Thursday, February 14, 2013

Mystery of the Grammatical Gender

A student of primitive languages is often baffled when he or she  is  confronted with the phenomenon of grammatical gender . Why did the ancients ascribe sex to inanimate objects? What made the Anglo-Saxons consider stone as masculine and gift (giefu) as feminine? The purpose of this post is to demystify as  far as possible grammatical gender and clarify matters for the benefit of students of primitive and ancient languages .
The practice of using labels like masculine and feminine  to designate classes of nouns was started by Panini who wrote Ashtadhyayi 2500 years ago . Grammarians since Panini have followed his example,  and this has caused a lot of confusion  to students . Panini could have used labels like Class A  Nouns  and Class B nouns nstead of masculine and feminine . He used the labels masculine and feminine most probably  because . the two lists of  nouns were dominated by nouns with identifiable natural gender   Besides, masculine and feminine are the universal criteria of classification . The basis for classification was , of course, their identical grammatical behaviour ( which may not be noticeable to modern students ) .  You may not fault the ancients with bungling sex anymore! The  fault lies in later grammarians and not the founding fathers of the ancient languages !

How  did these nouns which fall under two separate heads behave in an identical manner ? If you look at the list of Old English masculine nouns . you won't see anything common  which should make them members of a class . Then how come these disparate nouns behaved in an identical fashion ? We should credit the ancients with some reason ! They could not have done anything without valid reason . , particularly because they were free from the compulsion of prescriptive grammar . and prescriptive phonetics .   The only compulsion they worked under  must have been clarity and ease of pronunciation . 

Why did the primitive people find it expedient to make their nouns  terminate  in easily articulated vowel sounds like  a: , i: and o? Rhyme and rhythm must have  fascinated  these men  in the infancy of their languages . A clue is provided by modern languages like Spanish ( which descended from Latin) and Hindi which descended from Sanskrit, a member of the Indo- European family of languages . 
Look at the following Spanish sentences 

La puerta está cerrada

Las puertas están cerradas 

Nobody can read these sentences without being struck by their internal rhyme . This internal rhyme must have ensured greater ease of articulation  and better clarity in communication of thoughts . Even a casual listener could get the message right thanks to the internal rhyme .  As man's cognitive powers increased his language no longer needed internal rhyme and  so it became  more and more restricted to the language of poetry .

 That grammatical gender makes for better clarity goes without saying .   .As for the ease of pronunciation there is nothing in the modern survivals of  these nouns to suggest  that the nouns belonging to one class made for greater ease of pronunciation than the other These words have changed so muh from their original forms  In some languages like Spanish , Sanskrit and its descendants the change is not so drastic as in the case of  English and French . .  Besides,  Old English and its parent Indo-European  had some phonetic  feature or features  like voicing, nasalization, aspiration  stress etc ,  which are  now lost to us . In short, we do not know for sure how the ancients  actually pronounced the words . So we cannot say with any certainty how  ease of pronunciation and clarity of expression   were  achieved  in connected speech  except in terms of internal rhyme . . We cannot reconstruct the pronunciation of Old English  or its ancestor Proto- Germanic with as much certainty as we reconstructed the pronunciation of Elizabethan English .  We can only grope in the dark and make intelligent and informed guesses ! 

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Prof V.P.Rajappan