inventrix: (Default)
[personal profile] inventrix posting in [community profile] noviceconlangers
I have been watching all of your grammatical gender discussions (with the sort of objective fascination of one who has opted to use absolutely no grammatical genders at all) and there's a trend I've noticed which I thought would be interesting to expound upon.

To put it succinctly: noun classes as gender.

It is an interesting and appealing idea, to be sure, especially to those who have a fondness for logical organization (such as my self). What better way to emphasize and remember all the culturally-significant primary qualities of objects than to embed it into the words themselves?

However! Look for a moment at our European languages, with their simple masculine/feminine/sometimes also neuter genders. These are culturally-significant qualities, certainly, qualities which are held by the most important ingredients of a culture: the people. And then, look at all of the vast, vast number of nouns which refer to things that have no inherent masculine/feminine characteristics whatsoever - but which have a relatively arbitrary masculine or feminine grammatical gender.

That's all well and good, nothing special etc. Except there is, in fact, an extremely significant effect from this possibly-arbitrary assignation of grammatical genders to ungendered things.


Let's say you have an ungendered thing, but the noun for it has feminine gender. Native speakers of that language will unconsciously tend to view the attributes of that thing in a feminine way, according to whatever their culture's feminine stereotypes are. For example: elegance, grace, delicacy, moodiness, irrationality, beauty. If the language had a masculine gender for the noun, however, it would be influenced by masculine stereotypes: e.g. power, aggression, focus, strength.

Now, looking at a conlang example: Lyn's tentative genders of useful/unuseful. (I am actually enormously fond of the idea, for reasons that will most likely be elucidated below.) You begin, much like masculine/feminine, with a highly significant cultural division of that culture's people. Somewhat unlike masculine/feminine, the useful/unuseful division does apply to a larger subset of things that are not people. But not everything.

Let us begin with the arbitrarily chosen noun of thought. Thoughts are not, in a definite way, inherently useful or useless. So the gender choice would be seemingly arbitrary, would it not? Aha! And this is where it begins to get interesting. The choice of useful or unuseful gender for the word thought will be intimately and inextricably linked to its connotations. If you choose useful, the characteristics of thought will be cast in the cultural assumptions and stereotypes of a useful thing. If, alternatively, you choose unuseful, you will have quite the opposite effect.

For a noun like thought, this decision could theoretically shape your entire culture's view of, for example, academics. Is it seen as a valuable way to spend your time, or does engaging in academic research class you as a waste of resources?

ETA: I feel it behooves me to add at this point that, from a conlang standpoint, it can be just as or more effective to determine the genders of your nouns based on your pre-conceived culture, as opposed to vice-versa.

In short, there is a plethora of fascinating linguistic effects of limiting one's genders in ways that are not, specifically, the same as one's noun classes.

pet peeved tangent

Date: 2011-11-30 07:11 pm (UTC)
anke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] anke
There is such a thing as overstating the language-thought link... Or maybe I'm just biased because the first time I heard about the idea, someone basically said all Germans must be arseholes, because German had the word "Schadenfreude", but borrowed "fair play" from English. :P

Date: 2011-11-30 07:48 pm (UTC)
anke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] anke
Nope, that's why I said it was a tangent.

The rational vs non-rational thing I have in mind to maybe use seems to be easier on the deciding noun class for things that are not people - lump them all into non-rational - but there are some things to consider, in particular how closely it overlaps with the idea of personhood.


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