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  1. #1
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    the mystery of gender

    There has been an amazing discussion on this forum of morphemes in various languages. That discussion is continuing, and I hope it doesn't stop soon.

    I would love to see a similar discussion of the phenomenon of gender. WHY does it exist in so many languages? WHY did English move to thing class vs person class in lieu of the masculine/feminine thing?

    WHY is "sun" masculine in the Romance languages but feminine in German whereas "moon" is the opposite in both languages?

    If there is an easy, established answer to these questions, I would love to hear it. Rather, I have always assumed that I would not live long enough to find that this mystery has been solved.

  2. #2
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Sure, we'll certainly talk about it.

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    Re: the mystery of gender

    I have to wonder if you observers of this thread are avoiding commenting because gender truly is a mystery.

    This should be a great chance to enlighten a fairly wide audience on this subject. Where I teach there is a Latin and French teacher who is very ready to see what you have to say.

    WHY is it there in so many languages? What is its history? Is it decaying (mutating) elsewhere as it has in English?

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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    This should be a great chance to enlighten a fairly wide audience on this subject.
    I' agree.

    Usually when the reader feels he has to dissect an undefined bulk of information, he is discouraged.
    The word ''mystery'' introduces something untraceable. So personally, I observe some factors involved in the evolution of linguistic gender; the readers, depending on their interests and the language they speak, may write about their view on any of the suggested factors or just anything they find effective:
    Historical, biological, psychological, cultural, tribal, cognitive, mythological, linguistic, racial ... .

  5. #5
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Biological Source

    First of all we have to trace the possible connection between biological gender and linguistic gender.

    It's argued that we can't find an immediate relation between what we know as a biological fact in a living creature and the linguistic application of that fact to refer to inanimate objects. In other words, classifying the entities under 'masculine' or 'feminine' in a particular language will not give any actual information to a person about the true nature of the entities.

    Furthermore, we can't guess to which class a word like 'ciel' belongs. That is, regardless of physical disorders, we can be certain of a person's biological gender, but we can never be so sure of the linguistic gender of a word in a special language. For instance, we know that a girl is a female; accordingly, we expect the word 'girl' to be linguistically feminine in a language, but surprisingly enough, it's not feminine in a language: mdchen.

    One could say there are some factors that can't be explained by a merely biological analysis.

  6. #6
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Thank you for responding. I am full of questions.

    I know about "das Mdchen" and always assumed that it had something to do with the diminutive on the end of the root. In French "le lait" -- Now, WHAT is masculine about milk?

    Is there something way deep in the human mind that wants to divide the world by gender? I have never been hard-working enough to study and understand Chomsky, but surely he had something to say about this.

    Gender makes agreement (or concordance) so much more complicated! Maybe that is a GOOD thing. And yet, the English language seems to do okay without it. (Actually I have my suspicions that English is "missing the boat" here and that our language would be richer if gender, as in Old English, had survived.)

  7. #7
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    I can contribute to the discussion as far as my knowledge extends.
    Explaining why 'milk' is masculine in a language like French is pretty much like explaining why we call the area above the Earth 'sky', or why we use 'l', 'a', 'i', and 't' as sounds to make up 'lait', or many other questions like these.

    Is it necessary to keep linguistic gender?

    I. Let's see what an Aristotelian deduction would look like considering the already given information in the post:

    Major Premise: Anything void of actual (sensible or cognitive) information is not contributive to perception and can be eliminated.
    Minor Premise: Linguistic gender is void of actual information.
    Logical Conclusion: Linguistic gender is not contributive to perception and can be eliminated.

    II. The above argument may be acceptable, but we need something that can be empirically observed. Surmising the future development of a phenomenon is not as reliable as observing what the phenomenon has already undergone, or is undergoing.

    Persian: the possibility of the elimination of linguistic gender is evidenced by the total evaporation of this aspect in Middle Persian.

    English: is going through the same process, and we have witnessed the decline of gender in the language.


    Edit: the grammar of the above sentence.
    Last edited by chester_100; 04-Sep-2010 at 13:16.

  8. #8
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Dear Chester,

    Are you TRYING to be obtuse? I am not brilliant, but I am also not completely stupid. Yet I barely understand what you are saying.

    "Le lait" in French simply cannot be explained -- is that what you mean?

    It is Saturday night, and I am thinking that maybe on Sunday morning you might be better able to explain to me what you mean.

    Having read your post, I don't feel any closer to having an understanding of the mystery of gender.

    I hope you do not take offense at this. I genuinely would like to understand this phenomenon. Perhaps, if you would think of me as an eight-year-old and try again to explain it, I might understand.

    In any case, I appreciate your comment. Could you be less brilliant? I am not worth impressing, but I am very much wanting to learn.

    Frank

  9. #9
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Here are your basic questions:



    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    WHY is it there in so many languages?

    I defined some variables so that we could get a clearer picture of the problem, breaking it into some elemental components.
    Then, I described one of the possibly effective variables which is the biological source.
    I clarified that other members might express their views about any of the factors they're interested in.


    What is its history?

    I can't answer this one. I told you that my knowledge is limited.
    I can't really place the source, but I remember having read something quoted by or originally written by the founder of psychoanalysis - I hope somebody guides me. There, it was stated that outward or outstanding objects are usually masculine.
    Anyway, there's certainly a primitive element involved. And it dates back to prehistoric origins of language - that should be explained by a historian, archeologist, or a linguist who has done research in the field.

    Is it decaying (mutating) elsewhere as it has in English?

    My #7 post is immediately concerned with this question. It's about the present and naturally the future. So our treatment should be predictive here. A careful reader would understand that I've made a prediction: in the future there will be more languages that lose their language gender. Still, I can't figure out what's so vague about it. That's the classical logical argumentation backed up with empirical data. If there is any other way of extrapolating the future development of the phenomenon, I would appreciate it most if you introduced it to me.

    That's all I can contribute for now.


    C

  10. #10
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    Re: the mystery of gender

    Chester,

    You are very impressive.

    Did you mean Sigmund Freud for the founder of psycho-analysis?

    From your perspective it seems to me that gender remains quite a mystery.

    Of course, if there were some easy way to predict the gender of a newly acquired vocabulary word for the learner of a foreign language it would be EXTREMELY useful.

    Nouns ending in "-a" in the Romance languages are usually feminine, as I am sure that you know. But then certain nouns like "mapa" or "dia" or "ideia" break that pattern. I believe that THAT is predictable from their etymology -- coming from Greek.

    I believe that virtually ALL nouns ending with "-ion" are feminine in French (and probably "-cion" in Spanish and "-o" in Portuguese.) regardless of what they mean. Of course "-o" tends to predict masculine in the Romance languages -- e.g. people's names. Julio vs Julia.

    I don't know. It certainly remains a mystery to me.

    Regarding the future, I suppose that you are right. Here where I live the English spoken is just archaic enough that trees or logs are treated as masculine by the older farmers. "I cut HIM down and drug HIM out of the woods." Cars are feminine. "SHE won't start."

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