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  1. #21
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
    Frank Antonson is offline Senior Member
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    I guess by richer I mean more able to carry nuances with shorter utterances.

    In English, for example, "will" and "shall" mean virtually the same thing -- future tense, but back in Shakespeare's day there was some kind of a difference

    "I will be heard -- and shall." from "Much Ado About Nothing"

    Or, using my earlier Portuguese example "cheirousa!" is richer than "fragrant applied to a female!"

    As far as Old Polish is concerned, consider that in fact people WERE able to use it.

  2. #22
    birdeen's call is offline VIP Member
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    As far as Old Polish is concerned, consider that in fact people WERE able to use it.
    Right! Or maybe not? I believe it's not entirely true. There are hardly any written sources of that language. Those grammatical forms are mostly reconstructed and judging from the way my fellow (educated!) native speakers of Modern Polish treat the much simpler grammar of their own language, I think our ancestors must have done similarly.

    But that's a great question. I'd like to hear about from an expert!
    Last edited by birdeen's call; 06-Sep-2010 at 13:30.

  3. #23
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    Sorry about "a ideia". But "o idiota" would be another example.

    Very clearly words continue to carry their gender along with them when they become part of another language that uses gender. That might explain the difference between "carpet" and "wall" in Polish. I don't know.

    But HOW and WHY did it start? Simplifying rules may seem to be a good thing, but I suspect that back when language was developing in humans there were not a lot of frills, embellishments, and unnecessary aspects. Probably there was something critical about gender for it to have had the selective advantage to develop and survive in the first place.

    This morning I picked up a little kitten that we have and I spontaneously sniffed it and said "Cheirousa!" the way I we used to in Brazil all the time with babies etc. I realized that I had put an "-a" on the end of the word because it was a little female. I had not said that in any conscious way, but after I had said it, I realized that if I had said "Cheirouso" (I am not sure that I am spelling this right) something would have been out of joint. Now, granted that the kitten is an animate entity, but I am still left wondering if English isn't missing something in only having available "Ah, sweet-smelling" whether it be a little female or male.

    Girls can be "pretty" but not usually "handsome" in English, and vice versa for boys. I use that to try to explain gender agreement to my students. It is a vestige, I think.

    I assume that the languages of primitive people had much smaller vocabularies than English, but I still find myself wondering if their grammar may not have been richer. I believe all linguists grant that there is no such thing as a "primitive language" -- at least not extant.
    That is indeed interesting. On the one hand I tend to agree with you that, in this point, English is "missing" something. But on the other hand, if that was really necessary, such a well established language would quickly change and adapt itself.

    I am wondering what happens in places where English mixes with other languages like for instance in India. I don't know anything about the many Indian languages, but it would be interesting to know how they treat this gender situation regarding their own native languages and English.

    A couple of days ago I saw a girl teasing her boyfriend: "I am getting out with a friend." The boy went crazy, he simply couldn't tell whether she referred to a male or a female friend. In this situation it was important for her purposes to have such a "neutral" word as "friend". How would she say it in Portuguese for instance?

    There is also this personal interpretation of mine of that German film "The Reader" (sorry, I am really not very good at analyzing films): In the movie "The Reader", the reader gender is not given. At first you think the reader is the male protagonist, but as the film goes one, you start to wonder whether "the reader" is not to refer to his female partner. I think the Portuguese translation "O Leitor" (masculine) lost this richer possibility. Anyway, the original title in German reads "Der Vorleser" which is definitely masculine. (I know there is also the book but I haven't read it yet.)

  4. #24
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    The fact that English is so widely spoken and well-established, I think, makes it LESS likely to change quickly. Now, the variants that Modern English is drifting into could very easily change -- e.g. Black English, or Jamaican Creole.

    The article on "Grammatical Gender" on Wikipedia gives a lot of information and leads to the work of Labov and Sapir. I started to read it, but it is going to take some time.

    I still have not found an attempt to explain WHY this phenomenon has occurred in so many languages.

    One other thought at the moment... What has been going on in the development of language may not be so "Aristotelian" or logical. The function of the role of poetry within these spoken languages could be a factor. In addition to getting a thought across to another, there is also the factor of making that thought memorable -- one of the roles of poetry.

  5. #25
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    This thread seems to have gone somewhat dormant. I am afraid that that indicates that grammatical gender really IS a mystery. I am disappointed but not surprised. For my part, I will admit that I should do some more research before I comment further.

  6. #26
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Let me see if I can liven the thread up a little.

    I have noticed that in Portuguese one says something like "Eu vou bater na sua porta..." (I will pound on your door) (It's part of an old song). Well, what I find interesting is that the gender of "porta" is anticipated well before the word is spoken. "Na" is a combination of "on the". Literally in English, one is saying, "I go to beat on the your door... It is one thing to use a noun and then modify it afterwards with the appropriate masculine of feminine endings, but something else to anticipate it.
    It is as if the noun comes as a sort of cloud with gender streaming all around it.
    I am not at all sure if this is enough to speak my thought. Let me try it this way...Gender seems to be more than just having the endings of words agree. It seems to surround a noun.

  7. #27
    Abstract Idea is offline Key Member
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Quote Originally Posted by Frank Antonson View Post
    It is one thing to use a noun and then modify it afterwards with the appropriate masculine of feminine endings, but something else to anticipate it.
    It is as if the noun comes as a sort of cloud with gender streaming all around it.
    Absolutely. However, before the speaker utters the noun, she already has it complete in her mind. Sure she has to know what she is going to speak to anticipate it.

    If, say in a children's play, the speaker says "Eu vou bater ... " and has to choose a noun, while she hasn't chosen it she will not say the article. She will behave like "Eu vou bater, bater, deixa eu ver, bater, bater no seu casaco!" Perhaps in English she would say "I'm gonna touch your, your, let me see, your, your jacket!"
    or "I'm gonna touch the, the, let me see, the, the jacket!"

    Anyway I guess there is no reason for "porta" in Portuguese work as a feminine noun; I'm not talking about the ending "a" but why on Earth should the idea "porta" be related to feminine?
    If you say English is missing something, maybe Portuguese is missing the neutral gender?

    And what about a declined language such as German, in which the speaker has to anticipate the gender noun to correctly decline the whole structure of the sentence?

    Do you know of any quantitative research relating a noun with its gender classified accord to several different languages? The noun "door" for instance, in how many languages is it masculine, feminine or neutral?

  8. #28
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Dear Abstract Idea,

    Thank you! You seem to understand what I am getting at. And, as a Brazilian, you know what I mean about anticipating the gender -- the "cloud effect". It all comes as a package.

    As far as a comparison across languages of the gender of a word like "door" or "porta", I can't help you very much. In German I believe that it is feminine "die Tr". In the rest of the Romance languages it is almost certainly feminine.

    By the way, do you know that song? The peasants that I worked with had SO much fun with it. They would sing (sorry if I offend) "Eu vou cagar na sua porta, y no m' importa que vai acontecer. De tarde vou cagar na sua porta na sua porta p'ra todo mundo ver." Forgive me. We were all "matutos".

  9. #29
    5jj's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    I have often wondered about this, and found no real help anywhere. Could it be simply that the labels 'masculine, 'feminine' and 'neuter' are causing the problem?

    Perhaps it could be that early grammarians recognised that in their language nouns tended to have forms that could be grouped into 'classes'. As a VERY crude example, most of what came to be known as nouns in Latin happened to end in -a, -us or -um. They then further noticed that many words referring to living beings that were recognisably female happened to end in -a, while many words referring to male beings happened to end in -us, So, seeking a name for these classes, they settled on 'feminine' and 'masculine'. Later grammarians borrowed many terms from earlier writers, including those of gender.

    I stress that this is just a thought - I have no evidence for it. I must also stress that I do know that the first grammarians were working long before the Romans. I just used Latin as a crude example, because I know virtually nothing about Greek or Sanskrit.

    The personification of the sun as male in French and female in German could have arisen as a result of the naming of the noun classes, not a cause.

    The absence of grammatical gender in English appears to be a result of the importation of many Romance words into a Germanic language. wife would have beeen originally neuter, woman masculine and dame feminine. As modern English gradually emerged from the blending period, natural gender/sex had replaced grammatical gender. This 'naturalisation' appears to have occurred in a small way in French and German. Some 50 years ago it was still considered correct, indeed essential, in French to use the masculine pronoun il of a female person, if she had been referred to initially by a masculine word such as professeur. I believe that the feminine pronoun elle is now correct. Similarly, I have the impression that though the neuter pronoun es is correct when used for the neuter noun Mdchen (girl) in German, many younger people are using, in speech at least, the feminine sie.

  10. #30
    Frank Antonson's Avatar
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    Default Re: the mystery of gender

    Thanks for your contribution.

    The presence of gender in SO many languages is part of the mystery. The wikipedia article on grammatical gender was good, I thought, but much of it still remains a mystery to me.

    Frank

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