Why do some languages have "genders"?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Delvo, May 9, 2007.

  1. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    I guess that in order to understand gender markers, declensions, conjugations and so on, one first needs to be fluent in one or more languages that have them.
    Then it's clear what such features accomplish.

    Someone who isn't fluent in such languages can pontificate about them and criticize them until he or she gets blue in the face --- and all to no avail ...
     
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  3. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    They also have distinct written forms for "you," depending on gender. But these are modernisms, added to the written language in relatively recent times. There is no basis for gender in Chinese grammar, going back to the ancient texts from 3,000 years ago.

    I wonder if this is a standard paradigm in all the Uralic languages. Hungarian? Estonian? Saami?

    Hold on there, "he/she" and "him/her" are pronouns, not nouns. Because pronouns are used more often than most other parts of speech, their characteristics are reinforced and don't change as quickly.

    Not only are our pronouns declined for gender, but also for case.
    • Nominative: I, thou, he, she, it, we, ye, they.
    • Genitive: my, thy, his, her, its, our, your, their.
    • Accusative: me, thee, him, her, it, us, you, them.
    This is common in the Indo-European languages. None of the Romance languages (except Romanian) decline nouns for case, but they all decline their pronouns just like we do.

    "Blond/blonde" and "fiancé/fiancée" are French borrowings. Besides, we have a few home-grown gender-identifiers, such as waiter/waitress and actor/actress.

    The biggest influence on English after the Norman Invasion in 1066 was French. It became the official language of government, education and business, so English absorbed a vast vocabulary (everyday words like face, color, second, beef and use are French) as well as modifying our phonetics and simplifying our grammar (which was often merely a second-order effect of the phonetic shifts).

    It adds flexibility. In Latin, you can omit the subject of a verb because it's clear from the tense, person and number. You can put your subject and object in any order, for emphasis or poetic meter, because their case identifies them.

    For a view of the exact opposite, consider Chinese, which has no inflections at all. All the words in a sentence must be in an exact, rigid sequence, or you'll change its meaning (or perhaps just turn it into gibberish).

    I can speak Spanish (although probably not well enough to get a job in Latin America) and I use the inflections correctly. They still seem unnecessarily complicated to me.

    For one thing, they greatly increase the syllable count of a sentence. A sentence that can be expressed in seven syllables in Chinese and ten in English or French will use roughly 14 in Spanish, and more in Italian or Japanese. To compensate, Spanish is spoken faster than English (which is spoken faster than Chinese). This makes understanding more difficult, especially in a noisy environment.
     
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  5. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    Typical problems of typical language gods ...
     
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  7. exchemist Valued Senior Member

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    As do the French……..
     
  8. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    In German, "sun," die Sonne, is feminine and "moon," der Mond, is masculine. In nearly every other Indo-European language with genders, it's the reverse.
     
  9. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    Riddle me this: While the various Chinese languages (Mandarin, Cantonese and the other most common) are very beautiful to hear, when they are being shouted, even shouted without anger, they sound just awful. Awful enough that I want to smack anyone who's shouting in Chinese and tell them to shut the hell up!

    Why is that?
     
  10. Arne Saknussemm trying to figure it all out Valued Senior Member

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    Oh, and please disregard the fact that I often go around smacking people and telling them to shut the hell up. My query is entirely unrelated to all that.

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  11. wynn ˙ Valued Senior Member

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    They sound awful to my ears, regardless of how loudly or softly they are spoken.
     
  12. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Foreigners often react that way to Chinese because of its tonality. Many of the languages of that region are tonal, meaning that tone is phonemic (a syllable with a rising tone and the same one with a falling tone are two different, unrelated words), rather than a non-verbal adjunct to the language indicating the speaker's emotion.

    When we hear the tones in a sentence changing quickly and abruptly, our own language processor attempts to analyze them as quickly and abruptly changing expressions of emotion, and it doesn't work--because they're not!

    It's very difficult for speakers of tonal languages to learn to use tone to express emotion the way we do. In their native languages they have to speak with more precision and express their feelings with words.

    When a Chinese person gets mad at you and is speaking English, he will tell you why he's mad in great detail using words, but his inflection will not become agitated, as it would with a native speaker. So it comes across as weird to us, and can cause horrible misunderstandings: he says he's angry but he sure doesn't sound angry!
     
  13. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

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    Interesting, but how are they distinguished when written?
     
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

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    Chinese is written in logograms, not phonetic symbols. There is almost no relationship between the written symbol for a word and its sound. Each one has to be learned individually. A university graduate is expected to know 5,000 of them, but a scholar who reads the ancient texts will know at least ten times that many.

    The reason that Chinese has never made the transition to phonetic writing is that what we call "Chinese" is actually several different but related languages. People who speak Mandarin (the most widespread Chinese language, spoken by more than half the population) cannot understand people who speak Cantonese, Fujian, Shanghai, or any of the other languages.

    BUT... Chinese is an interesting (and surely unique) example of a written language holding a culture together. Over the centuries the pronunciation of the words has changed dramatically ("five" is wu in Mandarin but ng in Cantonese, yet they are the same word), but they have continued to use the same words in the same sequence (there is not even a 5% difference in the vocabulary of the most remote peoples), because of the influence of writing. Everyone can read everyone else's writing!

    If the government tried to implement a phonetic alphabet, this would be ruined, because no two populations would spell their words the same way. They would no longer be able to communicate with each other in writing.

    Of course the government has a long-term plan to make Mandarin the official language of the entire country. It is already taught in more than 95% of schools, and all TV and most radio broadcasts are in guo yu ("national language") or Mandarin, except in Xiang Geng (Hong Kong), which has a special dispensation to use Guang Dong hua (Cantonese).

    Eventually the entire population will be fluent in Mandarin, if only as a second language. At this point they will be ready to roll out the phonetic writing system that has already been developed. It is a syllabary (each symbol represents one syllable rather than one phoneme, as in Cherokee and the two forms of Japanese kana), since all Chinese "words" have only one syllable and their vocabulary consists of compounds.

    You and I will not live to see this momentous transition, which will surely have a lot of glitches in the world's largest country. But our younger members probably will.
     
  15. Gudikan Registered Member

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    This nails it. If you divide all the words into morphologically distinct groups, then you acquire the ability to distinguish between them, especially via pronouns. Thus in a language with three genders, if you have a phrase involving two randomly chosen nouns, there's a 2/3 chance of them having different pronouns. Of course, this advantage comes at the cost of having to learn the gender groupings.

    The artificial language Lojban takes the above idea to its logical extreme. There, you have an infinitely long list of pronouns, and every time a new noun is introduced into a paragraph, it gets the next pronoun in the list assigned to it. Of course, the cost of this theoretically ambiguity-free system is the learning burden of all the pronoun assignments

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    Another thing to mention is the fact that gender can let you re-use the same word, e.g. "die See" and "der See" in German.
     

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