Why Do Languages Have Gender?

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S2: From New York City, this is Lexicon Valley, a podcast about language, I’m John McWhorter and we’re going to do a show this time that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Some of you often ask about it. I realize, as I often do, that it really is something that we need to talk about because it’s both more difficult and easier than it seems to understand, and that is gender. And no, I don’t mean the rather complex and often loaded way that we talk about it in terms of society, but I mean more locally, gender in languages. And for an English speaker, it is the challenge of, for example, approaching French or Spanish, which are often the first foreign languages that were exposed to. If we speak English, you find that for some reason all nouns are divided between being, for example, masculine and feminine. And you can’t quite understand why. And we have to make a very important differentiation here. This is something you’ll learn about in linguistics. I don’t mean easy gender, I mean dumdum gender. So there’s a difference between gender that actually makes sense because you’re talking about, for example, boys and girls or men and women. I don’t mean gender like in Spanish where you’re talking about a little cat and if it’s a boy, it’s a Gotho. And if it’s a girl, it’s a gordita. Oh. For something that shaves and off or something that does not save its face. Something like that, not that kind of gender, but the kind of gender that frankly doesn’t make any sense where you just kind of have to know. We call this the difference between biological gender as in Staggs and dough’s, as opposed to grammatical gender where you just kind of have to know. So for example, Spanish Ferhat Sombrero, that’s masculine, whereas the word for house is feminine. So houses are girls somehow. Nobody thinks of it that way. It’s just the way Spanish has to do it. So Cossa all right. And in Spanish, it’s kind of easy in that. So very often the O is masculine and the R is feminine. But of course there are exceptions that you just have to know. So for hand model, it ends in an O, but it’s lamanno, it’s feminine and well, you just have to deal with it. And then Spanish is nice to you in that way relatively. But then with French which is it’s close relative, but still it’s a different story. These things are harder. And so for example, a boat is a bottle and moon is a loon. Will Bato is masculine, lune is feminine. Now if you just listen to those two words, Bato and Loon, to use a really good French accent, you don’t hear any cues like OHS and AHS. And if you’re talking about writing, well, noone has that E at the end, which is often silent or can be pronounced in some circumstances. It’s kind of there. But if you try to think that that e hanging off of the end means feminine, French just smacks you in the face much more than Spanish does with words ending in that are masculine. So the world of that whole newspaper, Le Monde, do it’s got that little thing on the end. You just you just have to know. So this grammatical gender, which are sometimes called dumdum gender, in my mind, it’s a real challenge for an English speaker. And one might want to know why does a language do that? Especially because if you get to something like German, well, it’s just it’s disgusting. And so, for example, silverware, you’ve got a spoon. It’s a little well, the spoon is masculine. You’ve got a fork. It’s a gobble. There’s no R at the end. There’s no little E at the end. Gobble, gobble it to me. They both sound like very German words. But Gobble is feminine. You just have to know a fork is a girl and then a knife messa that’s neuter. So you just kind of have to know in German. I remember learning it when I was a teen and realizing oh goodness, the gender is really going to kick me in the buttocks. And that is true with German rules of thumb. Sure. But to an extent you just have to know what is that. So here I am, this Anglophone and I want to say, why does the language have that? But, you know, I’m not asking the right question. I’m asking that as somebody who doesn’t know that he’s in a very parochial position. It’s kind of like a person in Denmark or Norway who has white skin, who starts to get to know people from other parts of the world. Let’s make this you know, it’s a Viking. It’s a very long time ago, and it’s harder to know anybody from anywhere else.

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S3: And you notice that as you go really east, then people have this, you know, what’s often called yellowish coloring instead of being just white. And as you go south, you start getting people who are very dark brown. And if you are going with Leif Eriksson, then you notice that over North America there are these indigenous people and they’re kind of brown, too. And you’re always wondering, well, how come they’re so dark? And you don’t know that from a global perspective. The question is, how come you’re so light? Because, of course, it’s actually only a sliver. Of humans that happen to have that white color that happen in Europe for the most part, but really the default human happens to have more melanin than that, I’m bringing that up only because for me to ask why do other languages put nouns into these meaningless classes of dumdum gender is naive in that the real question is why doesn’t English do it? And the reason for that is that if you take most of the languages of Europe and trace them back to that original one on the steps of Ukraine, that original language, Proteau Indo-European, that we can reconstruct with a fair degree of confidence, that language had dumdum gender.

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S2: It had masculine, feminine and neuter. Or rather, another way of putting it is that it is normal for Indo-European languages to have grammatical gender. So, you know, German has got its three genders. So the Slavic Greek has genders, the Baltic languages, Lithuanian and Latvian. They seem to have everything sometimes tone. They sure as hell have gender. Armenian has a gender of a sort. It’s not called that in terms of how we analyze it, but nouns are divided into arbitrary classes and you know, it doesn’t have to be called masculine feminine. Still, you’ve got that problem in then Albanian has got it. That’s the way it goes. And so the question is, why is English so naked? If you look around Europe, the languages that don’t have gender are ones that are Indo-European. So Finnish doesn’t have it, but Finnish is yallock, Basque doesn’t have it. But Basque is all by itself. It’s what we call a language isolette. It’s not related to anything anymore. They’re certainly used to be more Basque related languages. Probably they didn’t have gender. But if you’re Indo-European, you’re supposed to have meaningless grammatical gender, so English doesn’t have it. What happened in English is that there was a conflict between old English, which did have it because old English was a normal language. And then the language that the Scandinavian invaders from what is now Denmark and Norway spoke. They spoke a closely related Germanic language. This would have been Old Norse and Old Norse had three genders, too. But the problem is you might think that if they come and they have their masculine, feminine and neuter and English has that old English as its masculine, feminine and neuter, well, OK. Then whatever happens, then English is going to stay with those three. But no, when their conflicts like that, often what people do is throw up their hands and just toss the complicated thing, especially if you don’t need it to communicate. And we as English speakers know that you can communicate at least fairly well without dividing things into arbitrary classes. You don’t have to pretend that your silverware is sexed, for example, to be a relatively sophisticated person. And so talk about German today, spoon, little masculine fork gobbo feminine and messa knife neuter. Well, in old English you had words for those three things, but they didn’t match up. And so, for example, the word for fork wasn’t garbled, but God awful. But golfBall was masculine. Their word in old English. Oh, I didn’t say it right. Carful the word it old English for spoon was instead of little but little in German is masculine, was feminine and then knife did match up. And so meesa in German is neuter and then old English at half staff and that was neuter. But you know they don’t match Old Norse with the same thing was actually even weirder. Their words for a fork, knife and spoon. What’s the Old Norse voice. I’m going to try this for Caneva spon. That’s oh it’s an Old Norse had those three, but they were all masculine. So you can imagine, you know, the Old Norse common, you know, they have a sense that they’re nouns divide up into these classes and they might learn enough old English to perceive that old English had the same thing, too. But things don’t match. Another example ahead in old English is Hafford Helford and say that enough. And you have today’s head. It was a longer word than it was Hafford.

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S1: But then in Old Norse, the word was who it was hoofers.

S2: So Hafford hooved now the same word that happened to experience different fates on different land masses. But the thing is, old English is Hafford was masculine, hoofers was neuter. Well, you know, what happens in a situation like that is that in a way, people just say, screw it, let’s just talk about heads and not have any damn gender. And so that is why English doesn’t have this kind of gender. It was because of an accident, is because people shaved the language down, but only because of that. If that hadn’t happened, then we wouldn’t find gender so odd in English because it would still have it dialects down in the south, such as of Cornwall, way up into the eighteen hundreds actually had. Remnants of meaningless gender of that kind, it’s the way English, in a way should be, it was an accident that meant that it doesn’t have it. And even today, some of you are thinking Old Norse had the three, but Swedish, Norwegian and Danish often only have two. And that’s because of a whole different story about what happened to those three languages in contact with a kind of German called low German. Even though it’s spoken up high in the country, low Germans came and gave Old Norse a shave and created languages that have two genders instead of one. All of this is to show that it isn’t just normal for a language to chuck its gender generally. If it has something like that, it’s going to keep it. And Persian is an Indo-European language spoken over in Asia. It doesn’t have gender and it has a very English like story back to our program, so to speak. The question is, why does Spanish have that? Well, even if you know that English doesn’t have it because English is weird, you still might want to know. And it is an interesting question. Why did Proteau Indo-European divide nouns up into classes in some meaningless way if language is supposed to be about clarity of language, is supposed to correspond to culture, of language is supposed to make sense, then what is this with gender that goes beyond the business of Gotho and Gotho or it actually refers to something in the world. And the truth is that there is no written documentation of a language taking on dumdum gender. Once the language is written down, the dumdum gender is already there. So I can’t tell you that you can see as a language changes over time on paper how this sort of thing developed because it happens that the dumdum gender that we know all happened before writing, because, remember, writing only happens at the very tail end of the existence of human speech. So you go back 1500 years. That’s the first writing language surely existed for two hundred thousand years before that. And these days we’re beginning to think it may have even been two million, but certainly a couple hundred, maybe three hundred thousand. So we only have this little sliver of written documentation of language at all. And, you know, the truth is the truth is that if we could see grammatical gender beginning to happen now in some language that’s written, it would be something that would largely only be being done out on the ground among people speaking colloquially because people would think of this development of grammatical gender as some kind of mistake. You just know that’s the way it would happen. So it would be nice to chart it happening somewhere. But it’s human nature that unless it was universal, people would be reluctant to write it down. An example is we are developing an irregular verb in English, like if you kind of envy languages like Italian for having all those difficult, irregular verbs, whereas ours seem to be less intimidating, you know, think, thought, OK, but that’s not like what Spanish does with its verb for to have Dinara Thingo and then the D.A. again and then you’ve got to vote for had it’s a glorious mess and you say, well, how come we don’t have that? We just have our verb to be, which is a mess. But wouldn’t it be nice if we had other ones? Well, there’s one coming. And so it comes from that sort of colloquial quotative. So I’m all, you’d better not take my pen. And then you’re all but all I have is a pencil. And then she’s all, why don’t you two just calm down, you know you know that thing there. And it’s interesting, if we were a language spoken, say, in the rain forest unwritten with nobody bothering it, it’s just minding its business. I’m all you’re all he’s all would be on its way to becoming this new verb. That means to say after a while, people would forget that it started as he’s all and imitating somebody. It would just become this verb and it would be I maul you roar. He oh, I’m all you’re all he’s all people listening to that and distorting it. Over the years there’d be this irregular verb maul raw TSOL, but it’ll never happen because we can’t help. But here I’m all you’re all is smelling kind of like bazooka bubblegum or hasheesh or something. It’s considered not real language. And so this is how things like crazy gender develop. But it would be difficult for it to be accepted in many societies because it would be something new. It’s the crime of the century that we can’t use things like that in formal writing. Crime of the century. You know, it is time for a song and there is a song called That. It’s from the musical Ragtime. And the composer of this, Stephen Flaherty, is a little underrated. People don’t talk about him. I wonder if he’s a retiring person. He’s a really good melodist. He’s a fantastic humanist. And in Ragtime, he has to write a lot of things that actually sound like ragtime and goodness. He channeled Scott Joplin beautifully. This is about the Stanford White.

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S3: Murder on a rooftop while he’s watching a musical sometime in the arts and a former mistress of his is now husband, is crazy and jealous of him and shoots him. And now here is the former mistress making a career out of it. This actually happened. This is Evelyn Nesbit. Of course, this isn’t her singing. This is crime of the century, the age of 15, Your Honor.

S4: Then I went and married Mr. Harvey for. O o o o is a jealous man. Oh, yeah, Harry went crazy, I. All right.

S5: Mother’s younger brother was in love with that.

S2: We can’t know how grammatical gender develops by watching it happen on paper, but we can make a good guess at how it happened by looking at various languages now that are at different stages along the lines of developing something like this. So you can learn after a while that you can see mountains and you can see sand. Well, sand is rocks ground down. And so it’s a cycle. After a while, the sand gets thrown up and becomes mountains again after going under the ocean, etc.. Whatever that cycle is today, we can look at ameba, we can see sponges, then you see frogs. Then you see crocodiles and you see platypuses and you can see mammals like, oh, copies my favorite mammal. And you can look at them and you can after a while deduce that mammals came from what started as reptiles and amphibians and reptiles started from what originally were sponges and so on. So you don’t watch it happen. We cannot watch an amoeba become a giraffe, but we can see how that process worked. So same thing with grammatical gender. We can know how it happened by looking at the different places that various languages are at. And what is clear is that what becomes grammatical gender that largely doesn’t make any sense starts as classes that actually make sense. And then things drift because language always drifts, language always gets messy, just like mountains erode and become sand. And so, for example, what you see as dumdum gender in some language now can start with something like what we see in the Chinese languages today. And what we see is something that happens, for example, with numbers.

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S1: So Mandarin, this is the word for three sun.

S2: This is the word for cat. I kid you. Not that the word for cat is meow, meow, meow, meow, meow. Probably onomatopoeic. So how do you say three cats somehow? No, no, you don’t say that. You have to say some Jimal.

S3: You have to have that little gem in there. And if you don’t, well, you sound like an idiot. Well, if you have that then what about something like a river? Three Rivers, son. That’s Three River. OK, so is it Sanjar hurt? No, no, it’s a different one. You have to say Centella Hook. So all you have to stick that in there. So the one with cat is one thing, the one with a river is another thing. Chout, it’s because they’re different shapes or they have different essences. There’s one of these things for animals. Then there’s one thing for long ROOPI, things like rivers as opposed to flat things. If you’re talking about a bed chuong, well, you have three beds, certainly not sand twant. No, you have to have Sun Myung Chong Zhang is for flat things, so when you have a number you have to jam that little thing in.

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S2: The only way to make sense of that in English is with an expression like you can say three cows, but you can also say three head of cattle and that weird expression, three head of cattle. Well you just say it. That’s something that you do with certain animals. You have to do a lot more of that in Chinese. So you’ve got one for animals, you’ve got one for long things. You’ve got one for flat things. You’ve got one for people. So three people sonorant is baby Chinese sound good and you have to have the good. Those are called numeral classifiers. And the thing is notice that they’re dividing nouns into classes. This is gender because we are used to because of certain European languages, it being about masculine and feminine and marker’s like oh and ah that otherwise are used to encode actual biological differences. And so we think well gender gets weird in that all these different things are called boys and girls. But actually you can have a lot more than just two things like that. It can go beyond gender. The real essence of it, if you look at languages all over the world that has this is this business of dividing nouns into arbitrary classes. It may be pretending that they’re boys and girls, but it might be dividing them between humanity and different shapes and different essences and very, very, very many languages have many more than two or three. So the numeral classifiers are that same genius to use definition two of genius. It’s the same gender thing. The larger concept is we say noun classes. That’s what’s going on here. So you have the noun classes now. That’s the way that you do it in Mandarin, but you can take it further and you start seeing the beginning of things like boats being boys and moons. Being girls, so here’s how it goes further and you can actually tell in a different Chinese language, Cantonese and so in Mandarin you use these numeral classifiers with numbers and in some other cases. But just for her Ristic purposes, with the numbers in Cantonese more than in Mandarin, you don’t even have to have the number there. You can just have these little classifier words just sitting there to mean roughly something like this, something like ah. And so for example, table toy in Cantonese.

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S6: Now a flat table, a table is going to be something like a bed in Mandarin. It’s flat. What’s the thing for flat.

S3: It’s Ljung. And so one way to say roughly a table, this table here is Jeung toy Jiang toy like that you don’t even have a number. It’s just that thing there. But you can’t think well the way to say kind of or this and Cantonese is Jeung because you only use that with something flat like a table. If you’ve got something long and skinny like a pen then it’s cheap.

S2: And so the word for pen I guess one word for pen is but and so but and that’s a pen. But not Jumba but Geet. But then if it’s a button a little round. Cute little thing. Well now is the word for button. But for that one the little classifier word is lop and so lop now. Now that’s how you say kind of a button, this kind of button here. And it doesn’t have to be four buttons or something like that. It’s pretty close to just a button.

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S3: That’s stage two, because first, it’s only about numbers. It’s like three head of cattle. But then imagine if we could say something like head cattle. But then we had something else like Vlady Table and you just say that. And pretty soon you have to say that quite a bit.

S2: Next thing you know, you’ve got these markers of what we think of as gender or noun classes. And so you end up going to somewhere like Papua New Guinea to see the next step, because we think of, for example, it’s not only on the noun, but, for example, a red hat is on Sombrero or Rockhole, but then a red house is or not Gotha or. Well, how do you get there? Well, first you get the marker and then after a while you start kind of stuttering it because you’re thinking of it as just marking something as part of a noun class rather than it being literal at all. So there’s a language called Nazeri language spoken by a small group of people in Papua New Guinea, utterly obscure. But one neat thing about Nacio is that they have about 200 of these genders. And of course, I think most of us would have a hard time conceiving of two hundred of what we call genders. And so really we’re talking about noun classes. But to speak it, you just have to know which one of these noun classes something fits into. But here you have that repeat marking. And so, for example, you can talk about three cats in Mandarin where you have Sanju Molle and you have to do well in Nacio if you’re going to say something like these three lakes inland.

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S3: Well, the way you say it is Lake three, this three and then this three inland. So if you’re talking about a lake, it’s Tona.

S6: If you’re talking about the three part, the word for three bay, if you’re talking about something being inland at Dong, OK, so the way that you would do that is you have to say in Tornero Bayo to be done.

S2: So you heard the room. That’s three times. That’s because the class, the noun class that the lake belongs to, you have to have it on everything that’s describing the lake as well. So you start with something like numeral classifiers that pretty transparently divide things up into what they’re like, how they differ from each other. Then after a while, it’s not just with numbers, it’s just kind of hanging on to it, kind of like some sort of epithet. And then after a while, those little epithets start spreading throughout the sentence. And suddenly you have like Goslar Blanka. It’s just one of those things. It’s time for the song. Q That doesn’t make any sense at all. And you know what it’s going to be because we’re talking about cats. I have a way of calling my Graisse in the way I do it is this. I go. Gracie always comes to that little whistled melody, and you know what that is, it’s the most random thing. I don’t know why I started using it. There’s a musical from 1955 called Ankles Away. It was as stupid as that title sounds. I’m not even going to bother to describe it, but it was just Velveeta cheese, but slightly gone bad. If it ever does. I hear it doesn’t. But, you know, something must happen to it. If it did and they made a musical that summoned the tone of Velveeta that’s gone bad, that was ankles away. And it was delightful in a way that means the collectors cherish it as something that’s just kind of good, bad. One of the good bad songs in it is there’s nothing that can replace a man. And that little thing that I whistle is just when one of the leads is singing this forgettable but catchy song. And she does a little dance at a certain point, a little cancan. And for some reason I thought that would be a way to call a cat cat. So here is that part of the song that we want to take the place.

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S7: A woman and I do take the leather leather bulbs that we play for some. But all throughout the world of science, no one found a new appliance. Can replace all that. Girls, I realize that most men are as sharp as arrows, but without those guys, we’re strictly for the worms and the sparrows filtered air, replacing ventilation, TV sets, replacing conversation. Mom has replaced the old cancan.

S5: But here’s a tip and you can bank it. There is no electric blanket that ever can replace. Oh, my.

S6: Mike played a little cancan again.

S2: See, that’s what that’s what that is. So this gives you a sense of how you get sombreros and cassettes and things like that. But the thing is, I’m talking about things that make a certain amount of sense. Tables are flat, you know, cats or animals. How does it get arbitrary? How does it become that thing that is so hard, for example, for an English speaker to wrap their mind around? And the truth is that you already see the beginnings of that with Asian languages like the ones that I’m talking about that have these classifiers because they’re not as tidy as I’m implying. They’re ones that don’t make sense already or they made sense culturally, you know, thousands of years ago. But now they don’t anymore. To an extent, you have to just learn which classifiers to use. And what this means is that even to be a speaker, these languages is not to see the things in question as lining up with what the classifiers happen to be. The classifiers, to an extent, are just random grammar that you take in as a toddler. And by the time you realize it doesn’t make sense, well, you’re grown up and you’re in therapy and you’re busy and so you can’t think about it. But for example, there have been psychological experiments done in Mandarin. You’ve got scissors, umbrellas and eels. It’s a language. And so, of course, you can refer to all of those things. Now, Mandarin uses the same classifier for scissors and umbrellas, but for example, it’s supposed to mean things. You can pick up and think about how general that is. There are all sorts of things you can pick up, i.e. most things that are not bar. You kind of have to know which things you can pick up is bar, but you can pick up some scissors, you can pick up some umbrellas. And so but then IEL is something different. It’s that style that we saw for Rivers’ that makes some sense. Rivers and eels are shaped kind of the same. But the thing is, if you ask Mandarin speakers, all right, here’s some scissors, here’s an umbrella and here’s an eel, which of them go together. They do not in any significant way tend to think that the scissors and the umbrella’s go together. They’re just as likely to group to others that don’t happen to have the same classifier. So they don’t feel it that way. And that’s not just something about being a speaker of Mandarin Chinese. A tie to tie has that same kind of structure. And talk about actually in the Thai experiment, it’s umbrella’s, eels and tables. And so for eels and tables, Tai used the same thing because, of course, eels and tables are so similar. See, what I mean by these things are even hard already. But then there’s another one for umbrella’s.

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S3: And so you ask people, well, what’s what’s the same? And, you know, big surprise. The typical Thai person does not say, well, eels and tables are kind of similar. And that’s because we say 2R for them and Khanh for umbrella’s. Really, they have all sorts of ways. They grouped them together. So what’s going on in the language is to a large extent, even in these languages where the gender makes a certain amount of sense, the grammar is somewhat independent from the way the people are thinking about the world they actually live in.

S2: It’s already, to an extent, the way that so much of culture just dangles along, like throwing rice at people at a wedding. To the extent that people still do it. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it done. But then I haven’t been to that many weddings. And so maybe it’s still common. But Uncle Ben’s and people are throwing that shit all over the ground. I’m sure there’s a history to it. But most people who are doing it aren’t thinking about that. Or, for example, I think it’s going to be this way until I die, except I’m not going to die. So until I don’t die. But I always am thinking on Saturday morning around 8:00 a.m. that what I’m supposed to be doing is laying on my stomach in front of a thirteen inch color television set, watching Saturday morning cartoons for four hours. That just lingers in me. And that’s not what I do now on Saturday morning. But there’s a part of me that always feels like whatever I’m doing is not watching Hong Kong. Phooey and the Bugs Bunny show on the floor. And that’s just always going to be in me because that was American kid culture in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And the reasons for that were rather arbitrary, you know, what was that? Why Saturday morning? Why those particular times? How did that happen? That is a lot of how culture works. And so you end up with the sort of dumdum aspect, even in the languages where it makes a certain amount of sense because it only makes so much sense. And what people are thinking and living is different from what people are saying. So it’s starting not to make sense at the stage that you see in, for example, the Chinese language. Oh, and by the way, you know, I’ve gotten confident enough about my Mandarin that I just read it off knowing that I sound like a child and probably a very strange child. But I’m comprehensible. I’m never going to feel that way about Cantonese. And what I was just doing was speaking according to a recording of. To me by my student, Vanessa Ho, thank you very much, Vanessa, for putting up with my wanting to know how to say such mundane things. In any case, we can go further with, for example, a language in Australia called gyroball, and you could use any number of Australian languages, but this one happens to have been really studied. The question is, how do you get to Hatt says boys and houses as girls and that being most of it, where really it’s just all the way gone with these Asian languages, you have to dig a little bit to find what doesn’t make sense.

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S3: But these European gender systems, goodness gracious. Well, you can’t see it happening on paper, but you can look at gyroball and you can see how this sort of thing would have happened. And so, for example, in this language, nominally, they’ve got a noun class system that makes sense. And so you’ve got one class that is men and then animals. Then you’ve got another class that’s women and then animals that are associated for one reason or another with femininity often, you know, for folkloristic or cultural reasons and interestingly, fire and fighting. So men, animals, but then women and then, you know, Bambi’s mother or something like that, and then fire and fighting. And that might feel counterintuitive, but it also makes perfect sense if you know the whole cosmological system of the people. And then you’ve got another group that is trees with fruit, which of course is important. If you’re living on the land, then you’ve got another group that’s everything else. So guys, women, trees with fruit, everything else. Now you can look at that and you can think what an interesting cosmological system reflected in the language. But the truth is, if you look more closely, you see that it’s not that easy. There’s an awful lot that you really just kind of have to know. And that’s partly because people can’t help noticing patterns and their aspects of how the word sound that can be confusing. And over the years, people make, quote unquote, mistakes that end up just sticking and becoming what the grammar of the language is. And so, for example, there’s a word for crayfish. It’s Ghara, Ghara that should be in that men class because that’s where most animals are. And the folklore doesn’t have crayfish as being associated with women for any particular reason. And so that should be in class one with the men. But it’s in class, too. It’s in the women class not because crayfish are considered girlish in some way, but because the word is yegorova and the word for woman is ybe. So there’s a natural sense that, well, if it begins with YEAY, it’s going to be with this group of women. We’re not only because of womanist but because of Yoenis. And so yeah. So it moved over there and there are some other words that did that or talk about these little things that taste good shrimp. Mahwah Mahwah is in two, but a shrimp is an animal. And again, shrimp aren’t thought to be feminine in the cosmology. But still, Mahwah is in the girl class and it shouldn’t be it should be in the male class with just animals in general. But it ends up being in the woman class because as it happens, a lot of words in the woman class happened to begin with. Ma, just by chance. It’s just this chance configuration. But if you’re speaking the language, you might think that Ye is feminine because of ybe meaning woman and you might think that ma means something as feminine because so many of the words in that class begin with Ma. So next thing you know, you have these relocations. And so what this means is that one thing after another happens like that where it starts as something that makes sense in the cosmology, but then the sounds pattern in ways that make people mess it up bit by bit by bit. And next thing you know, you have a system where what happened with gyroball is that it looks at first once you get beyond the men and the women, like just quite random, you can work hard to find what the pattern is. But knowing that there are so many exceptions that you can’t help feeling like you didn’t do the whole job. I’m putting myself in the mind of people who’ve studied this before. I was not one of them, but you can make more sense of it by reconstructing that sounds kind of screwed it all up. My friend Marcia Polunsky, along with Keith Plaster, I think he was actually the lead author of the article, but they’re the ones who worked out that sound. And some other things have a lot to do with why gyroball makes a certain amount of sense, but fundamentally is just messy. So with that kind of thing, you fast forward several thousands of years and you’ve got the male rats and the female moons. And nothing makes any sense because now it’s been as much about sound patterns as about whatever cosmology Proteau Indo-European speakers had that made them divide things up into these classes. And, you know, the truth is probably even at that point, it was arbitrary. These things making sense may have been much further back. It may have been ten thousand, twelve thousand. Some people running around somewhere in Siberia, possibly, or maybe it was down in India. We can’t take it that far back. Yet, but still, these things hold on. As I said quite recently, languages do not naturally just chuck off things that are complicated and simplify for no reason. And there’s no more eloquent testament to that than the fact that, for example, a German or Russian today have this meaningless gender and it’s being passed on to children as we speak. Suffering little babies are learning this as we speak. And it’s certainly been in existence for possibly tens of thousands of years, kind of like a song from 1982 by Fonderie that I remember well that I still have on a cassette because my friends and I liked it. I don’t know what happened to Fonderie. I don’t know what happened to the song. It was called Over Like a Fat Rat. It’s a rather unclassifiable late 70s, early 80s R and B song. It’s specifically 82, but it’s just, it’s quere. It’s catchy, it’s beautifully arranged. It now sounds very dated. But you know, many things that sound very dated, unlike ankles away, are still good. This is a little bit of over like a fat rat.

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S8: Relationships should be. T you. Visiting about Haversack will come back.

S9: SMAP.

S6: So now you know how you can get from some kind of intuitive classification of the things around you into classes, into something as arbitrary as male spoons and female forks and neuter knives. How does the language get that way? Well, it’s gradual because language has a way of just crawling into little places. It doesn’t need to go people making analogies that they didn’t need to make. And next thing you know, you have a mess which is somehow learnable. You wouldn’t think that babies and toddlers can pick things like that up. But actually, it’s adults who can’t. The plasticity of the human brain at a young age is amazing. And when it comes to these noun classes, there are cases in the world where it really does stump you that even the most plastic of this thing we call a brain could possibly allow a whole community of people to be doing something the same way, which from the outside looks so maddeningly random. So to give you a sense of how noun classes can go in languages that have really been left alone. My favorite example is nowhere near as a language spoken in Sudan. It’s ways of dividing nouns into classes ends up seeming like it just makes no sense at all. It almost seems like you have to just know how to do it with each noun by itself. It’s really frightening and marvelous stuff. So what I mean is this, first of all, in good old new air, when you have a noun you can have it and its vanilla way. And so you’re going to say something like book. Then you have it in its possessive way, genitive way. So we would say books like the books cover so the possessive, but then you have something that’s roughly on the book or at the book. So you have the vanilla, then there’s the possessive and then there’s that, then you can do both of those things in the plural and so books and then the books, titles. And then let’s go to the books if you wanted to say something like that. So you have those sorts of things. So already this is feeling kind of like in Latini territory. This is the new er language of Sudan. But here’s the thing, how you distinguish this vanilla and then plural and then the possessive from this locative, this one that’s about in and at how you distinguish all those things just varies randomly from word word. So let’s take the word for rank. The word for rank is gatot, not GALGUT, but got hot. OK, that’s vanilla. Just rank. Now, if you want to say your rank significance, then you have to put this ending on and the ending is call and notice. I didn’t say ca I said you have to make it breathy. There’s a difference in anywhere between R and R and it can make the difference between words meanings. It’s really neat in any case, the way that you would say rank just vanilla’s gatot, the way you would say your rank significance and you say ranks would be Gatot CA but actually there’s another little change. It isn’t gatot, it’s got Talke. And so that all becomes breathy in that way, too. Now, if you want to say on your rank, you stop relying on your rank or something like that, then it’s the same thing. It’s got Talke, OK, but if you want to say ranks, if you want to make it a vanilla plural, then you go from gatot to God. Tortoni notice the vowels get longer. So Gatot then ga tortoni so it changes from all to you and it gets long. Then you have this little suffix ni so ga tortoni. And if you want to say of the ranks then it’s ga tortoni. If you want to say on the ranks ga tortoni. That’s kind of the normal way where if you’re going to make it possessive or if you’re going to make it about being on or at something, you add this cop, but then there’s some other little mess up that happens in the word. And then if you want the plural things, then there’s some other little change and you stick ni on the end. OK, now that’s bad enough. Bad. Is it complicated for anybody who learned this language as a second one, which luckily not many people do, but that’s how Raquin now bump is different. So the word for Bump is wrong. So that’s a breathy oh wrong like that. Now what do you do for the possessive and then the locative. You say don’t run, but this time it’s a long car. So it’s not just cop, it’s cop. Ron cop. Don’t hop now then in the plural you don’t have the same thing as with rank in rank to have a vanilla plural. You stuck a knee on it and things changed. Well with Bumpe things change in a different way itself. So from wrong you go wrong and so the breathy vowel gets longer. The difference between bump and bumps, between bump in the road and bumps on your head is wrong and wrong. And then you don’t have the knee at the end, not if it’s a vanilla PL., but you do use it if it’s the possessive or that on or at plural. So you just have the knees there. So that’s different. You might think, well, OK, we’ll call the first one feminine or because this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with biological gender, we’ll say that rank is sort of your noun class one. But no, because here’s potatoe the word for potato is tot’s. OK, so just touch. Now if you want to say the potatoes bump’s well, potatoes is touch. OK, now what about on the potato? Is that going to be cut. No, it’s just. Nobody knows why. Nobody cares. And then in the plural, you really do just stick the neon totani and then it’s the same thing for the possessive plural and the locative plural. That’s the way potato goes. So that must be class three. I could go on and on and on. You never know what the language is going to do in terms of how it handles a particular word. And if you’re going to divide the words into classes, what you get is 25 or more. And it has nothing to do with meaning. It’s not about whether things around, it’s not about whether things are long, whether things are human or anything like that. It’s just that each noun patterns that way differently. Those are noun classes. And to speak Nguiu is to know how to handle all twenty five plus of these noun classes, to know what every single noun belongs to. There are some patterns, there are some rules of thumb. Matthew Berman and some other people have worked out how human beings could actually handle something like this, all doing it the same way in communities over many, many generations. But you’ve got to work it out. You’ve got to do statistical analysis to make sense of it. This, ladies and gentlemen, depending on what you want to call it, is gender. And so you have all these things. They’re different for no real reason. It’s not about men and women. You can call it gender, but really it’s just noun classes. And this is the same challenge that you have when you’re dealing with, say, battle for boat is male in French, while female is loon for loon. You just kind of have to know and after a while you get used to it. But imagine if you were dealing with twenty five differences. New air is like that and it is not alone. So there is your answer as to why there is this meaningless gender, these meaningless noun classes in European languages. For example, in new air. It started with something that was much simpler. It was basically about how you mark something is plural, but very gradually, step by step, it went a little crazy and it went crazy in different ways, depending on how words sounded. And next thing you knew, you had all these different classes. And what this means is that you can see from new air how much worse it can get than in French and German and in Russian. And you can see that English not having this makes it niggard. English is a naked Indo-European language. It’s holding a fig leaf over its parts. Meaningless gender is normal. In fact, meaningless gender is what languages do, because as long as toddlers can learn it, the language will go there and it will stay there unless otherwise informed. So it’s less why a language has meaningless gender than why it doesn’t have it. If you approach a language you don’t know, you should expect that either you have to deal with dumdum gender of some kind, although it’s going to come as numeral classifiers or noun classes or the like, or it’s going to mess you up with the tone or it’s going to have both. If a language spares you both grammatical gender of some kind and tone, then usually it got that way by accident. So that’s my lesson for you all for today. And, you know, I’m going to go out on a Steely Dan song, and it isn’t it’s technically Donald Fagan. This is from his wonderful, wonderful, wonderful album, The Night Fly. But, you know, it sounds like Steely Dan, this is early eighties. This is me in college. And I thought this was so clean and so smart. You know, it still is. I highly recommend, as I think I did when I first played this on the show back in 1968, the video was very cute. It was animated. And just listen to what it would have been like or what it could have been like if you actually wound up in one of those bunkers underground. That’s actually not the happiest thought. But anyway, here it is. Just the good God that my daddy. In case the rest of the. And you can reach us at Lexicon Valley at Slate dot com. That’s Lexicon Valley at Slate dot com to listen to past shows and subscribe or just to reach out, go to Slate dotcom slash Lexicon Valley. Mike Volo is, as always, the editor. And I am John McWhorter. She’s got in touch with. She’s got 12. So while we’re talking about how English used to be more like what it really is, how English used to be more like normal languages, I wanted to add something that I always think about. I had a friend who used to compare somebody to an ox.

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S3: She would always say, however, to an accent, Oh, my God, that accent very well-educated, very literate person. But she would always use oxen in the singular, and it made perfect sense to me. For the record, she was referring to herself. She was always calling herself an oxen. But the reason that she was doing that was because in English we basically form plurals in one way, except for a certain handful. And then some have words like goose and geese. And so it’s easy to think that maybe there is a such thing as an oxen as opposed to an ox. Given that, you know, how many of us living in, you know, Western Urban First World, whatever you want to call it, meat, many oxes anyway, so that oxen and I remember listening to her and just thinking it reminds me of how much more interesting it used to be to form the plural in English, because you’ve got a few weird things, usually things that nobody deals with anymore, like ox oxen or goose geese.

S1: We know that. But how often do you encounter geese or even eat them something if you’re listening to this? You know, probably not geese or something you see from a distance. They’re interesting mouse mice. There’s one of those little slice, but it’s skittering around on the edges of existence. But that sort of thing used to not be just some random irregularity. English used to have a lot of those. That was the heart of English. One of my favorites is Cow Kind. If you had more than one cow, you had kind, not cows. That would have sounded very crude to an old English speaker if you had a goat. Well, the plural of goat was get so bunch of get over there, not goats. Why would you do that then? My favorite is that there were ones that were precursors of what we now only have as child children. So child children that Rin used to be hrough. If you had a lamb, if there was more than one, there usually are lambrew. It’s as if they were saying, lamebrain, he had a calf. Katharyn It was it was calf roo basically. So you had that sort of thing. And then today we know that there are certain animal words where the plural doesn’t change. So you don’t say a bunch of sheeps. You could everybody would know what you meant, but little it’s sheep. And so three sheep for sheep or deer. I remember listening to a person of Japanese descent of birth whose English was wonderful. One of the few mistakes I ever heard her make was that she said, well, there were deers and but yeah, that’s annoying. Why is it that deer has no plural? Those go back to old English because an old English plural was complicated also in that some words for no thing that we would call a reason just didn’t change sheep back then it was Shapp. See, I’m only going to use that joke once this time. Sheep just was sheep in the plural, and that was true of deer. So here we are also swine. The reason that you say force, why not for swines is because that’s how swine worked. But there were other ones even like that. So, for example, if you had a horse, you had a horse. If you saw four horses frolicking over in the yard, what was four horse? It’s no such thing as horses. And it wasn’t horse hearse or something like that. It was just horse. And then over there, well, there are a whole bunch of horse and there you go. It was a more fun language in many ways. And it wasn’t only animals. And so, for example, OK, back then, like the tree was OK, but the plural of OK was ach. And so you just had to know these sorts of things, just like the plural of goat was gat. And some of you were thinking, oh wait a minute, ok, ach that’s going to be ACORN. Right. But no, actually it’s a false likeness. ACORN originally comes from what we know is a.. It was about things that were spread around in a field. It was all these a.. Thingy’s except when you could have n as a plural such as oxen. Well you had all these acorn and so that’s what acorns were. But then, as you know, you listen to this over the years, you might make a mistake. So just like people who are speaking gyroball might change the noun class of something because of the way it sounds. Some first two sounds that it has on it like ye or Ma. Well, if you’re listening to something like ACORN, you might think that it’s like ACORN because ACORN seem kind of like ACORN. Don’t you want to eat them? I do. You think corn is good and you see an acorn, you want to bite it and if you do, you find that it’s this bitter, hideous thing. How to squirrels possibly tolerate it, but it looks like corn. And so people thought that it was not an actor. But an acorn and next thing you knew, you had our acorns. That’s exactly how you get messed up gender in gyroball. That’s exactly how you get messed up gender enti. That’s exactly how you get mess in any language. And so ACORN like stuff that spread out over the field, well, that becomes an acorn because it looks kind of like ACORN. Anyway, this was supposed to be about crazy plurals, which I love sharing, and I think I just shared them. So there is your Slate plus segment for today.