Thursday, October 31, 2013

Let's Talk About Animals or Why Genders in Languages are Bad

My native language is Hungarian. It is one of those languages which are hard to pronounce but have an easy grammar. One of the particularities of the Hungarian language is the lack of genders.

However, I live in Romania. Romanian is one of the Latin languages like Italian, Spanish, French, etc. All these languages have something particular in common, the excessive use of genders.

Now, I am writing in English here, a language that found a quite unique and logical balance for use of genders. When you talk about a female person you use the female gender, when you talk about a man you use the male gender, for everything else (objects, animals, etc) there is a "neutral" gender.

English uses genders quite restrictively. There are no different versions of adjectives, substantives or verbs based on gender. So when you say "My dog is tired." it doesn't matter if it's a female dog or a male. If you say "My husband is tired."  you will use the word "tired" in the same way, regardless of the gender of the subject.

In Romanian, and most Latin languages, the problems are much worse ... so let's see how one has to reason when thinking about "My dog is tired.".
  1. First, one has to think if the gender of the dog can be determined or if it matters. If it does, the appropriate word for female/male dog will be used. The adjective "tired" will be also used in the appropriate form: "obosita" for female or "obosit" for male. 
  2. If the gender of the dog can not be determined, or it is not important in the context of the sentence, the "default gender for the animal dog" has to be used. The default gender for dog is male. But there is no rule for this like in English. It is just random and you have to remember it. Dogs are by default males, cats females, horses males again, chickens female, eagles male ... there is no rule. And some are actually neutral, yes there is a neutral gender also.
  3. However, determining the default gender and using the subject in the default gender also depends on the context. If you want to refer to a female dog attending it's puppies, you have to use the female substantive for dog "catea" instead of the male one "caine" and adjust you adjectives accordingly.
  4. To complicate things even further, if the number of substantives rises, for example we have "Two dogs are tired" we have to change our adjective for "tired" again, so that the plural and gender adjusted versions are used. Yes, each adjective has four versions just to accommodate this complexity.
I think my colleagues can understand why I sometimes can not make the proper connections in everyday speech. In Hungarian you have no genders. End of rent.

PS: In Romanian even objects have genders ... randomly assigned.