Der, das, die….. I give up!

Welcome back to the HLC!

Did you enjoy last week’s book review? We sure did, so we understand that you’re now occupied with your very own copy of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, but just in case you do find some time: remember that we promised you a discussion on grammatical and natural gender systems in our post on gender-neutral pronouns two weeks ago? Well, we always keep our promises! Before getting deep into that particular discussion though, let’s first establish something about what we mean when we say gender.

When talking about gender in linguistic study, we’re often talking about a category of inflection. Inflection, in turn, is the modification of a word to express grammatical categories – like gender (but also tense, case, voice, aspect, person, number, and mood – let’s not go there right now). The grammatical category gender includes three subcategories (or classes), typically described as masculine, feminine and neuter. A language that uses grammatical gender doesn’t necessarily need to use all three however: in Swedish, for example, you find only two: common (which includes both masculine and feminine, which have merged together to become one) and neuter. Anyway, in a language which inflects for gender, i.e. a language that uses a grammatical gender system, every single noun must belong to one of the gender classes of that language (though a few, a very few, may belong to more than one class). The grammatical category is thus reflected in the behaviour of the words that belong to the subcategory, or the article which belongs to that subcategory. Easy, right?

Okay, maybe not.

Let’s use an example. In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Each noun in the German language belongs to one of these genders but it is not necessarily the same as the expected gender of the referent. For example, ‘Mädchen’, meaning ‘girl’ in German, is a grammatically neuter, not feminine. While you can’t see that on the noun itself, when taking definite form Mädchen always occurs with the article das, which is the neuter definite article in German, while ‘Junge’, meaning ‘boy’, always occurs with the masculine article der (but then, so does ‘table’).

In a grammatical gender system, the gender of the noun itself is thus not always readily evident. This has often lead people, even those whose job it is to study language, to assume that the gender is arbitrarily assigned and native speakers simply remember it, noun by noun. However, do you know how many nouns the, for example, German language has? We don’t, but we bet you that it’s quite a lot. Yet, native speakers rarely make a mistake when it comes to using the right gender. Is it probable, or even the least bit likely, that a native speaker simply ‘remembers’ the correct gender of all these nouns?

Nah, not really. But how does it work then? Well, like many other things, we don’t know exactly! Corbett has suggested a number of factors that play in when it comes to gender assignment. Among these, we find meaning and form to be the most important ones. Form can further be divided into two types: morphological and phonological. If a language doesn’t assign gender on the basis of these criteria, the gender of a noun might also be based on mythological association, concept association, or marking of important property.

Woof, that got complicated real fast, right? Let’s sum it up by saying that there are really three main ways by which a noun gets its gender: based on (1) semantic criteria – the meaning of the noun decides its gender; (2) morphological criteria – the form of the noun decides its gender; and (3) so-called lexical criteria – the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender, sometimes due to historical reasons.

Now that we know that, we can move on to natural gender systems.

In a natural gender system, a noun is ascribed to the gender that would be expected based on the word itself. That is, a woman is female, a man is male. On the basis of that, you might expect one of the languages to use natural gender to be English, which of course is true. Unlike most of the Germanic languages, English has shrugged off the yoke of grammatical gender (which is just one of the ‘oddities’ of the English language), but it certainly isn’t the only one! As we’ve already said: in Swedish, for example, you’ll find only two genders: common and neuter; in Dutch, there can be either three or two genders depending on geographical area and speaker!

It might be easy to think that a language that uses grammatical gender cannot have natural gender, or the other way around if you prefer. That, however, is not quite true: the two aren’t mutually exclusive! Spanish, for example, uses a grammatical gender system, yet adjectives and nouns are sometimes inflected for natural gender, that is: el pequeño niño the little boy’ but la pequeña niña ‘the little girl’!  

As you can clearly see, grammatical and natural gender is not an easy thing to explain!

via GIPHY

We’ve made an honest attempt at trying to explain these two topics in a way that (hopefully) makes sense to you! If you want to read more about this, though, we suggest our primary source for this post:

Corbett, Greville G. 2012 [1991]. Gender. Online ed. Cambridge University Press. doi: https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139166119

If you want to check out other accounts, you might enjoy Jenny Audring’s section on Gender in Oxford Research Encyclopedias, found here.

Questions, thoughts, amazingly inspired outbursts? Let us know!

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

And now for something a little different! This week, we’re bringing you a book review. As in other fields, the volume of literature on the subject of linguistics can be daunting. (That’s volume-the-amount, not volume-a-book-in-a-series.) We’re not going to tell you how to spend your time, but there’s a whole lot more to explore about language than we can cover on a humble blog like ours (though we’re sure going to try!). With our reviews, which we’re going to start sneaking in from time to time, we hope we’ll be able to share what you absolutely must check out and what you shouldn’t waste your time on.

To kick things off, I recently listened to John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English, read by the author (also available in print, but infinitely harder to consume while commuting in America—I recommend the format that works best for you).

Broadly speaking, there are two types of works written on linguistics: those written by linguists for linguists, and those written for the general public, i.e. pop linguistics1 (a merely categorical label that is by no means derogatory). Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is the latter.

Like many linguistic books written for a broader audience, OMBT tells the history of English. As a peopled narrative full of kings, revolutions, dusty manuscripts, and Vikings, it’s a much more accessible topic than, say, syntactic theory, which perhaps explains and excuses the greater percentage of mainstream publications devoted to the history of English. While OMBT is another addition to this delightful genre, it does a few things that set it apart from the crowd (I mean, even beyond its snappy title).

First, McWhorter explicitly eschews telling an etymological history, both because there are many works on the subject and because boiling the story of a language down to a series of lexical vignettes paints an incomplete picture. Instead, he tackles the much harder task of explaining the evolution of some uniquely English grammatical features, such as our dependence on the word ‘do’ when forming questions and negative statements. To make his points, McWhorter must explain some basic syntax, how the constructions work in English, and how they work in other languages. Admittedly, I am at an unfair advantage for understanding such discussions, but even so, the examples felt well-chosen, and the explanations should be accessible even to casual readers.

OMBT is also notable for its tone. Where many books present their facts and call it a day, McWhorter invites the reader a little into the world of academia. He doesn’t just state his assertions; he explains the prevailing opinions and then proceeds to argue his side, authoritatively stating his conclusions. (Oh, yes, indeed. We don’t know everything about linguistics yet, including about the development of English. We’re still hashing out the whereto’s and the whyfor’s.) One of the main points he argues for is the influence of language contact over internal factors in syntactic changes that took place in English. For linguists, it should be an interesting read on alternate theories. For non-linguists (our own darling wuggles), it’s a thought-provoking place to start. I would warn against taking either the author’s views or the prevailing views he fairly lays out as immutable gospel; rather, think of this as a jumping off point to investigate more and draw your own conclusions.2 While this is a book that could be enjoyed for its own sake, the tone seems to invite further discussion.

My general impression of this book is a favorable one, but there are some quirks I find a bit perplexing. While I love the tone of discussion and debate, it’s a curious choice for a book written for the mass public rather than a paper for a conference of like-minded language enthusiasts. Was the goal really to spark thought (as I generously concluded above), or is the book a soap box to draw innocent bystanders over to one side of an argument they didn’t know anybody was having?

I also found myself wishing that the topic of the book was more tightly focused. The first two thirds of the book explore syntactic changes and argue for the influence of language contact. Now, obviously not all changes in a language can be explained by a single force (just as not all problems are nails, and they can’t all be solved with a hammer), but I was still taken aback when the last two chapters jumped to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis and Grimm’s Law, respectively. McWhorter does use these topics to make some interesting points and observations, but their inclusion at all came as an odd surprise given the talking points and goals laid out in the introduction. Don’t be put off, though. The inclusion of Sapir, Whorf, and Grimm doesn’t truly hinder the book’s broader mission, and their chapters are worthy reads both in their own right and in the grander scheme of the rest of the text.

It’s not the one book I wish was required reading for humanity. It’s probably not even the first book on linguistics or English I would recommend, but I truly, deeply enjoyed OMBT, and I think you might, too. 3

Notes

1 Like our blog.
2I’ve been working with fifth graders lately (10-year-olds). Does it show?
3You know, since you’re at least interested enough in the topic to be reading this blog.