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gendered nouns

A discussion of the peculiarities of languages and the differences between them.

gendered nouns

Postby William Hupy » Fri Nov 01, 2013 11:09 am

Are gendered nouns peculiar to the Indo-European languages? Is there any speculation or theory that accounts for this? If so, is there any idea as to why other languages do not associate nouns (and modifying adjectives and articles) with gender?
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Perry Lassiter » Sat Nov 02, 2013 3:34 pm

I assume there are intelligent theories has to why gendered nouns developed in those languages that sport them. I just don't know what they are. Can someone enlighten me?
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Philip Hudson » Mon Nov 04, 2013 5:08 am

I am thankful gendered nouns fell out of English during its development from its Germanic sources. Gendered pronouns are usefull. Nowadays they sometimes fall into the shibboleth of political correctness screwing up "proper" grammar.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby William Hupy » Mon Nov 04, 2013 10:25 am

This is a guess, but only a guess. At the inception of language primitive mankind was surrounded by a male and female division - the birds and beasts they ate were of one gender or another. I suppose it is logical to consider words in the same way. If animals are then the words we use for them must also be. I can not account for the spin off of the Germanic languages to include neuter, except that certain items viewed in nature do not have a gender, like rocks and a certain fitness celebrity from the 1980s. I am going to go way out on a limb here and further project that as languages evolve they drop the gender linkage, so that the PIE languages are relatively young. English developed as a Pidgin of German and dropped the complexities of its German roots. I know that Chinese does not use gendered nouns, so I am guessing that it (or its children are) is older than PIE I really welcome any criticism of this analysis and especially any material available concerning this topic.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Perry Lassiter » Mon Nov 04, 2013 3:07 pm

Delancey Place, which Slava eschews, describes one theory of the development of the English language this morning.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Slava » Mon Nov 04, 2013 3:25 pm

The birds and the beasts may all have gender, but why assign one to inanimate objects? And, if you do, why not at least have them somehow related to an actual sex?

In French, a man's shirt is feminine, whilst a woman's blouse is masculine. Go figure.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Philip Hudson » Tue Nov 05, 2013 1:12 am

Sexual gender, including neuter makes lots of sense. It also makes sense to call a ship she. Why? It just does. In some languages, such as Spanish, sexual gender is lent to words denoting words about people according to sex. Examples: Senor and Senora. Some personal names have a built in sexual gender in English. There are not many boys named Sue. If I wanted to name a daughter after me, I would name her Philippa.

In languages that have multiple (more than three) gender nouns, I know of none that go counter to sexual gender. Even neuter is a kind of gender. How did they figure out a stone (piedra) was feminine in Spanish? Perhaps the word maker knew "Hard Hearted Hannah."
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby bnjtokyo » Wed Nov 06, 2013 6:21 am

It is a mistake to associate grammatical gender with sex. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "a subclass within a grammatical class (as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms."

Thus we can say counters in Japanese have gender: Thus "roppongi," the district in Tokyo, is the word for "six trees." It consists of "roku," six; "hon," the counter for long, thin things and "ki," tree. (Changes in pronunciation are a product of phonological rules) "rokuningyakusama" refers to six human guests. It consists of "roku," six again, "nin," the counter for people; "gyaku," guest and "sama," an honorific for people.

According to Wikipedia, most modern dialects of Swahili have 10 genders. The semantic bases that predicts the appropriate gender for a noun are personhood, tree-hood, group-hood,artefact-hood, animality, extensionality, abstractiveness. Adjectives, numbers and verbs must show concord with the noun.
Quoting from Wikipedia "Although the Swahili noun-class system is technically grammatical gender, there is a difference from the grammatical gender of European languages: In Swahili, the class assignments of nouns is still largely semantically motivated, whereas the European systems are mostly arbitrary."

Finally we have no way of knowing why there is gender in language. Any explanation that is put forward is pure speculation that cannot be tested empirically.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Perry Lassiter » Wed Nov 06, 2013 1:33 pm

Great discussion, bnjtokyo, and raises the question of perhaps a new thread or another new word, i.e. counter. I first read it as one of those flat things in stores that you put things on. Then I realized he must be talking about number counting. The next step was to wonder why the same word has such different meanings. Could it come from checkout counters where you put things to count them out and pay for them? I doubt it.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby William Hupy » Wed Nov 06, 2013 6:35 pm

But I specifically requested speculation about this topic which continues to fascinate me. Besides, speculation can be fun, rewarding and many times results in later confirmation. The man who speculated that the continents moved was seriously derided in his time. His theory is now accepted. Also, I had asked if anyone knew of any resources where this phenomenon is addressed. Certainly I can not be an original speculator.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby bnjtokyo » Thu Nov 07, 2013 10:41 am

Dear Mr Hupy:
I will try to address some of your questions:
1. Are gendered nouns peculiar to the Indo-European languages?
No. According to Wikipedia, grammatical gender is found in about one quarter of the world's languages.

2. Is there any speculation or theory that accounts for this?
I'm sure there is speculation but since there is no empirical way to test someone's speculation/theory, I do not believe there is a credible theory that attempts to explain how or why languages develop or have gender.

3. If so, is there any idea as to why other languages do not associate nouns (and modifying adjectives and articles) with gender?
This question is the converse to the previous one, so the same response would apply, mutatis mutandis.

In your argument in favor of speculation, you state that the first person to suggest that the continents were once connected and later moved apart was "derided in his time." Are you referring to Abraham Ortelius (1527 - 1598) or Alfred Wegener (1880 - 1930)?

If the former, he noted the fit among the coasts of Africa, Europe and the Americas and suggested that they may have once been connected two years before he died. Not much time to be derided, and further, he based his idea on observation of objective facts.

If the latter, he based his theory on observation of objective facts (geology and the fossil plants). True he faced skeptics, but he also had supporters. As his supporters found more and more empirical evidence and described the mechanisms that drove continental drift, it became obvious he was fundamentally correct.

Unfortunately, with language, we do not have much evidence about ancient languages. The earliest grammars were compiled about 2500 years ago. The earliest samples of written language are from about 5000 years ago. Spoken languages and gender systems must be much older than that. Some speculate (that word again) that the diversification of IndoEuropean languages began about 6000 years ago. However, others suggest a much earlier time. But where is the evidence, one way or the other?
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Perry Lassiter » Thu Nov 07, 2013 2:39 pm

I have wondered whether language could have been derived from baby talk. Babies come into the world babbling. Their first words often seem to be mama or dada. It would be natural to pick up the terms from the baby. Say mama and point to oneself. Make up a word perhaps, point to the baby, and say baba. The next step, or perhaps the first step, would be to point to a tree and to say tree (or any other object.) this too is wild speculation, and the fact that we have produced quite a few comments indicates that there is considerable speculation about gendered nouns.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Slava » Thu Nov 07, 2013 3:49 pm

It is often said that "mama" means mother because that bilabial plosive is perhaps the easiest sound for a baby to make and, as the mother is the person taking care of the baby, the connection gets made.

I have a problem with that, which I've mentioned in other threads. In Georgian, "mama" means Father.

Of course, Georgian is nearly unique, but if the theory were correct, wouldn't you expect it to hold true everywhere?
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby Perry Lassiter » Thu Nov 07, 2013 7:15 pm

Almost nothing holds true everywhere, including this statement.
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Re: gendered nouns

Postby William Hupy » Fri Nov 08, 2013 11:37 am

Thanks, bnjtokyo for filling in the blank spaces about non PIE languages. It appears no one is any closer than my original assertion, guess and speculation as to why some languages associate nouns with gender, so I will stick with it.
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