Archive for the 'Examples and Oddities' Category

Grammatical Gender, Rosetta Stone, and Michael Phelps


Here’s a blog post that starts off …

Did you also know that Rosetta Stone and Phelps managed to uncover something about Chinese that has eluded linguists, scholars, and even the Chinese themselves for millennia?

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.

Gender of 84 Nouns in 14 Languages


This paper, Evolution of Gender in Indo-European Languages by Harry E. Foundalis, explores whether and how the language one speaks influences the way one perceives reality.

Of special interest to this discussion is “Appendix A: Words Examined” which contains charts showing the gender assignment of 84 common words in 14 languages (French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, German, Icelandic, Irish, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Albanian, Greek, Kurdish). As one might expect, gender assignment appears arbitrary and varies from one language to another, though closely related languages (Portuguese and Spanish, for example) often classify a given noun the same way.

An example:

Paper (a sheet of)
Language M, F, or N
French M
Italian F
Portuguese M
Spanish M
Dutch N
German N
Icelandic M
Irish M
Polish M
Russian F
Serbo-Croatian N
Albanian F
Greek N
Kurdish F

Sun and Moon


In the Romance languages, such as French, Italian and Spanish, “sun” is masculine and “moon” is feminine.

  • le soleil, la lune
  • il sole, la luna
  • el sol, la luna

(Obviously, because this is how the grammatical gender was done in Latin). But in German and other Germanic languages, we see the reverse.

  • die Sonne, der Mond