On language genders

The African language Supyire from Mali has five genders: humans, big things, small things, collectives, and liquids. Bantu languages such as Swahili have up to ten genders, and the Australian language Ngan’gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders, which include, among others, masculine human, feminine human, canines, non-canine animals, vegetables, drinks, and two different genders for spears (depending on size and material).

Deutscher, Guy (2010-08-31). Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (Kindle Locations 3231-3234). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.
Man, I love how weird languages are. (Also: English is pretty weird, at least as far as the 2600+ languages in the database studied in that link go! Ranks at #33 weirdest language in their data set, where "weirdest" means "most unusual features, comparatively," and gendered languages are not all that weird, really. SO I'M THE WEIRD ONE, NOT THE LANGUAGES IN THE QUOTE.)

Anyway, I'm a bit over halfway through the book quoted above, and enjoying it. I don't think people with a lot of knowledge about linguistics will find anything they didn't know in it; it's aimed a bit more at people with a passing interest in languages, but who aren't familiar with much of the major thought in the field. He spends quite a lot of time explaining now-discredited theories about how language shaped thinking and showing how those theories don't hold up to the evidence before starting into ways that it does shape thought and human experience. For example: languages in which directions are given geographically--as when you're describing two objects on a table in relation to each other, do you say "The pen is next to/to the right of the Post-Its," or do you say "The pen is west of the Post-Its"? People who grow up speaking geographic languages have a sort of perfect pitch for directions that those of us who grew up with other languages don't, and it seems pretty sure that because of the way the language forces you to specify those directions, your behavior and thinking adapt to it.

Anyway, that's as far as I've gotten right now. So far so good, and I loved the genders in the languages above. (And he finally explained to my satisfaction why we use "gender" -- it's an older meaning of the term, referring to categories and types in general. Referring to biological or social sex is a meaning that came later.)

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Tags: book, language neepery
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