Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

Discuss various aspects of natural language.

Moderators: Calilasseia, ADParker

Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#1  Postby Delvo » Aug 16, 2010 12:08 am

It's a lot of work to convey no additional information.

Complexity/difficulty in a language is usually kept to a minimum, and complexity in one area of a language tends to be balanced by simplicity elsewhere, pretty much wherever the speakers can get away with it without sacrificing the function of conveying information. For example, while Latin gives English-speakers a bewildering array of decisions to make about which suffix goes on each word, a Latin-speaker would be shocked by the number of words (s)he needed to put together, in the right order, to say the same stuff in English without all those suffixes. But each is only as complicated, in its own way, as it needs to be to get the information conveyed, and whatever complications it doesn't need to help convey information, it doesn't have or use.

...except that one of them has genders (and the other once did). How did those ever get started in any language, and how can they survive for more than a few generations, when they require extra work for the speaker but don't contain any additional information?
User avatar
Delvo
THREAD STARTER
 
Posts: 971

United States (us)
Print view this post

Ads by Google


Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#2  Postby epepke » Aug 16, 2010 12:10 am

See Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things by George Lakoff.

It doesn't convey additional information, but mst lngs r rdndnt.
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#3  Postby katja z » Aug 23, 2010 1:45 pm

Hmmm. This is a very interesting question. But formulated as it is, it would seem to imply that language development is an aim-directed process (which probably wasn't the intention of the OP?). In this form, it seems similar to asking what is the point of us having five fingers (rather than, say, six or four). The proper way of looking at this would be the evolutionary history, not the number of fingers it would be useful for us to have at this stage. The same is true of language. The principle of economy that the OP invokes is a very important one, but it can only work on what is given at each stage of the evolution of a particular language (and what is given depends on its particular history, which in turn is linked with social and cultural history, contacts with other languages etc. as well as constraints and possibilities afforded by its language material).

So I prefer the reformulation of the question at the end of the OP, which is essentially "why do any languages retain gender/noun classes"? (The same could be asked for different verb conjugations.) I can't pretend to answer this one, but I suspect at least part of it is the general context of the morphology of a given language. If you have a largely synthetic language with a lot of declination going on and this is necessary in order to indicate syntactic relations in the sentence, then series of inflections (and groups of series of inflections) used to indicate this will tend to persist. Such a group is usually thought of as indicating a grammatical gender, but in reality the importance of these inflections is simply in their difference from one another which marks the different syntactic functions a word may take. That's why the declination systems may be so resilient: preserving these differentiating markers is useful for structuring utterances. Of course, a language may transition from synthetic to analytic, using word order and prepositions to indicate syntactic relations. This is what happened in English, and as the morphology of the noun got simpler, the grammatical gender was "eroded" (all according to the economy principle: you don't generally need to encode the same information twice; although epepke is right in pointing out that redundancy is always present in linguistic communication, up to a point, and it could be argued that it is often "useful" since it helps avoid ambiguities and misunderstandings, or even conveys additional information - such as emotional charge, or aesthetic effects ... but I digress.)

How genders "started" is a distinct question to the previous one ... we could answer it if we knew more about how language itself started. FWIW, I'd venture that it has to do with gradual ordering into structural paradigms (declinations, conjugations) of the initial variability of linguistic material, since language certainly didn't start out as a fully-fledged system it is now (well, I say certainly - I assume, of course, that it wasn't given us ready-made by the gods!).
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#4  Postby NineBerry » Aug 23, 2010 1:56 pm

There is additional information. Consider the following sentences:

Paul told Anne that his father asked him for a loan.
Paul told Anne that his father asked her for a loan.
Paul told Anne that her father asked her for a loan.
Paul told Anne that her father asked him for a loan.

Four totally different things.

Now consider the version without gender:

Paul told Anne that the father asked the person for a loan.

You don't know which of the four cases is meant. You would have to use a longer sentence.

It is the same when giving a gender to things. In some cases, it allows you to have shorter sentences that are clearer.
User avatar
NineBerry
RS Donator
 
Posts: 6133
Age: 42
Male

Country: nSk
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#5  Postby katja z » Aug 23, 2010 2:06 pm

^^Can't argue with that. But your examples are about natural gender, whereas I think the OP was talking about grammatical gender, where any noun (including the ones referring to inanimate objects) is arbitrarily assigned to a gender, or noun class (for example, in French, the word for "book" is masculine, in Slovenian it is feminine, and in Wolof it takes the definite article "bi" rather than ""gi", "ji", "ki", "li", "mi", "si" or "wi").
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#6  Postby NineBerry » Aug 23, 2010 2:09 pm

Yes, I know, but the same principle applies.
User avatar
NineBerry
RS Donator
 
Posts: 6133
Age: 42
Male

Country: nSk
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#7  Postby epepke » Aug 23, 2010 2:17 pm

NineBerry wrote:There is additional information. Consider the following sentences:

Paul told Anne that his father asked him for a loan.
Paul told Anne that his father asked her for a loan.
Paul told Anne that her father asked her for a loan.
Paul told Anne that her father asked him for a loan.

Four totally different things.

Now consider the version without gender:

Paul told Anne that the father asked the person for a loan.

You don't know which of the four cases is meant. You would have to use a longer sentence.

It is the same when giving a gender to things. In some cases, it allows you to have shorter sentences that are clearer.


That's not gender; that's sexed pronouns. Highly useful, of course, but English doesn't have gender.

Gender is a marker that affects adjectives, prepositions, and articles, and it usually also affects pronouns, but it applies to all nouns and pronouns, not just ones that involve humans.

As Mark Twain pointed out, in German, a turnip is female while a girl is neuter, which seems unfair.
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Ads by Google


Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#8  Postby NineBerry » Aug 23, 2010 2:35 pm

But the same principle applies. Because all speakers agree on the gender of objects, there is additional information added which helps communication be increasing redundancy.

Let me give you an example.

I can say in German

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte."

Translation:

"When I put the pencil into the bag, I remembered the moment I had bought it".

Bought what? The pencil or the bag?

It is clear in the German language.

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich ihn gekauft hatte." ("he", the pencil is female, i.e. I am talking about the pencil)
"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte." ("she", the bag is female, i.e. I am talking about the bag)
User avatar
NineBerry
RS Donator
 
Posts: 6133
Age: 42
Male

Country: nSk
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#9  Postby epepke » Aug 23, 2010 2:49 pm

NineBerry wrote:But the same principle applies. Because all speakers agree on the gender of objects, there is additional information added which helps communication be increasing redundancy.


Yes, it's the same principle, but it's difficult to describe in English, because it really does not have gender.

Gender is a lot like number, and number is something that is present in English. English has three numbers: singular, plural, and mass. My favorite example is with the word datum/data. To wit...

The datum is on the disk.

Singular. There is one piece of atomic information, a number or name or something.

The data are on the disk.

Plural. A countable number or pieces of atomic information are on the disk.

The data is on the disk.

Mass. I'm not going to count individual data, and it might not even be meaningful to do so. There's a bunch of shit on the disk. I might say "a gigabyte of data" as I might say "a glass of milk."
User avatar
epepke
 
Posts: 4080

Country: US
United States (us)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#10  Postby pennypitstop » Aug 23, 2010 2:57 pm

I was crap at French for this reason....ok this was one of many reasons. Le chat or La chat... why the gender?
"Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character." Albert Einstein
User avatar
pennypitstop
 
Posts: 746

United Kingdom (uk)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#11  Postby GreyICE » Aug 23, 2010 3:06 pm

Efficiency strange subject. Language lacks. Avg. Eff. lack sev. ways.

One - style. Ease listener comprehension superior ease data communication eff.

Two - Evolution. Like nature, non-optimized, gets there. Artifacts, whale pelvis, present.
GreyICE
 
Name: Kiss my ass
Posts: 1626

Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#12  Postby mraltair » Aug 23, 2010 3:06 pm

Also the gender isn't logically set out which makes learning French as a second language to English a bit tricky, or at least not obvious. I understand it wasn't planned.
For example:
Le soutien-gorge.
EDIT: La barbe as well, my French is poor so may not be right.
User avatar
mraltair
 
Posts: 5368

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#13  Postby logical bob » Aug 23, 2010 3:26 pm

I have no idea how genders got started, but there's no reason for them not to continue. Nearly every European language has them and people are clearly managing.
User avatar
logical bob
 
Posts: 4482
Male

Scotland (ss)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#14  Postby Shrunk » Aug 23, 2010 3:30 pm

OT, I realize, but David Sedaris wrote a hilarious piece in which he described his diffculties learning the language while in France, and especially the problem of assigning gender to articles. He was particularly bemused that the word for "penis" was feminine, while the one for "vagina" was masculine. He eventually found an easy way around this when he realized the plural article, "les," was not specific to gender, and thereafter would only refer to items in pairs. His boyfriend was very puzzled as to why they had two identical toaster ovens.
"A community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime." -Oscar Wilde
User avatar
Shrunk
 
Posts: 26170
Age: 56
Male

Country: Canada
Canada (ca)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#15  Postby Elena » Aug 27, 2010 5:14 pm

NineBerry wrote:But the same principle applies. Because all speakers agree on the gender of objects, there is additional information added which helps communication be increasing redundancy.

Let me give you an example.

I can say in German

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte."

Translation:

"When I put the pencil into the bag, I remembered the moment I had bought it".

Bought what? The pencil or the bag?

It is clear in the German language.

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich ihn gekauft hatte." ("he", the pencil is female, i.e. I am talking about the pencil)
"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte." ("she", the bag is female, i.e. I am talking about the bag)

It's the same in Spanish. In Italian, though, both "bag" and "pencil" are female (borsa / matita), unless one uses "sacchetto" (m) for bag.

I'm sure other examples can be found where gender is not helpful, in all languages that have them. So the additional information does not always help.

I agree that gender is more of a nuisance for language learners.
User avatar
Elena
RS Donator
 
Posts: 727
Female

Print view this post

Ads by Google


Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#16  Postby Zwaarddijk » Sep 20, 2010 11:08 pm

Delvo wrote:It's a lot of work to convey no additional information.

wrong. It does provide lots of information!

Basically, what you get is a kind of randomized algorithm that introduces - as already noted - a small extra level of redundancy. The extra level of redundancy given by a gender system, although not 100% helpful, is apparently helpful enough to compensate for the extra learning it requires. (Extra redundancy isn't of course the only thing it provides - it also provides some of the benefits of having two distinct third persons (generally called proximate and obviate) without requiring all the complications that such a system brings along. This extra distinct third-person system won't work all the time - you'll run into contexts where all the things you need to distinguish are of the same gender, but it's a sort of randomized solution, and it works often enough to be worth maintaining, for less of a ~cost than developing a proximate-obviate system of native north American style would entail for most languages that currently do have gender systems)

Randomized solutions that only help some of the time really are a surprisingly efficient and cheap method of going about this kind of thing!

What makes the benefits even more obvious is the fact that we don't actually hear every sound the speaker we listen to makes (nor do we read every letter in every word on the page or screen in front of us!) - and having extra clues here and there makes it way more likely that the utterance is reconstituted into the right string of morphemes in our mind.

There's a few things that contribute to us not hearing every sound.
1) Apparently the brain actually does skip over a lot of them for some reason - possibly it's too taxing to actually parse every sound/read every symbol. Some randomly built system that often enough provides enough extra hints by reducing the number of possible words uttered into a smaller set is a good enough solution to be rather prevalent once it appears.
2) Something armchair linguists don't think much about is background noise.
3) We actually don't utter our words the same way every time - mistakes in production occurs all the time, to varying degrees. Again, redundancy reduces the number of options we subconsciously need to consider and thereby improves the situation. (Otoh, we also do gender-related mistakes, which whenever we actually do hear enough of the noun don't cause much of a problem, but if there's too much interference or whatever obfuscating the noun itself, a gender error might prove fatal to recovering the noun. I would love to know how the brain actually searches through its internal lexicon and such when doing this!)


Complexity/difficulty in a language is usually kept to a minimum, and complexity in one area of a language tends to be balanced by simplicity elsewhere, pretty much wherever the speakers can get away with it without sacrificing the function of conveying information. For example, while Latin gives English-speakers a bewildering array of decisions to make about which suffix goes on each word, a Latin-speaker would be shocked by the number of words (s)he needed to put together, in the right order, to say the same stuff in English without all those suffixes. But each is only as complicated, in its own way, as it needs to be to get the information conveyed, and whatever complications it doesn't need to help convey information, it doesn't have or use.

And most languages mandatorily mark information that one could do just as well without, most languages have mandatory redundancies of various kinds. The claim that complexity/difficulty is kept at a minimum is not, properly speaking entirely true, but a rather popular misunderstanding of how things work out. Languages with little redundancy tend to get more to ensure that speech acts don't elicit 'excuse me, what did you say?' every single time - and often this will initially happen by periphrastic means, and won't therefore show up in morphological tables or whatnot, so most people that like to talk about how difficult different languages are by means of comparing morphological tables won't notice it. Grammaticalization later turn such things into morphology (just look at French, where the orthography of course obfuscated the fact that it's halfways going on being a polysynthetic language!)

...except that one of them has genders (and the other once did). How did those ever get started in any language, and how can they survive for more than a few generations, when they require extra work for the speaker but don't contain any additional information?

I hope my post showed how the assumption that they 'don't contain any additional information' is grossly mistaken, and that the instances where the degree of helpfulness seems low or nonexistent it still might be beneficial, and that furthermore, it's best to look at it as a randomized algorithm - doesn't work all the time, but often enough to be a worthwhile solution.
Zwaarddijk
 
Posts: 4334
Male

Country: Finland
Finland (fi)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#17  Postby katja z » Sep 21, 2010 7:07 am

:nod: Maybe the problem with this kind of question (why do we have to do all this extra work?) is that we often focus just on production when thinking about how language works. But language is about communication not just producing speech, and the requirements for successful decoding by the listeners shape it just as much as stuff related to production, so there is always a sort of balance between efficiency of production and efficiency of comprehension.

What is "polysynthetic"? :cheers:
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#18  Postby Zwaarddijk » Sep 21, 2010 10:16 am

Polysynthesis is a typological class which is kind of fuzzily defined. Generally speaking, they're languages where the morphology generates monstrously large verbs, and not by compounding, but by actually stacking multiple affixes on top of each other.

Canonical examples of polysynthesis can be found among the Eskimo-aleut, Iroquian, Algonquian, Salishan and Uto-aztecan languages. (IIRC there's examples in Siberia, South and Central America, the Caucasus and Australia as well, but I don't recall any of those without looking them up).

Exactly where the line goes between polysynthesis and mere agglutination or fusionality is not defined in any universally agreed upon terms, and whether such a distinction is relevant or worthwhile is not entirely clear.
Last edited by Zwaarddijk on Sep 21, 2010 10:53 am, edited 1 time in total.
Zwaarddijk
 
Posts: 4334
Male

Country: Finland
Finland (fi)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#19  Postby katja z » Sep 21, 2010 10:34 am

Thanks. I've never come accross a language that is described in this way but I've googled for some examples, very interesting. It does seem more like an end of the synthetic/isolating spectrum than a distinct category.
User avatar
katja z
RS Donator
 
Posts: 5353
Age: 40

European Union (eur)
Print view this post

Re: Why do any languages have "gender" or "noun class"?

#20  Postby Jehannum » Sep 21, 2010 12:05 pm

NineBerry wrote:But the same principle applies. Because all speakers agree on the gender of objects, there is additional information added which helps communication be increasing redundancy.

Let me give you an example.

I can say in German

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte."

Translation:

"When I put the pencil into the bag, I remembered the moment I had bought it".

Bought what? The pencil or the bag?

It is clear in the German language.

"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich ihn gekauft hatte." ("he", the pencil is female, i.e. I am talking about the pencil)
"Als ich den Kugelschreiber in die Tasche steckte, erinnerte ich mich daran, wie ich sie gekauft hatte." ("she", the bag is female, i.e. I am talking about the bag)


Surely, this only works when the two things are of different genders. There will still be this ambiguity; it's chance whether they're the same gender or not.
Extraordinary claims require ordinary evidence.
User avatar
Jehannum
 
Name: Peter
Posts: 252
Age: 50
Male

Country: England
Print view this post

Next

Return to Linguistics

Who is online

Users viewing this topic: No registered users and 1 guest