Gender in Language

The Curious Case of Gender in Language

As a team of professional translators that spend our lives immersed in languages, all too often we simply accept the rules of the languages we use without taking the time to question why. On a recent trip to Bordeaux – yes, it was wonderful, thank you – I was reminded of a question that often plagues early language learners, but is simply accepted later on…

Why, oh why would you complicate a language by giving every noun a gender?

For an English speaker, grammatical gender is one of the most bamboozling aspects of learning a new language, partly because it is often done in such arbitrary ways. For example, why in French is a window (une fenêtre) female, while a reading book (un livre) is male? And why would anyone introduce an added difficulty into a language that for all intents and purposes, doesn’t need to be there?

In this instalment of the Linguistica International blog, we’re going to see if we can unravel a few of the mysteries surrounding gender in language.

Grammatical gender for the categorisation of nouns

Every language assigns gender for animals, people or characters, but there are also many languages that use gender as a way of categorising nouns. This gender does not necessarily have to match up with the natural gender of the person or object being described.

Languages have many different ways of assigning gender. Some will be based on the physical characteristics of an object, while others are assigned according to cultural or even mythological views. Some languages base a noun’s gender on the ending of a word, as is the case in Spanish – but the real question, which actually proves very difficult to answer, is why?

Why assign a gender?

Grammatical gender is part of a broader phenomenon of noun classes which exist in many of the world’s languages. In fact, as an interesting aside, even the English language used to classify its nouns by gender, although English speakers stopped this practice during the Middle English period.

Noun classes have the role of dividing nouns into groups which often have different rules that apply to related pronouns, verbs, adjectives and even prepositions. In some languages, nouns are split between animate and inanimate objects, while others classify their nouns by size. Now that actually sounds like it makes pretty good sense, but to plunge you back into confusion, some classes of nouns can also be completely arbitrary, with nothing to connect them at all.

So why do arbitrary noun classes exist?

The answer is that even the very best linguistic brains don’t actually know. A lot of these noun class and gender classifications date back to a time before historical records began. As time has gone by, languages have changed, split off into multiple languages and evolved. So, what probably at one time began as a motivated distinction, for example, splitting nouns into animate and inanimate objects, went through changes that completely removed the original purpose of the distinction.

The result is lots of complicated vocabulary which is absolutely no benefit to those learning to speak and write the language!

Want to know more?

Then get in touch with the Linguistica International team. We will happily regale you with more linguistic tales while discussing your latest translation, transcreation or copywriting project.

Every 14 Days we Lose a Language

Every 14 Days we Lose a Language – These are the Most Endangered

We’re a linguistically eclectic bunch here in the UK, with 17 native languages and more than 300 different languages spoken by people from all over the world. However, the sad fact is that every 14 days, another language falls silent forever.

Such is the pace of the linguistic cull that experts warn 50-90 percent of all the world’s languages could disappear by the next century. Many of these will be languages spoken in the developing world, but there are also some critically endangered languages across Europe and in the UK.

So, before we lose them forever, let’s celebrate some of the critically endangered languages that could be lost in the coming years. And, what better place to start than here in the UK…

1. Cornish

Cornish is not just the English language spoken with a thick accent while wearing a flat cap. Cornish is a Celtic language that had 39,000 speakers back in the 13th century. Since then, Cornish has gone through some tough times and was actually declared extinct in the 19th century. Thakfully, the language is now officially back from the dead after scholars began a successful effort to revive it. In 2010, UNESCO reclassified the language from ‘extinct’ to ‘critically endangered’. There are now some 3,500 Cornish speakers and it is even taught in some schools.

It doesn’t get much more Cornish than this…

 2. Manx

Languages don’t come much more critically endangered than Manx. Manx, the Celtic language of the Isle of Man, currently has only around 100 speakers, and although the last native Manx speaker died in 1974, an impassioned revival effort has helped to keep it alive. That didn’t stop UNESCO declaring it ‘extinct’ in 2009, only to amend their classification to ‘critically endangered’ more recently, but it is still teetering on the brink.

 3. Cappadocian Greek

The language of Cappadocian Greek is a Greek-Turkish hybrid that evolved in the time of the Byzantine Empire. Like the rest of the Byzantine Empire, the people of Cappadocia spoke Medieval Greek. However, in 1071, a lost battle meant the area around Cappadocia was taken over by Turkish speakers. Cappadocia was subsequently separated from the rest of the Greek-speaking world, and their language became heavily influenced by the influx of Turks.

Scholars thought the language had died out in the 1960s, but researchers from Ghent University recently found a small pocket of some 2,800 still speaking Cappadocian Greek.

Here’s a little history lesson…

4. Wymysorys

Wymysorys is a little-known Germanic language remarkably only spoken in the small town of Wilamowice, in Poland. The town was founded by settlers from Flanders, Friesland, Holland and Scotland in the 1300s. The Wymysorys language evolved and continued to be spoken by the descendants of the original settlers. After WWII, communist authorities tried to wipe out the Germanic language, which is partly why there are estimated to be just 70-100 native speakers today.

5. Gottscheerish

This critically endangered language was spoken by German-speaking settlers who migrated to what is now a part of Slovenia in the 1300s. Gottscheerish is closely related to a number of other Bavarian dialects but makes no sense to modern Germans. In an interesting quirk of fate, most of the remaining Gottscheerish speakers now live in the cultural melting pot that is Queens, New York, but their exact number is unknown.

We speak your language

If you want your website or technical documentation translated into Cappadocian Greek, you’ll probably have to look elsewhere. What we do offer is quality translation, transcreation and copywriting services in more than 200 languages from around the world. To discuss your project, please get in touch with our team.