Grammatical gender has its advantages

Grammatical gender is a pain in the ass for people who speak English (or Turkish, or ...) to learn. But it can haveadvantages, if only by accident. Consider the English sentence:

He removed the manuscript from the briefcase and cast it into the sea.

What went into the sea, the manuscript or the briefcase?

In French, these words happen to differ in gender, so the pronoun neatly disambiguates the sentence:

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et le jeta dans le mer.

has "le jeta", meaning that the manuscript (masc.) went in the drink, whereas

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et la jeta dans le mer.

has "la jeta", meaning that it's the briefcase (fem.) that got drowned.

Of course, there are other ways to express this distinction. In Bislama, the English-based creole of Vanuatu (a Pacific island nation), you'd say

Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem, hem i sakem long solwota.
to dunk the manuscript, whereas the briefcase goes under with:
Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem pastaem, nao hem i sakem kes blong hem long solwota.

These will be easier for people who read Standard English to read if I respell them thus:

Him he take'em-out paper belong case belong him, him he chuck'em belong saltwater.


Him he take'em-out paper belong case belong him past-time, now him he chuck'em case belong him belong saltwater.

Note the difference between blong, which is specifically possessive (the case "belongs" to him) and long, which is a general-purpose preposition, both from English belong. English can use "of" for both, but Bislama sharply distinguishes them.

The English and French versions are by Willard van Orman Quine; the Bislama version by Jacques Guy.


Anonymous said...

He removed the manuscript from the briefcase and cast it into the sea.

This advantage accrues to French only half the time, of course, since it depends on the more-or-less random chance that the gender of the two objects differ.

We can make (relatively) natural-sounding English versions as well:

Removing it from the briefcase, he cast the manuscript into the sea.

After removing the manuscript, he cast the briefcase into the sea.

John Cowan said...

I think your first sentence is distinctly weird, and can't imagine saying it: people aren't good at forward references like this. In writing, it might pass (though I would fix it if I could).

Anonymous said...

Speaking of references... I've been learning Swedish the last two years. Here's one random difference.

In english you can say "He drove his car." and it can mean Joe drove Fred's car, or Joe drove the car that he owns himself. In Swedish, the possessive is very specifically reflexive. "Han kör sin bil." very specifically means he drove his own car.

It's also interesting to see that "bear fruit" and "berry" have a common ancestor that's clear in Swedish. A berry is "ett bär", and to bear fruit is "att bära frukt".

Of course, Swedish has some words that just look totally wrong to my US Citizen brain such as att gnägga (to neigh) and att fnissa (to titter, to giggle).

Tune in next comment, when we discuss three years spent in Finland , and how Finnish just isn't like anything else.

John Cowan said...

English is very unusual for an Indo-European language in its elimination of the inherited reflexive pronouns in favor of the compound forms with -self that we have now.

A sound-change in late Old English days eliminated all the (not very many) fn- words in English, changing them to sn-words; if that hadn't happened, we'd be fneezing instead of sneezing when we had a cold (OE fneosan).

Finally, a much earlier sound-change affected all the Germanic languages except Gothic, changing thl- initials to fl-. If that hadn't happened, we might be saying:

A thly and a thlea in a thlue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the thly, "Let us thlee!"
Said the thlea, "Let us thly!"
So they thlew through a thlaw in the thlue.

(Not that I have the slightest idea of whether the Gothic words for fly, flea, flue, flaw, and flew began with thl- or fl-.)

John Cowan said...

As I said, Anton, long is a generic preposition: belonging to, over, above, below, .... In this case, "into" is the intended meaning.

Joseph B. said...

along saltwater is more plausible.

John Cowan said...

Joseph B.: You may be right at that.

Brett said...

This is somewhat off topic, but knowing something about modern English grammars yet nothing about modern French grammars, I wonder if it would be accurate to say that what is begin discussed in the post could be called determiners in a fused-head constructions rather than pronouns. That is, English "it" is clearly a pronoun, but French "le, la" etc. strike me as determiners.

John Cowan said...


The distinction is a difficult one to draw historically. In all the Indo-European languages that have definite articles, they begin life as demonstrative pronouns and then split into demonstratives, definite articles, and 3rd-person pronouns. This seems to have happened independently in the Greek, Germanic, and Romance branches, and also in Albanian, Bulgarian, and the Torlak dialect of Serbian under the influence of the Balkan Sprachbund.

So while the conventional analysis of French standalone le, la is as 3rd-person pronouns, they can also be seen as definite articles without heads (or with fused heads, pick your theory). Since they are cliticized to the verb, an even more radical analysis is to treat them as object prefixes that agree with the direct object in gender and must be used except when that object actually appears immediately after the verb. This pushes French toward being seen as a semi-polysynthetic language (without noun incorporation) with nearly free word order, which otherwise must be treated as a sequence of left- and right-dislocations.

Thus one can form various French sentences with the tokens /mwa/, /ʒladetɛst/, and /mari/ in any order, all of which mean "I loathe Mary", subject only to the constraints that /ʒladetɛst/ must appear, and that if /mari/ appears immediately after /ʒladetɛst/ it becomes /ʒdetɛst/ instead.

As for English it, it is certainly only a pronoun now, but it is cognate to the neuter articles in many other Germanic languages: Frisian it, Dutch het, and Scandinavian et(t). In my opinion, this old article also surfaces in the English of the North of England, where it is conventionally spelled t' to assimilate it with the, but would be more correctly written 't, as it is pronounced /ət/ or /əʔ/.

Anonymous said...

subject only to the constraints that /ʒladetɛst/ must appear, and that if /mari/ appears immediately after /ʒladetɛst/ it becomes /ʒdetɛst/ instead.

That's not even true -- you can ignore this constraint to make a Chinese-style topic-and-comment sentence that puts extra emphasis on "déteste".

BTW... <drum roll>... la mer. Even though it was neuter in Latin.

John Cowan said...

Arrgh, thanks. We anglophones can never get our French genders right.