Monday, August 30, 2010

thinking about language

i just read a really interesting piece in the new york times on language. it's from the magazine, so it's a long, deep article (yes, there ARE still some bright spots on the american media landscape).  it discusses gender in various languages and also how different languages express concepts like time (chinese doesn't have verb tenses, for example, so everything happens in the infinitive) and space (an aboriginal language that expresses all directions using north-south-east-west) and a really interesting study on the correlation between how color is expressed in certain languages and how it affects ability to see the color spectrum) i won't recount all of it here, but encourage you to go and read it.

but reading it was well-timed, as i was just telling husband that i just couldn't get used to the way that danish refers to animals as "it," and doesn't use she/he pronouns for them. so, when i'm talking to someone, say the vet or the horseshoer, they refer to our matilde as "it." and it never ceases to be a rather jarring experience for me, because our matilde is a girl and should be called "she" when we refer to her using a pronoun. i feel it as cold and heartless. but interestingly, in danish, to refer to a person as she or he in their presence, rather than using their name, is considered rude. whereas that's perfectly polite in english. i wonder what matilde makes of being called "it?"


rxBambi said...

I assume she's Danish, right? So she's probably okay with it (haha no pun intended).
My first thought tho was about the Danish and Vikings and all... are their ships "She" or "It?" If "she", do they place more emphasis and concern on their ships than they do animals? And in fact, do they consider their animals - pets- as part of the family or just another mouth?

Char said...

so, language is a lot like money - it has no value except with our perceptions of value and meaning.

i'm sure it's okay with it - as long as it gets carrots and love. again like me, you can call me anything as long as you don't call me later for supper. *smile*

Lost Star said...

Interesting. 'It' is so harsh when discussing anyone, human or animal. Odd how different languages work and have developed different ways of discussing objects/animals/people.

Also, has to be said, my mind went along the same track as rxBambi with the nature of ships as 'she' in English. Are they also 'it' in Danish?

julochka said...

ships are "she" in danish, tho' they can also have boy names. but linguistically, the noun for ship is neither masculine nor feminine. it may have been at one time - det skip, but it no longer carries a gender as a noun, like in languages like french, german and russian (just to name a few).

and people do call their other pets "it" as well, tho' they are OFTEN members of the family, so it doesn't extend to an attitude towards them. it seems to just be linguistic.

Anne said...

Regarding the word ship, is it simply neuter? (as in German, das Boot rather than der Boot or die Boot) Or is there a special class of nouns that actually has no gender? (if that makes any sense... assuming here that neuter is a gender.) The intersection of gender and how we think about gendered nouns fascinates me to no end.

And here's a question: is it that Danes don't think of horses (and other nouns that take neuter pronouns) as deserving of the kind of recognition we give human people? Or is it that native speakers of languages without a well defined neuter gender struggle to grasp the personhood of neuter nouns (or, put a different way, to separate binary gender from the quality of being a person)? Does that even make sense?

Back on the topic of the main post, I love this sort of thing, and find the bit about the Aboriginal language that uses only cardinal directions SO interesting. Having one's language structured like that must foster an amazing awareness of one's surroundings and one's orientation in them. Must read that NYT piece.

Alice said...

I"m more concerned about people being called 'it' than animals!!

Those are the nuances of language, and luckily the differences can't be homogenised as yet thank goodness! Thats what makes languages so interesting and diverse!!

Maybe culturally speaking it neatly does classify the status of animals in ranks of importance realtive to people by referring to them as 'it'.

celkalee said...

She probably says....I don't care what they call me as long as the feed-bag doesn't come late! Look in those eyes, that's a pretty girl.

Elizabeth said...

That was a very interesting article, especially the part of the aboriginals and how they use north/south/east/west. Now if I was brought up with their language and their orientationtraining, would it be easier to orientate myself and find the place I want to go or would this disorientation still occur?

Magpie said...

do inanimate things have gender? like, your car - is that male or female to you? what about to your mechanic?

inna karenina said...

love reading about that sort of things - I guess I must read the article later:)languages are so interesting!

(by the way, in Finnish, people do refer to animals as 'it' too. in spoken finnish (the written and spoken are rather different..) it's referred to people as 'it' as well.. in Finnish I don't consider it as rude, so I guess it's just about what you are used to:)