Posts Tagged ‘Bislama’

Grammatical Gender is Useful

16/July/2009

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.

and

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.

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