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Why have case endings and gender endured in language?
October 23, 2012 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Case endings and gender in language: why?

I'm curious as to why so many languages employ what seem to be difficult grammatical structures, and I'm thinking particularly of case endings and also genders.

Historically, how did they develop? Is language easier without them?

I am sure 'difficult' is a relative concept, and growing up around a language you wouldn't find these endings or genders strange, but as an English speaker who doesn't have to deal much with these grammatical phenomena (other than the odd 'her' for a ship, and a 'whom' now and again), I find it odd that more langugages haven't dropped this grammatical baggage.

Take German: German has retained gender and case. However, the gender only seems to affect the articles and demonstrative pronouns (this, these - I might be wrong on the nomenclature!), whereas the noun themselves remain unmodified unlike as in Latin or Russian.

Why is it in English and other languages (Dutch, Scandanvian languages other than Finnish) did away with the case endings (although those other languages mentioned maintain a gender system).

Is there any evidence that these grammatical forms are weakening at all, or are they too ingrained within the structure?

Also, how do new words coming into a language get assigned a gender?

I must say, having to learn three genders AND cases puts me off learning a language. I don't know how people ever overcome this hurdle!
posted by stenoboy to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
 
As far as I know, no spoken language is difficult for native speakers to learn, so it doesn't seem there are intrinsic incentives to simplify language (but not true for writing systems - cases in point are what was done in Vietnam, Mainland China, Indonesia, etc.). As a second language, some languages are certainly harder to learn than others. Assuming your mother tongue is English, guess what, it's very hard to learn (Google "why is English hard to learn" and you'll see the many reasons why), and I'm sure many people who are learning English ask these same types of "why" questions that you are asking about other languages.
posted by Dansaman at 3:12 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


IMO, learning gender perfectly isn't THAT important. If you just kind of ignore it and fake your way through it, people will generally understand you, though it can sometimes lead to some hilarious misunderstandings. You eventually pick it up as you practice and read and listen to the language. Don't let it intimidate you too much.

As for where it came from, I'm not sure I can do better than the wiki article.
posted by empath at 3:16 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, difficulty is very much in the eye of the learner (and what the learner has been trained to recognize/expect). As for the utility of complex morphology (e.g., case/number/gender endings), one thing it does is free up sentence structure; languages with simpler morphology (e.g., English and even more so Chinese) have pretty rigid word order, whereas in (say) Latin or Greek you can string words together pretty freely and have the meaning come through unimpaired.

Also, bear in mind historical development goes both ways: morphologically complex languages get simplified and vice versa. One of the few universal facts about language is that it's always changing.
posted by languagehat at 3:18 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


Despite being a linguistics student, I don't have that much to offer. (Just beginning my program, and also, not into the historical aspect of linguistics.)

English is a pidgin language, so most of its grammar is greatly simplified. But in fact, we still have case (e.g. "I", "my", "me") though most nouns don't change forms. (However, we do have implicit grammar rules about which case goes where since some words--notably pronouns--have cases.) In addition, one of the cases is possessive, which for English, is mostly just adding 's or '. Yes, German has many more cases, but you should not be put off by that since it is actually only 2 or 3 more cases than in English.

Are plurals weakening in English? I would say not. However, many Asian languages do not differentiate between plural and singular. (And Russian differentiates between 1, 2-4, and "many".) So my guess would be that it's quite well ingrained.

(An even more radical difference between English and Mandarin Chinese, for example, is that Mandarin does not have verb tenses. Time information is either stated explicitly or gotten through context, or unnecessary. I most certainly do not see tenses going away in English.)

We DO have gender in English, though people usually ignore it or it's intuitive. Actor/actress. Blond/blonde. Fiance/Fiancee (I'm missing accents on those). I learned English as a second language, and still don't know why ships are feminine. They just are. If you're learning a foreign language, it's helpful to just consider gender part of the thing you have to memorize, like pronunciation. And in fact, when I was studying French, we memorized nouns with le, l', or la attached.

Lastly, you can always fudge it when learning a foreign language. If all else fails, find a language that's traditionally easy for native English speakers to learn (Korean is one that I know of) if your purpose is to just study a foreign language, any foreign language.
posted by ethidda at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a much-studied topic; the term you want to google for is "grammatical gender".

This link is particularly instructive (though dense and esoteric): The Origin of Grammatical Gender.
posted by wutangclan at 3:22 PM on October 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I find it odd that more langugages haven't dropped this grammatical baggage.

Languages don't really 'drop' things organically. Dansamen's examples of changes in writing systems (and related things like spelling reform) act in a different sphere to the spoken language, and are generally done with substantial political intervention. Instead, they get ground away at the edges.

In very rough terms, the existence of cases implies a set of roles (subject, object, agent, etc.) significant enough to be perceived as distinctive and require linguistic distinction.
posted by holgate at 3:40 PM on October 23, 2012


Language is incredibly redundant by design. This is so we don't lose the signal (the message) amongst all the possible noise. Take the simple sentence "She is a girl." The number (singular or plural) is encoded in the subject, object and the verb. There is a singular article as well. Gender is also represented more than once here (although not in the article or the verb). The sytax is redundant, as is the semantics. Essentially, you can lose out on important parts of this sentence (due to ambient noise, bad ears, faulty connection, inattention, danger, whatever) and still get the message.

Languages are always balancing this need for complexity with the need for simplicity. They all have different ways or mechanisms for doing this, none more objectively complicated than another. We know the one(s) we know, so those mechanisms seem like a given and new ones unnecessary. If you look hard enough, you'll find seeming crazymaking in your own native language too. Additionally, as one complexity levels out, another develops. The wilting case markings (morphology) and thriving preposition system (syntax) in English are good examples of such changes and tradeoffs.
posted by iamkimiam at 3:47 PM on October 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


A few areas where noun markers like gender and case markers are useful:

Gender can be contrastive (determining meaning) ex. le voile (sailing) vs. la voile (the veil).

Case is necessary to determine the relationships of nouns in a sentence in languages with less fixed word order than good ol' SVO English, allowing native speakers to be creative and express subtle differences and make emphasis with the help of its flexibility.
posted by gohabsgo at 3:51 PM on October 23, 2012


Regarding genders - George Lakoff has an interesting theory in the book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things that what we now understand as gendered nouns (for example "el cafe" in Spanish or "la lune" in French) originated as a way to create mental categories to sort useful types of information via grammar and semantics. So you don't have to think about whether it's OK to eat this individual root or mess with that individual type of snake. The word tells you through its category.

I don't remember exactly how he gets from "useful category of stuff" to gender, but maybe it's in the book? I sense that this was something I used to know.

I don't know if this theory still carries any currency in linguistic circles, but I had a whole class lecture on it in my "Language of Sexuality and Gender" course circa 2003.
posted by Sara C. at 3:53 PM on October 23, 2012


They're forms of redundancy. Redundancy improves (or can improve) communication by reducing misinterpretation. "Did he say thisword or thatword? Well, it must have been thisword because he used a masculine article and thatword is feminine."

English did eliminate gender for the most part, but it includes other kinds of redundancy which perform the same function, and it is generally accepted to be about 1/3 efficient, with 2/3 being forms of redundancy. That's pretty typical among natural languages.

But that's the reason why you can shout to someone sitting on a running motercycle and he can understand you. Or why you can talk to another person in a loud bar and be understood. Language redundancy permits reasonably accurate communication in situations where there's a lot of noise impacting the communication channel.

If a language was much more efficient, with much less redundancy, it would be far more susceptible to misinterpretation.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 3:53 PM on October 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Sorry, the gender of voile in my previous post was actually backwards (le for veil, la for sailing).
posted by gohabsgo at 3:57 PM on October 23, 2012


Consider the grammatical baggage of English.

He is, you are, I am. Not all languages conjugate verbs based on first person, second person, singular, plural, etc. but English does.

If you go around saying he is, you is, I is, people will certainly understand what you mean. Objectively, the statement still contains the same amount of information. But people would think you're uneducated.

So are you going to put up with that, for the sake of some abstract principle of simplifying the language? I doubt it.

There was a time when the peasants spoke English, but the upper class spoke Norman French. This is speculation on my part, but perhaps a history like that explains why one language might drop a grammatical rule while another retains it.
posted by RobotHero at 4:10 PM on October 23, 2012


IMO, learning gender perfectly isn't THAT important. If you just kind of ignore it and fake your way through it, people will generally understand you, though it can sometimes lead to some hilarious misunderstandings.

Eh, I feel what you're saying, but, uh…

There's a Russian joke about people from Georgia, and like all of those jokes it's a little racist. Anyway, a Georgian guy goes to the lunch counter to order a coffee: "Адин кофе, пажалуста!" The (Russian-speaking) lunch counter lady compliments him on using the correct gender agreement with "coffee," which in Russian is neutral, but for obscure historical reasons is actually masculine. The Georgian says thank you and asks for a pastry with his coffee: "Адин кофе и адин булочка!"

What I'm trying to say is that the "flub your way through grammatical gender" thing is pretty overreported, especially so with regard to Russian. If you tried to fake grammatical gender in Russian, you'd be treated as an illiterate uncomprehending imbecile.

I don't know if "why are other languages so complicated?" is a well-posed question. All languages are extremely complicated. Even in those cases when a language has relatively few overt meaningful bits for decorating words ("inflectional morphemes"), it probably more than makes up for it with other, less obvious complications.

For example, English has a fairly complicated verb tense/aspect structure. Verb endings range across past/nonpast, perfective/imperfective, and simple/continuous axes, with lots of circumlocutory constructions that subtly modify the semantics. For example, "I had the car washed" strongly implies that I did not wash the car.

And even in the specific case of grammatical gender, just because native speakers are in disagreement about the specific gender class of a noun doesn't mean that speakers of that language "don't know" what gender it is. What's probably the case is that that particular word is in free variation that may be influenced by things like the speaker's age, gender, social standing, and so on. It is, in fact, more complicated, not simpler. "Ain't" may stand in for "am/is/are," but its sociolinguistic profile is pretty complicated.

Or think of words like "sneaked" and "snuck." Some English-speakers have strong feelings about one versus the other, others don't. The reasons are subtle and complex. But that's no evidence that "sneak" doesn't have a past-tense form. Each form shows up in particular geographical or social contexts. And certainly, no one accepts "snick" or "snook" as a legitimate form.

But why are languages in general so complicated? I'm sure there's work in formal language theory or computer science or something exploring subtle systemic advantages of language complexity in terms of communication efficiency or information density or whatever. My hunch comes down to two things.

First, rich inflection is one way to increase redundancy. You may not have heard the whole word, but you did hear the feminine ending, so you know that you're looking for a feminine noun that fits in the context of a given utterance. If you have noun case in your language, you also know what grammatical function that word is performing, which gives you more clues as to the identity of what you heard.

The second is that, given the fact that our memory is essentially boundless, there are no neurological reasons why languages should tend toward simplicity. Speakers of languages know tens or hundreds of thousands of distinct entries ("lemmas") in their mental lexicons. Languages have been passed down through generations for many millennia. If there was some fundamental aspect of language that was difficult for children to master, it would have been wiped out in one generation.

The above, of course, ignores all the other fascinating forces acting on language development and diversification, like the influence of a central state authority, compulsory education, mass media, literary culture, organized religion, socil stratification, and so on.
posted by Nomyte at 4:10 PM on October 23, 2012 [6 favorites]


If you tried to fake grammatical gender in Russian, you'd be treated as an illiterate uncomprehending imbecile.

Or, you know, someone who is at least trying to learn and use the language, which was my experience with my fumbling Spanish in Latin America. I'm not suggesting that you never learn it, only that you can make yourself understood without knowing genders well when you are just getting started.
posted by empath at 4:24 PM on October 23, 2012


IMO, learning gender perfectly isn't THAT important. If you just kind of ignore it and fake your way through it, people will generally understand you

Movie watchers generally understood Jar-Jar Binks and Yoda.

I do not think the OP is talking about "perfect gender", but getting gender and case right for those languages that have them isn't a niggling grammar point for prescriptivists but rather fundamental. Failing to grasp case results in utterances as fundamentally wrong as "I talked to he" ("he" declines to "him" when the object) or "He ate five apple" (English inflects for plurals). So yeah, English didn't totally do away with case, contrary to the OP's comment, although we had a lot more of it a thousand years ago.

The OP talks about "grammatical baggage", but the fact is that in the linguistic sense, all languages are equally complex and we are blind to the "baggage" in our language. For example, we use the direct article of "the" and the indirect articles of "a" and "an". Why have articles at all? For example, there are no articles in Chinese or Japanese, or even in a "baggage" language mentioned by the OP, Russian. The idea of an article never gets a thought from us, but I know native speakers of such languages who are very proficient in English yet will still occasionally struggle over articles.

Despite the lack of grammatical gender, English still expresses it more than some other languages that might consider the English way to be "baggage". We say "he" and "she", but Persian simply uses "او" for both. Turkish takes it a step further and uses "o" for "he", "she", and "it". This is a point that I often raise to advocates for gender-free language. Not many people wish to argue that Persian and Turkish-speaking lands are wonderlands of gender equality.

To the extent that the OP asked about the weakening of gender and case, many of the Indo-European languages have exhibited this trend. For example, a reduction of case has taken place in one of the languages I study, Greek, which no longer has the dative case. And of course, our own English has lost most cases, the dual number, and grammatical gender. On the other hand, the Slavic languages have shown a tendency to become more inflected over time.

Oh, and at least in Greek, new foreign loan words generally are generally assigned the neuter gender, such as το τσάι (tsai - tea) or το σάντουιτς (sandouits - sandwich). New "Greekish" words usually take gender from their component parts such as η τηλεόραση (teleorasi - television) which is feminine because η όραση (orasi - vision) is feminine.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:25 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


To expand on the faking part: Different languages treat different aspects as essential. In English, the consonant sounds, word orders, and verb tenses are extremely important (in my experience). Without those done correctly, it's very difficult to communicate effectively. But if you mess up a vowel sound or do not do verb agreement correctly, people will either think you have a weird dialect or not notice at all. (This is especially obvious with "text speak", where vowels are often dropped.)

In Chinese, tones, vowel sounds, and word orders are extremely important. People flub consonants all the time compared to standard Mandarin, depending on where they're from. And there are no tenses or plurality agreements. So it is difficult for a native English speaker to learn Chinese (and vice versa) because the student would pay attention to all the wrong things and ignore all the important things (instinctively).

So yes, you can flub things. And of course you won't sound as eloquent as the native speaker who went on to specialize in his language. The key is knowing which parts you can flub.
posted by ethidda at 4:46 PM on October 23, 2012


If you tried to fake grammatical gender in Russian, you'd be treated as an illiterate uncomprehending imbecile.

I imagine it probably depends what one's goals are.

If I'm going to Russia for ten days and I want to be able to say hello, order food, and maybe get help in an emergency, who cares if I'm treated as an illiterate imbecile? Besides which, people will obviously know I'm a tourist, and that detail will inform our interactions.

If I want to get a PhD in Russian history and spend several months out of any given year in Russia doing research, forming everyday relationships with locals who are important to my work, then yes, obviously I need to have grammatical gender down pat. Because in that case, it's important that the locals don't think I'm an imbecile.
posted by Sara C. at 4:50 PM on October 23, 2012


There's a Russian joke about people from Georgia, and like all of those jokes it's a little racist. Anyway, a Georgian guy goes to the lunch counter to order a coffee: "Адин кофе, пажалуста!" The (Russian-speaking) lunch counter lady compliments him on using the correct gender agreement with "coffee," which in Russian is neutral, but for obscure historical reasons is actually masculine. The Georgian says thank you and asks for a pastry with his coffee: "Адин кофе и адин булочка!"

Could I have an explanation for this joke? I assume it's something like the Georgian using the masculine for "pastry" even though it's neutral (ie mimicking what he did with "coffee").
posted by dhens at 4:52 PM on October 23, 2012


Could I have an explanation for this joke? I assume it's something like the Georgian using the masculine for "pastry" even though it's neutral (ie mimicking what he did with "coffee").

Well, for starters, it's feminine, and so it should have been одна булочка, unless I'm missing something really obscure (i.e., not listed in the Russian dictionary closest to me, the Concise Oxford.)

Also, I think, the joke was presented with the words spelled phonetically. It would have been written один кофе, not адин кофе. As far as I know, "Адин" is just the Jewish given name Adin, or something even less relevant.
posted by SMPA at 5:01 PM on October 23, 2012


I assume it's something like the Georgian using the masculine for "pastry" even though it's neutral (ie mimicking what he did with "coffee").

Yes! The comic effect is created because the correct dictionary gender of "coffee" is pedantic, but the gender of "pastry" is so obvious that anything else is jarring.

And, of course, as a traveler one mostly deals with people whose livelihood to some extent depends on dealing with foreign travelers. It's in their interest to be patient, charitable, and understanding. I suppose that away from popular tourist areas, the amount of patience and understanding extended to an semi-coherent visitor decreases dramatically.

Upon preview: user k8t once linked me to a pretty broad comic example of Georgian stereotypes.
posted by Nomyte at 5:04 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nomyte: Thanks! (I have no knowledge of Russian.)
posted by dhens at 5:10 PM on October 23, 2012


"In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl." -- Mark Twain, The Awful German Language
posted by kirkaracha at 5:12 PM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I would like to give you a bit more background, to truly answer your questions. I apologize for the length, but I would like to explain more generally, and then I will answer specifically.

The idea of "gender" is not tied to sex. The term "gender" was the Latin word meaning "type." It appears that classification is a facet of human language. The idea of "classifiers" and "noun classes" are on separate ends of a spectrum, if you will. On one end, are languages like Mandarin Chinese, which uses "measure words" to classify nouns with different properties. E.g., after a number, a specific word should be chosen based on the classification of the noun. "tiao" is used for long things, "zhi" is used for animals, etc. These words are used in a similar fashion to the English use of "flock" or "herd." Chinese has a measure word assigned to every single noun, (there is a general one). However, it does not mean that natives remember them all. It is similar to the English speaker using "flock" instead of "gaggle" to describe a quantity of geese. It does not hamper understanding. On the other hand, there are images and connotations that come to your mind by using the correct term. Describing a "herd of cattle" may feel different than a "group of cattle".

On the other end of this spectrum exists the noun class system that you are curious about. It is speculated that this system was derived from a system similar to the Chinese one. There is no way to ever "know." The origins of Indo-European language are entirely speculation, albeit often well-researched. Currently, it is believed by some Indo-Europeanists, that the Hittite language shows the "original" type of noun classes in Indo-European languages, which is the animate-inanimate dichotomy.

An example of how this might work is to use two words in English that show this well. The word "fire" in English refers to a stagnant fire. It is "inanimate." The word "ignite" comes from the Latin word that is assumed to have been animate, which is a dynamic fire. English "water" was inanimate (perhaps stagnant?), Latin "aqua" was animate (perhaps running water?). There are few pairs like this that have been discovered, although they may be more common than we know. At any rate, there is no consensus on what makes something "animate." This is true in other, non-Indo-European languages as well. It has been remarked that the Ojibwe word for "raspberry" is animate, but the word "strawberry" is not.

It is speculated that inanimate nouns have become Indo-European neuter nouns. It could also explain the use of neuter/masculine "lo" in Spanish (a non-agent pronoun). It should be remarked that the gender systems of the IE languages varies greatly because the nouns changed over time and eventually became "re-classed." The emergence of the feminine class is not well understood. Some speculate it has to do with the rise of agriculture. At this point, it is not worth stressing over.

There are three primary ways to determine the gender of a noun. The importance varies GREATLY depending on the language.

The first is semantic. Many of the natural elements have genders that match the gods and goddesses. (I.e., earth is feminine, the sky is masculine, etc. Sun and moon genders switch depending on the culture you are examining, but the god/goddess switches as well) This extends into other areas as well. Sometimes biological sex matters. In Latin languages, this is often the case. In German, this is not true at all. Even the word for "vagina" is masculine in German. (this is another topic in and of itself). There are books that explain semantic classes that can be ascribed to a particular gender. (This is fairly common).

The second way to determine gender is on morphology. In German, this is particularly important. ALL words, without exception that end in -chen, will be neuter. This is the case for the word for girl, "Maedchen." -chen and -lein mean "little", and in a way, "disempower" the noun. This seems to relate to the idea of inanimacy and neuter nouns. There are other exceptionless rules regarding morphology as well. There are also some "suggestions", such as words beginning with Ge- are neuter. This is not always the case, however.

The third way is phonologically. That is, "how does it sound?" In Spanish, words that end in -a are usually feminine. Words in French that end in -eau are masculine. The key, here, is in the sound, not in the spelling. The reason that pronunciation matters, and not spelling, is because native speakers learn how to speak first, not how to spell. When a native encounters a word they don't know, they often guess the gender based on these three methods. If they have no idea, they go by what it sounds like. This is also what most English speakers do when learning Spanish. -o for masculine, -a for feminine. It is actually a very astute observation, one that native children pick up as well.

The situations of the case systems that you inquire about vary greatly. English lost much of its "Germanic" side due to the Norman invasion in 1066 A.D. You will find that most "educated" words became Latin based (including refined meat products, pork, beef, veal, etc) and the "vulgar" words continue to be Germanic-based (including the animals one eats, pig, cow, lamb, calf, etc). Words like "departure" vs. "leave", "arrive" vs. "come", etc. There are thousands. The rich spoke French, and the poor "uneducated" class was left to speak English. It broke down fairly quickly. (Please note that English is more like a creole, *not* a pidgin, as previously mentioned.)

If you notice, the populations that have large, rural populations often lose their case system more quickly, precisely because it is so complicated and language education was virtually non-existent. It is unlikely that any person naturally learned all of the case iterations that have been recorded; much in the way that English speakers may not use the subjunctive--it doesn't mean it doesn't exist or isn't used.

Additionally, the cross-roads of Europe might make it difficult for foreign speakers to learn the language (as you yourself stated). Gradually languages lose the most inefficient aspects. (See English "gunna") Sometimes they also gain inefficient aspects as well. There is no specific reason that has been shown to cause language change other than the introduction of a new culture. It is simply the human nature to "refine" and make language our own.

German is currently in the process of losing the genitive case, by using a more convoluted dative structure (see inefficient structures!). It's always a matter of perspective.

Regarding your desire to learn languages with cases/gender. I would like to offer the following suggestion. Go to YouTube and type in "Disney" and your language. Listen to the music and read the lyrics. It is the best way to start a language. Get a sense of how the language sounds, where the words begin and where they end. Do not worry about all the rules. You didn't learn English by obsessing about the rules. They come. Familiarization is the secret to learning any language, not memorization!

Good luck! If you are REALLY interested in gender further, Wikipedia is actually well-informed, and also, "Gender" by Greville Corbett is top-notch.
posted by ladygrey at 8:02 PM on October 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


You may be interested in this book on gender in Germanic languages. Basically, at some point some Germanic languages went from having two genders to three (so, for example, Scandinavian languages have common gender and neuter, but German and Yiddish have masculine, feminine and neuter). I don't really remember much of it, but there's some interesting stuff about how the gender of nouns shifts as you head east (from Icelandic towards Yiddish, basically).

"In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl." -- Mark Twain, The Awful German Language

This is Twain not knowing how German works (or pretending he doesn't). It's das Mädchen because it's a diminutive and diminutives are neuter. That die Magd all but disappeared a few hundred years back so it's not obviously a diminutive of anything in particular is irrelevant.
posted by hoyland at 8:06 PM on October 23, 2012


Oh, I meant to add that the idea (or maybe it's known, not sure) is that back in the sands of time the two genders mapped to 'animate' and 'inanimate' rather than 'common' and 'neuter'.
posted by hoyland at 8:09 PM on October 23, 2012


> much in the way that English speakers may not use the subjunctive--it doesn't mean it doesn't exist or isn't used.

It exists vestigially; it can be used to show off one's superior education and social status, but it is perfectly possible, indeed common, to speak fluent native English without it, except in fossilized phrases like "if I were you" (in which case, obviously, it is not a functioning grammatical element, simply part of a fossilized phrase). Many languages have grammatical forms available in the written language that simply aren't used in the spoken one; cf. the French passé simple or the Russian gerund.

> This is Twain not knowing how German works (or pretending he doesn't).

For heaven's sake, of course he knew how German works. He's a humorist! He's being funny!
posted by languagehat at 11:36 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


OP, there's a classic example of exactly the kind of simplication you're talking about: Vulgar Latin.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:41 PM on October 24, 2012


Couple of reasons spring to mind - one is redundancy, of course, but there's also an inherent benefit to linguistic complexity in that it makes it easier to identify members of the in-group. So if you hear someone call out to you in your tribal language, it's easier to be sure they're not luring you into a trap if you know that members of the other tribe can't speak your language well.
posted by Lady Li at 9:23 PM on October 24, 2012


The Lexicon Valley podcast had an episode about gender in various languages.

http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/04/lexicon_valley_what_it_means_for_a_language_to_have_grammatical_gender_.html
posted by NotPayingAttention at 7:41 AM on November 13, 2012


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