation about vacations. If someone understands that Brian is a man and Edith is a woman, then they can answer the questions, “Who wants to go to the mountains?” and “Who wants to go to the beach?” … and this is because the pronoun “he” must be referring to Brian while the pronoun “she” must be referring to Edith. The gender of the pronouns makes the sentence understandable.

Now consider these sentences in French that work the same way.

Où est ma chemise? où est mon t-shirt?
Elle est sur la table. Il est sur la chaise.

In English, this wouldn’t make much sense.

Where’s my shirt? Where’s my t-shirt?
It is on the table. It is on the chair.

Aside from the order of the items mentioned in the first sentence, we don’t have anything that tells us which item, the shirt or the t-shirt, is on the table and which is on the chair. But in French, we can determine that the shirt has to be the item that is on the table and the t-shirt is the item on the chair because “elle”, the feminine pronoun can only refer to the feminine item, “shirt” and “il”, the masculine pronoun can only refer to the masculine item, “t-shirt”.

Of course, if “shirt” and “t-shirt” both happened have the same grammatical gender, then we’d be out of luck.

The Time it Takes


Consider this:

… it takes “an educated English speaker 1,300 hours to achieve the native-proficiency of an educated native speaker of Chinese, while it would only take about 480 hours to achieve the same level in French or Spanish.”
(How to Learn Chinese in 2,200 Not-So-Easy Lessons, The Washington Post)

Length of study time required to achieve proficiency for an American English speaker

  • Category I: Afrikaans, Basque, Danish, Dutch, French, Haitian-Creole, Icelandic, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish. (720 hours)
  • Category II: German, Indonesian, Malay, Romanian, Urdu, Swahili. (960 hours)
  • Category III: Albanian. Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Burmese, Cambodian, Croatian, Czech, Dari, Finnish, Georgian, Greek. Hebrew, Hindi, … (1,440 hours)
  • Category IV: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Korean. (2,160 hours)

“Duration of Language Study”, Achieving Success in Second Language Acquisition, Betty Lou Leaver, et al) [adapted and simplified from table 1.1 in text]

The point of the excerpts above is this: The time required to learn a foreign language varies from one language to another. Of course, there are many factors involved in learning a foreign language. Chinese, which is well-known as being difficult to learn (for Americans, that is; the length of time required to learn a foreign language is as much a measure of “relative distance” between languages as the inherent difficulty of a given language — presumably, Chinese wouldn’t be as difficult for native Korean speakers), doesn’t have grammatical gender at all. (The main difficulty in Chinese, tonal speech patterns and lack of an alphabet are rightfully subjects for another blog.) For the most part, a foreign language’s similarity to English is what makes it easier to learn — easier for the English-speaker, that is. Similarities like using basically the same alphabet, having similar vocabulary, and so on.

However, it’s interesting to note that those languages with no grammatical grammar or those with simple grammatical grammar (male and female only; nouns very regularly ending in “a” and “o” to indicate gender; and so on) are among the languages that require the least study time to achieve proficiency, while languages with more complex grammatical gender (male, female and neuter; no hard and fast rules, so much memorization required) are among those that take more time to learn.

So, the point of this post is: Grammatical gender imposes some cost on language learners. It’s not a “free” or “painless” feature of a language. It takes time to learn and time to teach. The cost of that time is something that should be considered.

Costs and Benefits


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.



Grammatical Grammar. Is there any defense for it? If not, why bother with it?