Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Language/2012 May 25

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May 25[edit]

How Is Gender Assigned to New Words in Gender-Specific Languages?[edit]

Languages such as Spanish and French have official arbiters or guardians of the purity of their languages. For example, these bodies decide what new words will be allowed into the language when necessary. Therefore, how did they decide, for example, that in Spanish, the noun for "computer" should be feminine, (i.e., "la computadora"), and not masculine (e.g., "el computador")?

Obviously, they have to decide such things somehow, but do they actually sit around debating whether a computer has more feminine attributes than masculine ones, or do they just hold a closed door meeting and flip a coin?Honeyman2010 (talk) 03:38, 25 May 2012 (UTC)

I think you are looking at this a bit the wrong way around. As you say, these bodies decide on which words to allow into the official lexicon of the language, but these is usually with a basis in current usage, i.e. it is the people who "decide" which gender words should have by which gender they give to these words when they use them in everyday speech. Then the official body, when deciding whether or not to incorporate these words into the official dictionary, will already "know" what gender the word should have. I.e. I think the process is more random than the one that you are proposing. And for some languages, it won't be as easy as 'flipping a coin', since they don't have two, but three genders (male, female, neuter).
As a Norwegian speaker, I can say how this seems to be working in Norwegian. In Norwegian, for words that aren't 'obviously' female, practically all new words adopted are given male gender (so I suppose we could say that male is the productive gender). The odd thing with Norwegian, though, is that one might suspect that new things that obviously aren't gendered (such as a computer, it's not really male nor female), they should be neuter, rather than male, but that isn't the case. This preference for labelling new words as male has yielded the somewhat odd fact that "diskette" is male, despite the -ette ending being feminine in the original language. (Though, of course, no one uses diskettes anymore.) My impression is that the same is true for French, that new words are generally male, unless obviously female.
Another way, could be to give a gender depending on what a word with a similar meaning already has. I.e. if you choose to adopt a new word for table you give the new word the same gender as the existing word for table had. However, this doesn't work with things that are "entirely new", such as a computer, for which there isn't really a pre-existing term.
Another way to do it, would be to base gender of new words on how gender has been allocated to the words that the language already has. I.e. the allocation of gender for pre-existing words is probably based on some sort of quality (like you say) that puts it into one of several groups. However, "feminine qualities" in this respect may not mean "feminine qualities" as when we talk about humans. (For humans "feminine qualities" tend to be be caring, nurturing etc.) I heard of a theory for allocating gender in Norwegian, that I would describe as rather phallic (Hello Freud!): Objects that have a protuding shape (a mountain, a stick, a knife, a banana) were male, whereas things that were intruding (a cave, a tube, a bucket) were female. While it is an amusing theory, I don't think it is very comprehensive, because it doesn't really explain what type of thing is put into the neuter category, and it is also relatively easy to find words that should be put into one, but has been put into the other.
However, such a theory could explain why a certain gender "feels right", as it indicates certain traits that words of each grammatical gender share, and so long as people subconsciously recognise them, they will add new words into these categories, thereby making it "obvious" that a computer is female. V85 (talk) 06:49, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
(EC) The French "official arbitrers" do not decide what new words will be allowed and what will be their gender. For example, the Académie française fixes the usage of the French language, sets up recommendations and takes part to terminology commitees (see here). About the gender of new words in French, there are very complex rules. If you can read French, here are examples. To give an idea, if the word ends with ette, like zapette (remote control), the gender will be feminine; if the word ends with eur, like ordinateur (computer), the gender will be masculine in most of cases. As usual in French, there are many exceptions. Aside: In French disquette is feminine. — AldoSyrt (talk) 06:57, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
I can pretty much confirm what V85 said for Slavic languages (I believe the process is more or less the same in all). There are three genders: feminine, masculine and neuter. Somewhat counter-intuitively, neuter is the smallest category, reserved for a rather small set of words from the basic native vocabulary; in Serbo-Croatian, practically no loanwords are neuter, and that's probably the case in most other. Now, when we consider the other two genders, the most prevalent suffix for feminine words is -a, so the basic rule turns out to be simple: if it ends in -a, it will get feminine, otherwise masculine. That means that, in practice, most loanwords will end up masculine.
Now, admittedly, -a is a relatively rare suffix outside of the Slavic world (particularly, in Germanic and Romance languages, which are the most frequent word donors), but some other source suffixes such as -ion (nation->nacija) or -e (de:stärke->štirka) will reflex in -a, and some other get an epenthetic -a (de:spachtel->špahtla) producing a feminine word. No such user (talk) 08:33, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
Minor point: the suffix -a is not that rare in Romance languages, at least not in all. Italian e.g. has many feminine nouns ending in -a. - Lindert (talk) 08:50, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
There is a slight difference between Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian in that respect. The general pattern in these languages, pretty much like in the rest of the Slavic languages, is that words suffixed with "-a" are feminine, words suffixed with "-o" or "-e" are neuter, and words with no suffix are masculine. As No such user said, a loanword is normally feminine if it edns in "-a", and this applies for both Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian. However, should a loanword end in any of "-o", "-e", "-i" or "-u", Bulgarian treats that vowel as a neuter suffix, whereas Serbo-Croatian treats it as a part of the root, and the word thus remains without a specific gender ending and, accordingly, is masculine. Examples: radio (radio), kupe (coupé), kivi (kiwi) and intervju (interview) are neuter in Bulgarian, but masculine in Serbo-Croatian. --Theurgist (talk) 11:14, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
There are a few different ways this happens. According to the comment above, some languages, such as Norwegian, have a single "productive" gender, though I do not know any Norwegian. In other languages, assignment happens in at least three ways: 1) the word has a gendered ending (such as ordinateur) such that it is automatically assigned to the gender for that ending; 2) the word is associated with or begins life as a modifier for an already-existing gendered word; or 3) the word's gender is based on the gender of an existing word in the target language with a similar or related meaning. I think that the Spanish computadora is an illustration of pattern 2), in that it began life as máquina computadora. In German, many new words follow pattern 3). For example, Party in German is feminine, like Feier, an older word with a similar meaning. Likewise, Power is feminine, just like Kraft, whose meaning is closest to the German usage of the word Power. (The English word would usually be translated Macht, also feminine, but Germans use Party for a less common sense of the English word.) Shop in German is masculine, just like Laden, with roughly the same meaning. Words that enter German without clear German analogues tend to take the neuter gender, though I suppose I should add one more pattern, 4) words that sound like they would have a certain gender in the target language tend to acquire that gender. (Actually, 1) might be a subset of 4).) For example, the English borrowing Song in German is masculine, even though its existing German synonym, Lied, is neuter, probably because nouns ending in ng in German (except nouns formed from verbs with the -ung suffix) are (almost) always masculine. Marco polo (talk) 17:20, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
There are plenty of examples of words imported into Norwegian that have been assigned the neuter gender as well: enzym, protein, kromosom, gen, lipid, display (although monitor would be masculine), (hat-)trick, interface, blot (biology), podcast, anything ending in -at (chemistry), -gon (geometry), -gram, -tek, -nym, -meter, -skop, -gram, -arki, -gami or -ium (nitrat, polygon, elektrokardiogram, diskotek, pseudonym, voltmeter, gyroskop, anarki, monogami, auditorium), show, skateboard, snowboard, papir (paper), paper (a scientific paper), rendezvous, talent, regime, semester, monopol, panorama, manuskript, prospekt, ego, batteri, symptom, syndrom, carcinom, genom (although velodrom is masculine), immunoassay. A few of these examples may not be completely settled, but I'd definately go with neuter for all of these. I'm unable to think of a single example that is assigned the feminine gender, though. Both ballerina and sopran are masculine. But then, the feminine gender is losing ground, and is all but extinct in many dialects. --NorwegianBlue talk 21:17, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
Of course there are words imported into Norwegian that are neuter. However, my argument was about words that are imported into Norwegian today (and hence my use of the term productive gender, disregarding what might have been the productive gender in the past). Granted that this list is made somewhat long by including a number of redundancies, and includes both words which have fallen out of everyday use (e.g. 'rendezvous') and specialised jargon that isn't used in everyday speach (e.g. 'voltmeter' and 'gyroskop'=, I would argue that most of these words are 'old' imports (they certainly weren't imported during the last 20-30 years). The exceptions are snowboard and skateboard, but they fall into Marco polo's category no. 2: Words that correspond to an already exisiting word in the native language, i.e. the neuter 'brett'. As for podcast, I would personally go with male in this case, as does NRK. My guess for going with neuter would be that your mind sees the -cast ending as actually being -kast (throw), which is a neuter word. All references I have come across to modern words, treat them as male: iPad, iPod, mac (Mackintosh computer), laptop, macbook, app, mob (abb. for 'mobile phone'), video, radio etc. and abbreviations such as SMS and DVD (while most might be able to guess that the final -D in DVD stands for 'disk' (male), how many actually know that the last -S in SMS stands for 'service' (also male)?) V85 (talk) 19:06, 27 May 2012 (UTC)

Might want to read Swahili language#Noun classes for a much more complex gender system, though borrowings are only mentioned tangentially. (My favorite is colloquial kipilefeti 'roundabout', plural vipilefeti, from English "keep left".) — kwami (talk) 22:04, 25 May 2012 (UTC)

Going back to the original example, it's quite likely that the noun "computer" is female because the original computers were indisputably female. --Carnildo (talk) 23:28, 25 May 2012 (UTC)
The orignial question rests on a questionable assumption: That there always is a decision on which gender a new word is going to have. The most famous cases in German where there is no agreed gender are probaly Coca-Cola and Nutella which are almost universally female in the north of Germany whereas there are large parts of southern Germany where they are predominantly neuter. Unfathomably to me, my wife insists on calling it „das“ Nutella (neuter) although she never ventured south of Hanover for more than a few days on end.
The „rules“ applied here, if you can call them that, are on the one hand that nouns ending in a vowel are usually female. On the other hand new foodstuffs tend to be neuter (Das Steak, das Gyros, das Popcorn, etc.). Whatever you say to claim a gender for a certain word, usually a case could be made for a different one. There are discussions about these things from time to time on the refdesk of the German Wikipedia. Sometimes the arguments get quite heated, as they do with for example the questions of split infinitives or whether or not to start a sentence with a preposition with English language enthusiasts.
For a while it looked undecided if the word „app“ would be feminine or neuter in German. In the end the argument won out that it's just an abbreviation of „application“ which is clearly feminine as most words ending in -ion are. Curiously, by the way, the word „ion“ itself is neuter. The word computer is male in German, as most words ending in -er are.
To put it in a nutshell: there's a lot of chance involved and sometimes even that doesn't suffice.--Zoppp (talk) 20:02, 26 May 2012 (UTC)
An excellent response, thanks for your time and effort. Regarding Computer, making it male allows for the possibility of die Computerin in the future, if ever the need arises :-). (And was there ever eine Kanzlerin before Ms. Merkel?) --71.220.19.28 (talk) 22:16, 26 May 2012 (UTC)
Spanish has both "computador" and "computadora". See wikt:computador and wikt:computadora.
Wavelength (talk) 02:34, 27 May 2012 (UTC)
As for "computer" in Norwegian, the most commonly used word is arguably "datamaskin", lit. "data machine", and "machine" is masculine. I think a lot of innovations would take the gender of the masculine nouns "machine" or "thing", and that might explain the wide use of masculine gender for new words. One interesting oddity springs to mind: "modem" is neuter, I do not know why. Jørgen (talk) 06:40, 29 May 2012 (UTC)

Japanese question[edit]

I was watching an episode of an anime from my DVDs today. To summarize the story, three villians were transformed from animals into human-like beings via magic, but unless they get the golden horn of a pegasus, they will transform back into animals. In the end, they save the heroine from dying by giving up their chance to become human, but the pegasus appears and transforms them into real humans instead. I found a version of it online for anyone who wants to hear it themselves: Watch here to see how it leads up to the line, and here for the line itself.

I know a little Japanese myself, enough to realize that the following sentence is probably translated differently for the sake of not explaining the complexities of the Japanese language in the subs:

Ano sanbeki...iiya...sannin wa...daijobu ka(ra).

The way the subs translate it is as:

Those three...humans...will be fine...

But the way I see it is as:

Those three...no...three people/humans...will be fine.

The question I have is: What is the meaning of "beki" in "sanbeki"? I assume it means something less-human or a non-human object. -- Tohler (talk) 17:24, 25 May 2012 (UTC)

I haven't watched the clip, but it must be "sanbiki". "Hiki" is a counter for animals (and "nin" is a counter for people). See Japanese counter word. -- BenRG (talk) 19:18, 25 May 2012 (UTC)