Gender in languages - why?

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BlueWolf

Senior Member
Italian
(I said because your example wasn't right for what we were talking about ;))
I don't see why? Because formal "you" and "she" are equal? They have so different that it's very easy to distinguish them. Singular "you" and plural "you" in English are very more difficult to distinguish.
 
  • konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    Please provide some examples of how it allows for more accurate constructions. I have grammatical genders in my native language and I don't see how they help anything in terms of accuracy compared to the grammatically gender-less English language.

    Well in the original Spanish version of Don Quixote I have at home, the back cover has a commentary on the style of a previous translation. (Estilo-m and traduccion-f). While in English we can say "in that of" it is not clear which, in the style of, or in the translation of... And we can certainly not put them together... "in that of that of Gutierrez"; but in Spanish, it is no problem to write: "en el de la de G*", meaning something like "in that of the one by", which is clumsy in English.

    Another example: in English we can say "the former" and "the latter" to refer to things we have recently mentioned, as long as there are two and it is recent enough to remember which came last. In French, we have "celui-ci, celle-ci, celui-là, celle-là, or four possibilities for saying "this one" or "that one," which can be used together very elegantly. This is one of the many reasons mathematicians have found French to be an excellent language to write in. See what I mean?
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    Well in the original Spanish version of Don Quixote I have at home, the back cover has a commentary on the style of a previous translation. (Estilo-m and traduccion-f). While in English we can say "in that of" it is not clear which, in the style of, or in the translation of... And we can certainly not put them together... "in that of that of Gutierrez"; but in Spanish, it is no problem to write: "en el de la de G*", meaning something like "in that of the one by", which is clumsy in English.
    Sorry, I'm not following (I don't know Spanish), you will have to spell it out for me clearer than that I'm afraid.

    Another example: in English we can say "the former" and "the latter" to refer to things we have recently mentioned, as long as there are two and it is recent enough to remember which came last. In French, we have "celui-ci, celle-ci, celui-là, celle-là, or four possibilities for saying "this one" or "that one," which can be used together very elegantly. This is one of the many reasons mathematicians have found French to be an excellent language to write in. See what I mean?
    Ah, but that has nothing to do with grammatical gender, does it? I completely agree that your example above helps make a language more accurate. I'm only complaining about grammatical gender in this thread :)

    BlueWolf, we're probably talking a bit past each other. Here's a thread that may explain more clearly what I mean: http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?p=1442151
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    It does have to do with grammatical gender: "celle-ci" and "celui-ci" are the feminine and masculine forms of "this one here".
    Oh, I misunderstood then. Could you provide some specific examples of how it works?

    edit - does it work like this: 'this (masculine) thing'; 'this (feminine) thing'; 'these (masculine) things'; 'these (feminine) things'?

    If so, I don't see how it's helpful because as I mentioned earlier it's completely random if an object in a given sentence happens to belong to one grammatical gender or another.
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    In my opinion it's not a very useful thing to count on (that the genders of the word referred to do in fact differ), I can't think of ever relying on it, rather I'll simply state the object referred to instead of using 'it'.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    But that will make your speech repetitive and monotonous. "The object... the object... the object..." ;)
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    Given that it's a rarely used sentence construction (needing to point out one specific out of several and there being any potential confusion that needs to be clarified), not really. :)
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    Well, it is poor style to repeat nouns several times: "This text is about the idea that all men are created equal, and the text also raises the idea that the word 'men' includes women.... etc.

    It is also confusing to use "this" and "that" and "the latter" more than once in a while. In French, however, there are twice as many ways to say "this" "that" and "the latter", and very often, you can use the gender of a noun to single it out with a feminine "this" or a masculine "this", making legal language easier to make clear in French than in English. Here is an example:

    Tout membre peut proposer d'amender une proposition du Conseil lors de l'assemblée générale annuelle. Si l'amendement est rejeté par la majorité des membres, la proposition du Conseil sera décidée par l'assemblée. Mais si l'amendement réunit les suffrages d'au moins les deux tiers de l'assemblée, la proposition du Conseil sera retirée, et celle-ci, accompagnée de l'amendement, sera envoyée par la poste à tous les membres, qui pourront voter par retour du courrier. Le résultat sera annoncé aux membres par la même voie. Si la proposition principale du Conseil est rejetée par le vote postal et par le vote des membres réunis en assemblée générale, tout membre peut avancer une nouvelle proposition, laquelle, à condition d'être approuvée par les deux tiers des membres présents, sera envoyée par la poste aux autres membres pour leur décision.

    The use of "celle-ci" refers directly to the proposal, the "proposition" (f); if they had meant at that moment to refer instead to the council, they could have used "celui-ci" because "conseil" (m) is masculine. This would not have been an option in English; in our Shakespearean tongue we can't even use "this" at that spot without being ambiguous, and would have to make use of a repetition of nouns or a more lengthy expression. Does this help?
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    I'm not sure why you think I'm suggesting using nouns several times, I actually pointed out that the sentence constructions in question are rare..

    Anyway, I can't read the French examples without a translation, and I can't think of a similar example myself at the moment (in languages with gender).. in Danish there's a this and that for both genders, but I wouldn't use them like you seem to suggest. Perhaps because the language structure is different.
     

    konungursvia

    Banned
    Canada (English)
    Well I never intended to say gender was necessary, or provided a huge advantage, but it offers a few elegant and precise tools for being clear and concise that are lacking in English (though our language has its advantages as well).
     

    Blackleaf

    Banned
    English/Britain
    On another point (more along the lines of Bluewolf), I think that when two English speakers of opposite genders converse over the phone, a third party is not able to pick out the gender of the person on the otherside of the line unless a distinctly feminine name is used or some other contextual factor.
    You can tell who is male and who is female just by listening to the sound of the voice.
     

    Blackleaf

    Banned
    English/Britain
    A turkish friend of mine (Turkish doesn't have genders like English) asked me once: «Well, what do Italians think is so womanly in water?» (as water is feminine in Italian: acqua). I'm sorry I don't have the answer to this; however, I've always been wondering why English does not have genders, if this may console you...
    As an native English speaker, I think the same thing. When a Frenchman sees an apple - une pomme - does he actually think of it as a woman?

    When an Italian sees the Moon- la luna- do they think of it as a woman?
     

    Blackleaf

    Banned
    English/Britain
    Same in Russian, we too have three genders in our language, but in this sense it's a bit easier than German - there are certain rules and so on.
    As for the point of gender for words - I loved Kap's reply. :) Frankly, when I just started to learn English, it surprised my greatly that in this language words doesn't have gender. I still wonder why. :)
    By the way, don't think that it's easier to study Italian for me, a native speaker of Russian. A noun which is masculine in Russian may be feminine in Italian (for example, the Russian дом and the Italian 'casa'), and vice versa. That's really confusing!


    I read somewhere that English lost its grammatical gender because the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts needed to trade with each other. Anglo-Saxon - Old English - had three grammatical genders, so the Anglo-Saxons got rid of them to make it easier for the Celts to learn their language.
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    Well I never intended to say gender was necessary, or provided a huge advantage, but it offers a few elegant and precise tools for being clear and concise that are lacking in English (though our language has its advantages as well).
    So far the two examples I've seen have been in Italian when trying to decipher if the person writing is male or female, and the French way of referring to something specific. I don't really understand the French system since the languages I know that have genders cannot do this (in a way that's particularly useful), and I don't speak French. I'll take your word for it though :)

    I guess that means other than those two specific cases there's nothing useful about grammatical gender? I can't think of anything at least, but I'm only familiar with three languages that have grammatical gender..
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    I read somewhere that English lost its grammatical gender because the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts needed to trade with each other. Anglo-Saxon - Old English - had three grammatical genders, so the Anglo-Saxons got rid of them to make it easier for the Celts to learn their language.
    This may be true, but isn't it strange that there's so little Celtic in English? Generally English is a big sponge of a language, but not much Celtic has made its way into it as far as I know (am I wrong?)..
     

    BlueWolf

    Senior Member
    Italian
    As an native English speaker, I think the same thing. When a Frenchman sees an apple - une pomme - does he actually think of it as a woman?

    When an Italian sees the Moon- la luna- do they think of it as a woman?
    You have to remember the gender is grammatical, not real. Some noun refered to men are feminine and viceversa.

    Said it however, it's true in some way. In Italian the moon is actually considered feminine and so on (and in fact Greek/Roman moon divinity was a goddess). Gender influences, but I don't think an apple is female when I see it, come on. Genders are connected with nouns, not with the objects. For example, mountain in Italian can be both monte (masculine) or montagna (feminine).
     

    Etcetera

    Senior Member
    Russian, Russia (St Petersburg)
    I read somewhere that English lost its grammatical gender because the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts needed to trade with each other. Anglo-Saxon - Old English - had three grammatical genders, so the Anglo-Saxons got rid of them to make it easier for the Celts to learn their language.
    Yes, it was some time in the Middle English period when the three genders were lost. Well, there was a strong tendency towards making the English language less comlicated and more easy to learn.
    If you find modern English difficult, just take two or three classes in Old English!;)
     

    MarX

    Banned
    Indonesian, Indonesia
    In German you have three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral.

    Many genders seem to be arbitrary although one can find explanations when going back thousands of years in the language history.

    The word "butter" derives from Greek. In German it has a masculine ending -er but the word is feminine in gender, and in French it has a feminine ending -e but the word is masculine.
    In southwestern Germany it's not unusual to say der Butter, so as a masculine word. In fact, I sometimes still slip into saying den Butter instead of die Butter. :eek:

    As for the reason of the existence of grammatical genders... Good question.. I've no idea whatsoever. :(
     

    Einstein

    Senior Member
    UK, English
    I read somewhere that English lost its grammatical gender because the Anglo-Saxons and the Celts needed to trade with each other. Anglo-Saxon - Old English - had three grammatical genders, so the Anglo-Saxons got rid of them to make it easier for the Celts to learn their language.
    More probably between Anglo-Saxons and Danes because their languages were similar and more likely to influence each other, so often the stem of the word was similar but the ending was different and tended to be ignored. But I may be wrong...

    I saw this thread had been revived. I agree that it's a problem for English-speakers but not for people who are used to gender in their own language. As has been pointed out, agreement of adjectives often makes it easier to understand connections.
    I think a far more questionable institution is the antiquated spelling of English! Although this creates problems for native speakers too, attempts to reform spelling are few and make slow progress.
     

    palomnik

    Senior Member
    English
    This is an interesting question to resurrect. I don't think I was writing on this forum when it originally started.

    My read on gender is that it had some beginning rather like the different noun classes in Bantu languages. Bantu languages have varying numbers of noun classes depending on the language; in Swahili, for example, there is one class for things that are considered "lowly" or "unclean", another for human beings, another for abstract items, etc. Each group has different prefixes and ways to form the plural. Over time the number of such groups has obviously coalesced to varying degrees in the different member languages of the group.

    I suspect that the various declensions in languages like Latin represent something similar in origin, and so do the grammatical genders in modern languages. It is worth pointing out that by and large, gender is restricted to Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages (maybe there are others, but I'm not aware of them).
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I should have read the whole thread before answering - so I confess at first that I haven't. :)

    Gender can develop through different paths:
    - the simpe way: divide the world into male and female creatures, and then extend this system to non-living things;
    - or alternatively, instead of attributing male or female gender to things you could create a neuter gender for those;
    - or alternatively, and some say this might be even an older system then male-female-neuter in IE, look at Hittite which had:
    --> Genus commune (or "Utrum") = both male and female which could have developped as casus opposed to "non-living" things (or creatures thought of as being "non-intelligent")
    --> Genus neutrum = "non-living" things, creatures perceived as being "non-intelligent".

    (And there might still be other possibilities.)

    If you look at it like this it is easier to see any reasoning in the development of gender:
    - it may have been developped to differentiate males and females;
    - or it may have been developped to differentiate the living from the ones not living (or considered being non-intelligent);
    - or a combination of both.

    Over time of course those genus, whatever they may have been in the beginning, were grammaticalised - and thus the genus distinctions made in modern languages don't make too much sense in many cases.

    In southwestern Germany it's not unusual to say der Butter, so as a masculine word.
    Indeed it is; this is also the case for Austria (where "der Butter" is dialect while it is "die Butter in standard language). But this would be a German forum topic. :)
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    I saw this thread had been revived. I agree that it's a problem for English-speakers but not for people who are used to gender in their own language. As has been pointed out, agreement of adjectives often makes it easier to understand connections.
    I'm not sure I agree with that.. Danish has two genders (in some areas even reminiscences of three), but I don't find that helps me any when learning other languages that use genders. Especially in German genders really hold me back from being fluent because not only do I have to think of what the case happens to be, but also what the gender is for that specific word, and then remember what that results in for the given case.. to me that feels like doing advanced mathematics when all I'm doing is trying to say 'hello', basically :)

    It's easier in a language like Italian, but certainly makes it considerably harder to learn than it would be if there was only one gender.

    I think a far more questionable institution is the antiquated spelling of English! Although this creates problems for native speakers too, attempts to reform spelling are few and make slow progress.
    I guess that goes to show how differently we learn things - as much as grammar causes me all sorts of headaches, spelling comes almost effortlessly to me, and I like the quirks of English spelling very much :)
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    In Chinese, "one dog", "one fish", and "one pencil" (I think) use different measure words, depending on the noun class. Measure words are roughly like "cups" for some things and "pounds" for others, but are required in Chinese between a number (including "one" = "a"/"an") and a noun. If I remember correctly, there is a four-legged animal class, a flat things class, and a cylindrical things class.

    Grammatical gender seems to be a similar thing but simplified to two or three classes.
     

    daoxunchang

    Senior Member
    Chinese China
    We in China, at least my generation as far as I know, do not learn Chinese the way you foreigners do. So I'm not sure whether the division of this class thing--four-legged animal class, etc. applies to every object, but I think you have a point.

    Actually we have different word for each gender of many animals in Old Chinese. But I don't quite understand your last sentence saying "grammatical gender seems to be a similar thing but simplified to two or three classes". Are you still referring to the Chinese language? I don't think we have or had grammatical changes with regard to genders. If you could give me some examples to enlighten me, a very unconscious Chinese speaker, I would appreciate it very much. Thank you.
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    We in China, at least my generation as far as I know, do not learn Chinese the way you foreigners do. So I'm not sure whether the division of this class thing--four-legged animal class, etc. applies to every object, but I think you have a point.

    Actually we have different word for each gender of many animals in Old Chinese. But I don't quite understand your last sentence saying "grammatical gender seems to be a similar thing but simplified to two or three classes". Are you still referring to the Chinese language? I don't think we have or had grammatical changes with regard to genders. If you could give me some examples to enlighten me, a very unconscious Chinese speaker, I would appreciate it very much. Thank you.
    Chinese, and several other languages, use classifiers when counting objects. They may also be called measure-words.

    In Chinese you cannot say "four mountains", "six shirts" or "seven umbrellas" you say "four zuò mountain", "6 jiàn shirt" and "7 bǎ umbrella"

    zuò , jiàn and are examples of classifiers or measure-words.

    In a way they are similar to gender in that foreigners have to learn which classifiers go with which words.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I agree, classifieres used in languages like Chinese are quite similar to grammatical gender - which is also nothing but a classifier (even though the classification has become unlogical over time in many languages).
    In Chinese you cannot say "four mountains", "six shirts" or "seven umbrellas" you say "four zuò mountain", "6 jiàn shirt" and "7 bǎ umbrella"

    zuò , jiàn and are examples of classifiers or measure-words.
    I don't speak Chinese but I've read that in Chinese there are more homonyms than in "ordinary" Western languages.
    The Pidgin Chinese construction of "look-see" (here in German Wiki, I'm sure the example is a well-known one) - supposedly - also is seen as a strategy to disambiguate (no need for that in English but, it is said, in Chinese from which this is translated; I can only give what Wiki says here - which is that "look-see" is a translation of "看见 kanjian" -, but I can't explain the Chinese example, naturally :)).

    If this is true then those classifiers would have a function - they would make communication easier as the cases when homonymous words could be misunderstood might be reduced significantly.
    (And please excuse my ignorance if I'm on the wrong path here. :))
     

    duckie

    Senior Member
    Denmark
    Something I've been wondering about is that the Indo-European languages seem to all trend towards simplification of their grammatical structure. I know that Sanskrit is very complex grammatically, and similarly Latin is more complex than the modern Romance languages (that actually derive from vulgar Latin which was simpler than the literary Latin I think)..

    In turn, English is grammatically much simpler than other Germanic languages, who are also being steadily simplified on their own. So we see a clear trend towards simplification, but this must mean that an enormous effort was put into creating these complicated rules of the languages in the past. What was the drive and motivation behind this, and why has it disappeared?
     

    Mate

    Senior Member
    Castellano - Argentina
    Moderator note:

    Regrettably, we have to close this old, long and recently resurrected thread because it doesn't fulfil the current forum's guidelines any more.

    The forum has changed, the guidelines for Cultural Discussions have changed, and it is time for this thread to retire.

    Thank you all for taking part in this interesting discussion, and for your understanding.


    Thread closed.
     
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