Linked by Thom Holwerda on Tue 27th Oct 2009 00:37 UTC
Features, Office In the comments on our editorial about language purism and the Psystar case, it became quite clear that language is a subject almost everyone has an opinion on - not odd if you consider that language is at the very centre of what makes us "human". Since this appears to be a popular subject, let's talk about the influence computing has had on two very minor aspects of the Dutch language.
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RE[3]: Comment by kaiwai
by Boomer on Tue 27th Oct 2009 06:17 UTC in reply to "RE[2]: Comment by kaiwai"
Boomer
Member since:
2009-10-27

As an undergrad in linguistics, maybe I can help.

People have the notion of gender in language backwards. It isn't that there are languages that actually consider a table to be a female and spoons a male, it's that there are two different noun classes in which Indo-European languages (ie, likely most, if not all, of the languages you have heard of) places biological sex. However, noun classes don't always correlate to biological gender. Some languages have noun classes for animate and inanimate objects - in these, men and women would both be treated similarly. Other languages make distinctions based not only on animacy, but shape or even function. Luganda of Uganda is a language that has not just two or three noun classes, but 17!

As to why some languages have gender and others, like English or American Sign Language don't, that's a much more complicated question. It may be an issue of history, where the language used to say something like "two head of cattle" instead of "two cows", and over time that first form shortened into a single lexical item with a morphological identity referring to animate objects. It may also be an issue of how the human mind works. Chomsky had proposed a system in the mind that is composed switches. When one feature of a language is turned on, like gender or zero anaphora, other features are then turned on or off.

I could go on, but the point is that it's not a matter of a good idea or a bad idea. Languages don't have feature sets like an operating system does, they have much more subtle features of expression that convey more information per sentence than we give ourselves credit for. Grammar is never invented, it just happens.

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