Thursday, April 30, 2009

English as she is spoke

In one of the comments on the previous post, Nick asks about the blog's tag line "Second thoughts on English and how she's taught". It's actually a nod to the classic, English as She Is Spoke by Jose da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino.

But, in particular, Nick is curious about the use of personal pronouns, such as she, for inanimate objects.
"I know in French, one can take an inanimate object and treat it as though it were alive, such as "la maison" is feminine" so the pronoun would be "elle", which is "she", but in English, how is the word English a "she" and not an "it" in that sense? Just some fodder to chew on."
There are some interesting points here. Of course, it is possible for people to anthropomorphize things, as this Clavin & Hobbes strip from May 4, 1995 shows:
But is using a pronoun or determinative (e.g., French la) marked for gender really treating inanimate things as if they were alive? It certainly seems that way when we use the word gender to refer both to grammatical categories of masculine and feminine and to biological categories of male and female. But in Japanese, for example, gender is marked in the verb iru/aru いる/ある meaning roughly exist/be/have. But the gender distinction here is animate-inanimate, not male-female.

Even where the male-female-(neuter) gender is maintained, the grammatical gender doesn't always match up with the biological gender. The German word Mädchen, meaning little girl, is grammatically neutral. And there is the Dyirbal language made famous by the book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, which has the following genders:
  1. animate objects, men
  2. women, water, fire, dangerous things
  3. edible fruit and vegetables
  4. other
In other words, gender is simply a way of classifying nouns. Although it does commonly correspond to biological categories, I don't think it would be wise to conclude that by using a gender-marked pronoun, the speaker is treating something as if it is alive.

The second question, then, is why English speakers might occasionally use personal pronouns that do not match the expected uses. The she in the tag line was produced by a speaker of Portuguese who basically knew no English and was simply (I expect) following the norms of his native language, so it's not really an interesting example.

English speakers do occasionally use it and this (a determinative, not a pronoun) to refer to humans (e.g., Hi, it's Brett. or This is my bother, Michael.) And we use personal pronoun she for a variety of things from boats to rivers to moons, to something being passed between two people (e.g., here she comes.)

My sense is that such use of he is much more limited, though the OED gives,
"2. Of things not sexually distinguished:

{dag}a. Things grammatically masculine. Obs. b. Things personified as masculine, as mountains, rivers, oak-trees, etc.

with the added comment:

"It is not easy to say when grammatical gender ceased to be used, this differing according to dialect. In dialect speech, he is still used for most things of definite shape, without any feeling of personification."

But I have no idea why we do any of this...


Nick said...

Thanks for the about pro bono? What do you say? So do you teach English then at the college level? I remember you had said that you teach English, but I can't remember exactly what you teach or whom you teach.

Nick said...

Great article by the way.

S4U said...

original version of the book can be found here: