Tag Archives: grammatical gender

Linguistic gems from recent reading (2017 edition)

The title of this post is a shout-out to one I wrote back in 2014. That “linguistic gems” post described a nice stylistic use of the imperfect subjunctive in the Spanish novel La carta esférica, and a reminiscence about the trilled r from the Puerto Rican novel Felices días tío Sergio.

Today’s gems come from the Spanish-language novel that I’m currently reading, Sofía Segovia Huracán. It was this Mexican author’s first novel; she revised and republished it last year after the great success of her second novel, El murmullo de las abejas. I’m 50 pages into Huracán and completely hooked.

So far, Huracán is the picaresque tale of a Mexican boy who is given away (regalado) to a farmer because his family can’t afford to keep him. He eventually runs away and makes his living as a petty thief. I’m waiting for him to figure out how to redeem his life — and, of course, I’m waiting for the actual hurricane of the title.

In the meantime, I’m especially enjoying two aspects of the author’s Spanish. First, Segovia often puts into written form her characters’ “improper” Spanish, as shown in the selection below:

¡Ya nos mandastes al demonio! ‘You sent us to the devil!’
¿Adónde vamos? ‘Where are we going?
Nosotros agarramos pa Tabasco. Tú lo matastes, tú te vas pa otro lado. ‘We’re heading for Tabasco. You killed him, you go the other way.’

The preterite past tense forms mandastes and matastes here have a final -s added to the standard forms mataste and mandaste. This is a very natural extension of the final -s that ‘you’ forms have in all other verb tenses, such as matas ‘you kill’, mandarás ‘you will sent’, and mandabas ‘you used to send’. I’ve read about this phenomenon but have never seen it in print. Pa as a shortened version of para ‘for’ that is common in colloquial Spanish in several countries, including Mexico. I’ve seen it written elsewhere as pa’. 

The other aspect of Segovia’s Spanish that I particularly enjoy is her deliberate and even playful exploitation of some of the grammatical contrasts that are a Spanish instructor’s bread and butter. In this sentence, about the protagonist’s time in a street gang, Segovia plays with gender:

Aniceto no estaba acostumbrado a tanta orden y tanto orden. ‘Aniceto wasn’t used to so many orders and so much organization.’ (“command and control’?)

Orden is one of a set of Spanish words whose meaning changes with its gender; some other examples are el capital ‘money’ and la capital‘, el cura ‘priest’ and la cura ‘cure’, and el coma ‘coma’ and la coma ‘comma’. You will find a longer list here.

Also on the subject of the street gang, Segovia plays with the por/para contrast:

Si no era [el jefe] él quien hacía cumplir su ley, era el resto del grupo el que lo hacía por él y para él. ‘If the gang leader didn’t make Aniceto obey, the rest of the gang would do it in his place and for his benefit.’

The Spanish version is much more elegant, ¿no?

I’m looking forward to unearthing more gems as I make my way through Huracán!

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

El género desenfrenado — Gender gone wild

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Últimamente he vuelto mi atención de los pluralia tantum al género gramatical (otra vez), y he investigado un poco la historia del género en otros idiomas relacionados al español. Ya sabía que el latín tenía tres géneros (masculino, feminino, y neutro), que heredó este sistema del proto-indo-europeo, que el francés y el italiano (como el español) solo tienen el masculino y el femenino), y que el alemán todavía tiene el neutro. He aprendido que:

  • Todos los lenguajes romanos perdieron el género neutro. Esto implica que ya habría ido fallando en el latín vulgar.
  • El alemán no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en preservar el neutro. Otros incluyen el gujarati (un idioma de India), el griego, y el ruso.
  • El inglés no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en haber perdido completamente el género gramatical. Otros incluyen el armenio y el bengalí.
  • El resultado romance (con el masculino y el femenino, pero sin el neutro) es el más común. Otros idiomas en esta ala incluyen el albanés, el hindi, los idiomas célticos, y los idiomas bálticos (el letón y el lituano).
  • El polaco y el serbio (los dos eslavos) han sorprendentemente aumentado sus sistemas de género de tres a cinco géneros por medio de dividir el masculino en tres géneros distintos: objetos inanimados, seres humanos, y otras entidades animadas. Para una geek lingüística como yo, ¡esto es una de las cosas más interesantes que he aprendido en los últimos meses! Se puede enterar más de ello en Wikipedia (busca la expresión “five genders”) o, para una fuente más respetable, en las páginas 425-6 de Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, por Benjamin Fortson IV. Recomiendo este libro de todas maneras.

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I’ve recently turned my attention from pluralia tantum back to noun gender, and did some research on the history of gender in languages related to Spanish. I already knew that Latin had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), that it inherited this system from Proto-Indo-European, that French and Italian (like Spanish) only have masculine and feminine, and that German has neuter. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few days.

  • All Romance languages lost the neuter gender. This implies that it must already have been on its way out in Vulgar Latin.
  • German isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to preserve the neuter gender. Others include Gujarati, Greek, and Russian.
  • English isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to have completely lost gender. Others include Armenian and Bengali.
  • The Romance outcome (masculine and feminine in, neuter out) is the most common. Other languages in this camp are Albanian, Hindi, the modern Celtic languages, and the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian).
  • Polish and Sorbian (these are both Slavic languages) have actually jumped from three genders to five by splitting masculine into three categories: inanimate, human, and other animate. For a language geek like me, this is one of the most coolest things I’ve learned in the last several months! You can read about it on Wikipedia (search for the phrase “five genders”) or, for a more reputable source, on pp. 425-6 in Benjamin Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, which I strongly recommend in any case.