Any linguists in the audience?

I’ve had cause to wonder recently how it is that many western languages — like French and Spanish, for example — have the concept of gender built into them (le chien / la voiture, etc.) whereas English does not. How and when did English evolve away from this? Or was it ever a part of English?

Part of my curiousity comes from a newfound fondness for the word Spanish word compañera which is high on my list as a replacement for partner, lover, spouse, wife, etc.

If there are any linguists (or just general smart people) in the audience, I’d appreciate having some light shed on this language/gender issue.

Comments

Johnny's picture
Johnny on September 5, 2001 - 04:34

I’d always thought that Romantic languages (French, spanish, Italian) were broken down by gender, whereas Germanic languages (i.e. German and English) were not. However, my lovely companera Jodi tells me that German has Masculine, Feminine and Neutral, which has sent my whole linguistic sense spiralling out of control. My understanding of Emglish is that its a hodge-podge of Romantic and Germanic languages without all of this gender nonsense, but is monstrously difficult to learn because of its hodge-podgery. But I’m really just talking out my ass. Is that mon ass or ma ass? I don’t really know. Did you know that in order to really understand Finnegan’s Wake, you need to know about 14 languages. Sheesh. I don’t suppose I’ve answered your question so well.

Johnny's picture
Johnny on September 5, 2001 - 04:34

I’d always thought that Romantic languages (French, spanish, Italian) were broken down by gender, whereas Germanic languages (i.e. German and English) were not. However, my lovely companera Jodi tells me that German has Masculine, Feminine and Neutral, which has sent my whole linguistic sense spiralling out of control. My understanding of Emglish is that its a hodge-podge of Romantic and Germanic languages without all of this gender nonsense, but is monstrously difficult to learn because of its hodge-podgery. But I’m really just talking out my ass. Is that mon ass or ma ass? I don’t really know. Did you know that in order to really understand Finnegan’s Wake, you need to know about 14 languages. Sheesh. I don’t suppose I’ve answered your question so well.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 5, 2001 - 04:36

I accidentally posted my comment twice. Sorry.

Christopher Ogg's picture
Christopher Ogg on September 5, 2001 - 15:43

Remembering back to Latin (the start point for modern Romance language), I remember case, number and gender as being germane. English evolved from German (Saxon and prolly some other varieties brought by large men with aggressive habits), Danish (oddly this accounts for some of the key differences in dialect in parts of England) and French with a chunk of Latin admixture. We have traces of case left (I/me/mine) and number (child/children, but we generally just use “s”, prolly from French) but have pretty much abandoned gender except in pronouns. However, the pronouns help retain the flavour: we use the feminine pronoun for ships or cars, for example, when we should technically prolly use the neutered “it”. The strange thing is that only a tiny handful of loan words come from Welsh or Gaelic, whereas the French have retained a large number from what is now Breton (cognate with Briton). Until the high Middle Ages, the English ruling classes spoke (Norman) French, the educated classes Latin and the hoi polloi dialects of German (I think the very work Engish is cognate with Angle, one of the invading races which led the Pope to decalre of their blond beuaty “Non Angles, sed angeles”. We inherited a real mish-mash.

steve rukavina's picture
steve rukavina on September 5, 2001 - 16:53

As a former student of Korean, I can tell you that the Korean language has no gender breakdown. It shares many words with Chinese, but also has words of it’s own. Where Korean gets tough is with degrees of politesness. Because Korean society is still laregly based on a Confucian social hierarchy (where elders, teachers, and men get more respect than kids and women), how you address someone becomes very dependent on who they are. For example, of you were saying “good day” to a youngster, you could just say “annyong”. If you were addressing a colleague of equal rank, you’d say “annyong haseyo”. If you were addressing an esteemed older colleaugue, you’d probably say “annyong hashimnika”.

The best thing about the Korean language is the alphabet. Up until 1446 the Koreans simply used Chinese characters for writing. Then in 1446 the wise king Se-Jong decided that langauge and writing needed to be more accesible to the common person (Chinese characters were difficult to write and generally only scholars were taught to write them). He commissioned scholars who came up with a simple 20-character alphabet that is remarkably easy to learn.

To test the alphabet the scholars even wrote several epic poems, such as “Moonlight Reflected on One Thousand Rivers” and “Six Flying Dragons”. The alphabet is still in use today, and King Se-Jong is widely praised as one of the greatest Korean leaders of all time.

Alan McLeod's picture
Alan McLeod on September 5, 2001 - 18:04

I think the language which is the winner in terms of declinations and conjugations is Finnish where there are into the teens of endings that can go onto the end of nouns and verbs. My personal favorite is the Polish numbering of nouns where there is one word for a single, another form a multiple between 2 and 5 and then another for a multiple of over 5: pivo, piva (?) and pif for beers.

Oliver Baker's picture
Oliver Baker on September 6, 2001 - 02:27

I can’t even guess at an answer to your question, Peter, nor do I think I’ll be pointing you toward one with the following suggestion, but anyway I think you’ve given me an occasion to recommend one of my favorite documentary series: “The Story of English,” hosted for American public TV by Canadian Robert MacNeil. I wouldn’t be surprised if you public library had a copy to rent (i.e. 4 episodes on 2 tapes, or perhaps it was 8 on 4). Fascinating and eye-openingly liberal on language. Even I could tell that it was rather glossy on linguistic theory. But it was aurally lavish with examples. It’s wonderful to hear how differently people talk.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 6, 2001 - 03:23

I saw a bit of that “Story of English” show, too. I remember the Appalachian Mountain People most.

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