Archive for the 'Further Study' 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.


Linguistic Male Nipples


Defining Creole by John H. McWhorter contains a chapter on grammatical gender in English that asks many questions about how English came to be so different than most other Indo-European languages and dialects in its lack of grammatical gender. Especially memorable is his use of this phrase, “lingusitic male nipples” to describe grammatical gender (although he borrows this from another scholar, Roger Lass).

Loss of Gender in English


How did it happen that Old English which, like most other Indo-European languages, had a system of grammatical gender, transformed itself into its modern form which does not?

It’s expressed as follows (here):

The reason why a language as English dropped gender – in surface – may be attributable to the huge trauma it has been enduring : direct Latinisation, slight Scandinavisation and violent Francisation (through French and Latin). All that led to inflexion and gender loss (incompatibility).

And a bit more completely here:

Loss of Gender in English

Unlike most other Indo-European languages, English, for the most part, doesn’t have grammatical genders (i.e., inflecting nouns, pronouns, and adjectives as either masculine, feminine, or neuter). French, for example, has two genders (m. and f.); German has three. But the only English words that are inflected for gender are the third-person, singular pronouns (he, she, it), and the gender of these, with a few exceptions, corresponds to biological gender of the referent. (The primary exceptions are personification of inanimate objects, such as referring to ships or one’s country as she, and the use of it to refer to animals where the sex is not known or immaterial.) But English was not always like this.

Old English had grammatical genders (m., f., and n.), like the modern continental languages. And like its modern counterparts, Old English sometimes exhibited a disparity between grammatical and biological gender. Hence þæt wif, “the woman” (n.), se stan, “the stone” (m.), or seo giefu, “the gift” (f.). In compound nouns, the second element provided the grammatical gender, hence þæt wif (n.) + se mann (m.) yielded the masculine se wifmann, “the woman. Other than this, there was little logic in the assignment of grammatical gender in Old English, and you have to learn a noun’s gender through rote memorization.

But starting in the tenth century, we begin to see the loss of grammatical gender in Old English. This loss begins in the north of England and over the next few centuries spreads south, until grammatical gender is completely gone from the language by the middle of the fourteenth century. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a late-seventh/early-eighth century Latin illuminated manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.IV) that had an interlinear Old English gloss inserted in the tenth century, assigns a masculine gender to the usually feminine endung, “ending, conclusion.” The same gloss also assigns both masculine and neuter genders to stan, “stone,” at different points.

The loss of grammatical gender is pretty much complete in Northumbria by the beginning of the eleventh century. By the middle of that century the loss becomes apparent in texts from the Midlands and is largely complete there by the beginning of the thirteenth century, although some Midlands dialects retain vestiges of grammatical gender until the end of the thirteenth century. The south of England loses grammatical gender over the course of the late-eleventh through thirteenth centuries, and Kent is the last holdout, maintaining grammatical gender into the middle of the fourteenth century.

As one might expect, during this period of transition the situation with grammatical gender becomes messy, but there are some general trends. Feminine and neuter animate nouns tend to become masculine, and masculine and feminine inanimate nouns tend to become neuter in early Middle English. With the Norman Conquest, some English words begin to adopt the gender of their French counterparts. Hence the masculine Old English mona, “moon” becomes feminine under the influence of the feminine French lune. Eventually, of course, all the genders would be dropped.

The factors behind the disappearance of the English gender system aren’t known. Although the process was influenced by French, the disappearance was underway prior to the Norman Conquest, so that was not a root cause. Instead, the loss of grammatical gender is part of the general disintegration of the Old English inflectional system. In modern English, the accusative and dative cases have collapsed into a single objective case that only applies to pronouns. Nouns are only inflected for the plural and genitive. And adjectives aren’t declined at all.

Translating Aristophanes


In the Translator’s Preface of this edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds (on p. 90 and p. 94) are a couple discussions of grammatical gender in Greek, and the way in which it presents problems for the translator.

In one case, some jokes that are dependent on grammatical gender cannot easily be rendered in English. I.e., it’s not really a joke if you have to read a footnote to get it. What should translators and editors do in a case like this? Translate literally and the sentence doesn’t read like a joke at all. Readers will go right past it not realizing it is a joke. Add a footnote (and footnote after footnote after footnote) and you slow the reader down and make the text less enjoyable to read. There’s really no good answer here, but pertinent to this discussion it’s notable that it may be possible to translate the joke intact if Aristophanes’ ancient Greek is translated into a language that employs a system of grammatical gender.

Do Languages with Grammatical Gender Promote Sexist Attitudes?


Do Languages with Grammatical Gender Promote Sexist Attitudes?

Abstract Languages such as French and Spanish assign a gendered article to nouns. Three experiments examined whether reading a language with grammatical gender would increase sexist attitudes. Suburban, New York high school students (N = 74, 85, 66) were randomly assigned to complete a survey of sexist attitudes in either English or a language with grammatical gender (French or Spanish). Students in the English condition expressed less sexist attitudes than students in the French or Spanish conditions, and the language used affected females more than males. When the experiment was replicated on bilingual students, similar results were found. Males also expressed more sexist attitudes than females. This study suggests that languages with grammatical gender promote sexist attitudes and have particular impact on females.

More from the author of the study:

Grammatical Gender in Indo-European languages


The History of English (Scott Shay) has a very readable overview of grammatical gender, and other grammatical concepts, in the Indo-European language and its modern descendents such as English and German. See page 19.

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

Grammatical Gender in English


English once had grammatical gender, but is unique among European languages in abandoning the grammatical gender system entirely. An interesting analysis of this is found in “Defining Creole” (by John H. McWhorter) which can be previewed at:

Grammatical Gender in Dutch


Some discussion of grammatical gender in the Dutch language can be found in:
“The Dutch language: A survey” (Pierre Brachin, Paul Vincent)