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Re: Gender in language (was Re: way-OT: regularity of german v. english [was: <snip>])

on Fri, 24 Oct 2003 12:52:10AM +0100, Pigeon insinuated:
> On Wed, Oct 22, 2003 at 10:54:24PM -0500, Ron Johnson wrote:
> > Being a native speaker of American, I've always wondered - What is
> > the purpose of "gender" in grammar/language?
> Argh, this does my head in too. Especially when you come across
> things like all the words for female genitals in lots of languages
> having the masculine gender. Work that one out.

yeah, or a fork being feminine, spoon being masculine, and knife being
neuter in german.  lots of weird ones like that.

> Also, what do the advocates of "gender-neutral" language do in
> German?  And what do they do in French?

what do you mean by advocates of gender-neutral languages?  people who
think that nothing in english should be gendered?

i know in italian, in which a male profesorr is "il professore" and a
female one has traditionally been "la professoressa", there's a
movement to stop appending the "-essa" affix, in an effort to ungender
the language a bit.

however, there's a very important distinction to be made here -- that
of linguistic gender -- which has NOTHING TO DO with human sex (m/f)
-- and human gender, or sex.  there are only two genders in lots of
latinate languages (french, spanish, italian, portuguese, i think
catalan, and likely rumanian -- so, i guess all of them), and they
were at one point termed "masculine" and "feminine" by some asshole
who wished to confuse all future students of language wondering why a
girl is neuter in German.  really, these genders are just categories
that words fit into -- they could just as easily be called the
reverse, or called "red" and "green" or something.

there are three genders in german -- masculine, feminine, and neuter
-- which again have no connotations of sex for the objects which they

other languages have many "genders" -- swahili, for example, has
around 8 genders[1,2]:

  Swahili has about 8 genders. These aren't genders like masculine or
  feminine, they're grammatical genders, meaning classes that nouns
  belong to. There's one for people, one for little things, one for
  concepts, one for trees and animals and assorted stuff, one for
  imported words, and more. [1]

other african languages have more.

> > - Is it only the European/Latinate languages that have the gender
> > concept?

nope -- see above.

> > - Why English doesn't have gender, since it's predecessor, German,
> > does have gender?
> Because we've got enough sense to realise that girls aren't neuter.
> :-)

this is a cute example of how gender really doesn't mean sex.  the
german word for "girl" used to be "die Magd", where our "maid" comes
from (now that word just means "maidservant").  eventually, the
diminutive suffix "-chen" got addded on to the end.  lots of nouns can
be made smaller by adding -chen -- Brot / Brötchen (bread / roll) for
example -- and anything that ends in "-chen" becomes neuter.
therefore, a "little maid" became neuter.  weird, eh?


[1] http://maddog.weblogs.com/stories/storyReader$186
[2] http://mwanasimba.online.fr/E_Chap05.htm

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