Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Talky Tuesday: Sick words, bro

It’s hard not to focus on all things COVID-19 lately for obvious reasons. The last year and a half have been an absolutely surreal experience, and now we have the delta variant to deal with. But, in keeping with today’s theme, I wanted to take a quick look at some words related to things like this pandemic, and explain where they came from.

Some of them are straightforward, and some took more circuitous routes. Let’s consider them in logical order.

Corona

Corona comes from the Latin word coronam, which means crown. If you’ve ever looked at the printing on a bottle of Corona beer, there’s a crown right there as the logo, and in Spanish corona is the word for crown as well. You may have heard the term “coronary artery,” They get this name because they encircle the heart, much the way a crown encircles a monarch’s head.

The corona is also a part of the Sun (well, any star). It’s the outer atmosphere of the star. Our Sun’s is usually invisible because of the glare of the star itself, but it becomes visible during a solar eclipse.

Coronaviruses as a class were given the name because the spikes on their surfaces resemble the spikes on a crown.

Virus

Virus comes from another Latin word, virus. In case you’re wondering why so many medical terms come from Latin, it’s because this was the language that physicians used for centuries in order to create terms that would be universal despite a doctor’s native language. Greek is also common due to the roots of western medicine going back to the likes of Hippocrates.

In Latin, the word can variously refer to things like poison, venom, slime, a sharp taste, or something’s pungency. The use of the word in the modern sense began in the 14th century, which was long before the invention of the microscope near the end of the 16th century. Even then, germ theory didn’t develop until the middle of the 19th century, and viruses themselves were not discovered until the 1890s.

So while the idea that “virus” was something that caused a disease may have gone back to the late Middle Ages, it was probably consider to be more like a toxic liquid in food or water, or perhaps an imbalance of the humors. Or just divine punishment, like pestilence.

Pandemic

This one is all Greek to you. It comes from two words: pan and demos. The former is the Greek prefix meaning “all.” You might recognize it from a word like “Pantheon,” with the second half coming from the Greek word theos, meaning gods. It can be a building dedicated to the gods of a particular religion, or just refer to that collection of gods in general. It can also be a building dedicated to national heroes, or a mausoleum in which they are entombed.

Another pan word is panacea, with the appendage, -akes, meaning a cure, and a panacea is supposed to cure everything — even a pandemic.

The second half of the word comes from demos, as noted, which is the Greek word referring to a village or a population, or group of people. It’s the root of the word democracy, rule by the people. However, it is not related in any way to the word demonstrate.

So a pandemic is something that comprises all of the population.

As an aside, my personal favorite pan word is Pandemonium, which was actually created on this model by John Milton for Paradise Lost. It refers to the capital of Hell — the place of all demons. I’m kind of disappointed that Dante didn’t think of it first. He only gave us the City of Dis in the sixth circle. And when it comes to religious fanfic, Dante’s is far superior. Well, qualification: his Inferno is, especially in the original Italian. Purgatorio and Paradiso are kind of boring. But still better love stories than Paradise Lost.

Pox

Despite popular misconception, this is not what Mercutio wished on the houses of Montague and Capulet before he dies in Act III of Romeo & Juliet. That would have been a plague. A pox was something different, more like a symptom, and this brings us to the first English word on the list. Pox is the plural of the old English word pocke, which referred to any kind of pustule, blister, or ulcer. The Black Plague was full of those.

Now you’re probably wondering: How does an English plural end in “X?” Simple. At one time, the plural form of words that ended in –k or –ck didn’t take an s. They changed to x. The most famous example of this is the New York borough of The Bronx. It was named for a Swedish settler, Jonas Bronck. Originally, the term was possessory: Bronck’s Land and Bronck’s River. The “x” spelling crept in, and “the” was retained although land and river were dropped to indicate that they were specific entities instead of just an abstract place name.

Pox don’t have a lot to do with corona virus, but one particular type of pox has everything to do with how we came up with the next item on our list.

Vaccine

In the 18th century, a particularly nasty viral disease was circulating: smallpox. (No, there’s not a large pox.) At best, it left its victims horribly scarred. At worst, it killed them. But there was an urban legend going around: milkmaids, who often caught the non-lethal and minor disease called cowpox (for obvious reasons), never contracted smallpox.

A physician named Edward Jenner decided to test this theory in the most ethical way possible. No, I’m kidding. He found an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, inoculated him with gunk from a milkmaid’s pustule and then, after a while, inoculated him with smallpox.

Luckily for Jenner, the kid didn’t get sick, and so the idea of a vaccination was born. The name itself comes from part of the Latin name for the smallpox virus, Variolae vaccinae. The second word, vaccinae, is an inflected form of the Latin word for cow.

And vaccination works, kids. It doesn’t cause autism, and it’s safe. Case in point: smallpox was finally eradicated in 1979. Although, keep in mind, it could always come back, and the culprit could be climate change.

Sorry about that downer. But this is why we have to be so vigilant and serious about communicable diseases. Stay home, stay safe, and don’t forget the tip jar!

Image (CC BY-SA 3.0) courtesy of Alpha Stock Images, used unchanged. Original author, Nick Youngson.

Sunday Nibble #63: Dyning out

One of the neat things about Greek and Latin is that they use stems and affixes to create a whole lot of words with complex meanings. The affixes are prefixes and suffixes that can completely change the meaning of words.

The prefixes are largely prepositional in nature, but they can also act as adjectival markers. For example, contra-, re-, ab-, and inter- all indicate some sort of physical relationship: Against, back, from, and among. These are prepositions.

Then there are prefixes like ben-, semi-, multi-, and sub-: Good, half, many, and insufficient; adjective. If course, they do overlap, since they’re just creating words rather than sentences.

Most Latin affixes have Greek counterparts. Well, actually, it’s the other way around, since Greek came first. But from one to the other, contra- is anti-; ab- goes with apo-; and re- and inter- have no matches. Likewise, ben- goes with eu-; semi- matches hemi-; multi- hooks up with poly-; sub- matches hypo-.

English lifted a lot of words directly from both languages but frequently with a French influence, which removed typical Latin noun declensions.

Greek was heavily tied up with Western Medicine from the beginning, Latin became first the lingua franca of an Empire and then the religious language of a continent, and then both were eventually preserved and used as the scholarly languages of the Renaissance — when religion was given back to the vernacular.

A lot of it stuck, and you’ll see a lot of Greek and Latin in medicine to this day: prescription, vaccine, hypodermic, and hypochondriac, for example. Of course, a lot of more modern words will just jam the two together. Words like antacid, bigamy, claustrophobia (in fact, a lot of phobias), dysfunction, and liposuction are all considered hybrid words.

But the real power (pun intended) comes in how many different words can come from one stem just by changing the affixes. Today, we’re looking at the stem -dyn, which means power or force — hence the pun.

Here are a few variations.

Dyne: At its most basic, in modern terminology, the stem is a unit of measure. One dyne is equal to the force required to produce a change of velocity in one gram of mass in one second equal to one centimeter per second. If that’s a bit confusing, think of producing a change as just accelerating the mass, but then forget that acceleration only means “pushing forward.” When you hit the brakes on a car, for example, you’re just accelerating backwards, more or less.

Dynasty: Ultimately from Greek dynasthai, with the “thai” ending referring to a class of people. Pretty clearly, it means “people of power,” or those with the leadership roles. It’s resemblance to the English words “die nasty” are pure coincidence.

Dynamic: Basically, the moving force in anything, whether it’s a working machine or the plot of a play, movie, or novel. This gave us words like aerodynamic, photodynamic, thermodynamic, and so on. Aerodynamic also gave us…

Aerodyne: Which was derived by shortening aerodynamic. Specifically, it describes any aircraft that uses principals of aerodynamics to generate lift and so is, by definition, heavier than air. Contrast this to aerostat, which refers to a lighter-than-air ship, like a balloon or blimp, that uses gas to generate buoyancy and lift. Here, the dyne part is replaced with the Greek stem -stasis, which means still or motionless, or quite the opposite of power and force. An aerostat essentially just sits there and lets the gas lift it.

Heterodyne: and others; there are a number of dyne words invented to refer to radio frequency generators from days when they were trying to perfect the techniques. They’re all just variations on how things were done, but this one is typical. The prefex, hetero-, means other. Basically, this was a method of taking two different radio frequencies and combining them, ending up with one that was the sum of their frequencies and the other that was their difference. (Short version: one mix would line up the peaks of the waves and the other would line up peaks and troughs.) Usually only one of the resulting frequencies is used, though.

Dynamite: Finally, here’s one that combines Greek with English. Invented by Alfred Nobel and patented in 1867, his guilt over its destructive power and early use in warfare led him to establish the Nobel Peace Prize. Ironically, dynamite fell out of favor with the military, who replaced it with TNT (not the same thing) because the latter was more stable, immune to weather conditions, and needed a blasting cap or other charge to set it off. On the other hand, dynamite was very susceptible to the weather, decaying quickly, and was also prone to flames, sparks, or a sudden shock making it go “boom.” Remember: one of the main ingredients in dynamite is nitroglycerin.

Now here’s a fun challenge — see how many Greek and Latin affixes and stems you can spot in words in this story that are not specifically listed as having such, or do it with anything you might happen to read next.

The commonality of such constructions might make you hyperventilate.

Of wigs and words

I ran across a very useful and interesting phrase in Spanish today — interesting because there are actually various versions of it. It is: “ni calvo ni con dos pelucas,” which literally means “either bald or with two wigs,” although I’ve seen it with varying numbers of wigs, at least up to seven. (Another fun fact: Unlike English cats, which have nine lives, Spanish cats only have seven.)

But the meaning of the phrase is simply that neither extreme — having too little or having too much — is good, and you should aim for the middle. And now that you know the word for wig, peluca, you might be able to recognize another word you may see on businesses: peluquería, which is derived from it; the c to q change is very common in Spanish. And no, this word does not mean wig-maker. It means hairdresser or barber shop.

The word for bald, calvo, might remind you of another Spanish word you may have seen: calavera, which means skull, or calvario, which refers to Calvary, the Latin word for the hill Jesus was crucified on and which was known as Golgotha, or Gólgota in Spanish, from the Greek word Γολγοθᾶ. This gets really interesting, because that word came from Aramaic, Gûlgaltâ (obviously not in the original characters) and wound up also being translated into Greek as Κρανίου Τόπος.

Now if you transliterate that Greek into the Latin alphabet, it might be more obvious: Kraniou topos. “Cranium” is pretty clear in the first word, and topos means place — hence the word “topography,” or writing about places. All of the words above refer to “Place of the Skull” and, apparently, that hill sort of resembled one.

In case you’re wondering, yep. The name “Calvin” comes from the same roots and originally meant “Little Bald One.” Same goes for the author Italo Calvino, whose name rather unfortunately meant “Little Bald One from Italy.” Ironically, he never really went all that bald. But we can now see that using somewhat negative terms to refer to people losing their hair goes back quite a long time in human history.

Finally, here’s a nice twist on it showing how strong the influence of Latin has been on most Western European Languages. The German word for bald is kahl, and you’ll find similar-sounding words for it in a lot of other European languages. Interestingly, even a language as unrelated as Finnish has “kalju,” which is clearly related. The common thread seems to be the hard “K” and the “L” ending. Play around with that long enough, and “skull” just pours itself right out of the sounds.

This does make me wonder whether George R. R. Martin wasn’t playing around when he named a character Khal Drogo, although khal also means “vinegar,” hence “bitter,” in Arabic, as well as “canal” in Bengali, more on which below. Although it also evokes Genghis Khan, who could certainly be taken as a role model for the character in every way, and which may have been more what Martin was going for.

As for the Drogo surname, on the one hand, it invokes the Latin draco, dragon (and hence Draco Malfoy, whose last name means “bad faith” in French), on the other hand, Drogo is also the word for “expensive” in Polish.

And this is why languages fascinate me, because it’s just so damn fun to look at how they’re connected and how they influence each other, and how long-dead empires and cultures can still have an impact to this day because of the literature and influence they left behind. It’s also interesting to see how similar sounding words have no connections whatsoever. For example, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, was named after a city on the Scottish Isle of Mull, which came for the Norse words kald and gart, for “cold garden.” And Kolkata, in India, was either named for the goddess Kali or for its original location on a canal, or khal. Although they both sound like it, neither one has anything to do with Calvary. Or, for that matter, the cavalry, but let’s not horse around with that one right now.

And that’s enough PUNishment for the moment.