Re: adjectives

Date: Tue Jun 09 1998 - 16:32:11 EDT


Carl Conrad's response to Jim's question about masculine/feminine forms
answers it well; but there was also a not-well-hidden assumption in the
question(s) which needs a response, too. I've written ahout it before,
and won't do more than comment on one point this time.

Note the following in Jim's effort at summary:

>1- in the earliest stages, certain adjectives used both masculine and
>feminine forms. I.e., certain adjectives were used only of males and others
>were used only of females.
>2- at some point, adjectives which were only applied to males began to be
>applied to females, and vice versa.

"Applied to males," "applied to females," "used only of males," "used only
of females" --- these suggest that "masculine gender" means "applied to
males," and "feminine gender" means "applied to females." This is not
correct. (It has become much harder to teach linguistic "gender" since the
word "gender" has been turned into a synonym for "sex.")

The terms "masculine, feminine, and neuter/neither" are an unfortunate
choice (made by some Greek whose identity is uncertain). These three sets
of endings function somewhat like telephone area codes, allowing expansion
of roots and stems into more than one direction (among other advantages).
And while it is true that MOST Greek nouns referring to male animals are
"masculine," and MOST Greek nouns referring to female animals are
"feminine" in form, even this highly limited class is only approximately
accurate. And of course "neuter" nouns are used to refer to various sorts
of males and females (especially young ones and inferiors), not just
"neutered" animals. Animals other than humans: "Wolf" and "horse" and
"lamb" are masculine; "leopard" and "fox are feminine; "sheep" and
"beast of burden" and "(quadruped) animal" are neuter.

And when we leave the class of animals (and other possibly sentient
beings), we have masculine, feminine, and neuter genders abounding
on every side. without much evident "sexual" differentiation to be seen.

Jonathan (I believe it was) posted a delightful piece of "literally"
translated-from-German a year or so ago, which makes clear how idiotic it
is to suppose that "gender" in language equals sexual-differentiation.
(I have a vague feeling that the pice was originally from Mark Twain,
but I'm not sure.)

Edward Hobbs
Wellesley College
Wellesley, Massachusetts

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