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Quiddidites

W.V.O Quine

Social change has linguistic repercussions; see LANGUAGE DRIFT. The latter-day upheaval in sexual mores has increased the frequency of occasions for referring politely to copulation, and has thus created a demand for a short but equally polite word for the practice. The word sex has been pressed into that service, and thus rendered less convenient as a means of refer- ring to the sexes. The resulting need has been met in turn by calling the sexes genders. For the space of the ensuing remarks, however, I shall continue to refer to the sexes as sexe.s," and shall reserve the word gender for genders.

In the original meaning a gender is simply a kind, irrespective of sex. The word comes from the ablative genere of the Latin genus via the French genre. Nouns and adjectives in our familiar languages divide into kinds, or genders. We do indeed associate genders with sexes by calling them masculine and feminine, and for a good reason: nouns for males are mostly masculine, and nouns for females mostly feminine. At the time of the original Indo-European language, our ancestors were perhaps much preoccupied with sex differences, and projected them, in an animistic spirit, all across nature.

Such, perhaps, was the irrational origin of gender as we know it. But its survival value is an independent matter, and resides in the utility ofgender in sorting out anaphora, or cross- references. In complex sentences there is a continual threat of ambiguity as to which of two nouns is meant to be the ante- cedent of a given pronoun. We are told that

He removed the manuscript from the briefcase and cast it into' the sea

and are left wondering whether he cast the manuscript or the briefcase. In French, all is clear:

II retira Ie manuscrit de Ia serviette et Ie (la) jeta dans Ia mer.

 Manuscript, Ie; briefcase, la

As luck would have it, the two nouns differ in gender. And luck does have it thus, often enough to matter.

If there are three genders as in German, Latin, and Greek, and if in respect of frequency of occurrence the nouns of the language are equally distributed over the three genders, then it is the work ofa moment to compute that there are two chances out of three that ambiguities of the sort just noted will be averted by difference of gender. If the genders are two, as in the Romance languages, then the chances are even. Writers in those languages are thus spared half or two-thirds of the fum- bling that we writers of English are put to in recasting our sentences to keep the cross-references clear.

Gender disappeared from English except in the personal pro- nouns. Good riddance, say the students who chafe at learning French and German genders. In our struggles with cross-ref- erence, on the other hand, we have paid a price, and it mayor may not have been a bargain. Certainly there is much in gender to chafe at. The sexual clues to gender extend only to words for people and a few other animals, and even here they occa- sionally betray us, as witness das Weib and das Miidchen. Over the rest ofthe vast lexicon we grasp at formal regularities where we can; thus -chen, in German, is always neuter and -ee, in French, is usually feminine, as indeed is a mere final mute -e more often than not. In French -al) -el) -et) -eau) -eur are usually masculine.

But who would guess Ie musee) Ie beurre) la neJ, la peau) la fleur) la peur) la vertu) la foret? Mostly they can be explained to the extent ofpushing them back to Latin or Greek, but etymologies are no easier to learn than the genders them- selves. More fun, but no easier.

Even the adjective elysees is masculine, as in Champs Elysees. If it were ever called for in a feminine context, it would be a museum piece; thus vallees elyseees. The explanation of elysee and musee is that the -e- is not participial here, but represents rather a Greek ai. Very well, but why then add an e to the e?

I was once bemused by a sentence in which the feminine pronoun eIle referred back to the masculine subject Ie Docteur Franfoise Lebrun. The writer is torn; docteur is masculine, but the doctor is female. Cross-reference is a matter of words; has the writer confused sign and object? Or might hejustify himself by pleading that the grammatical antecedent is not docteur but Franfoise? Cutting thus into a compound subject is cutting things pretty fine. We see here something of the burden not of grammatical gender as such, but of the unholy alliance of gen- der with sex.

An ironical etymological point wants noting regarding that unholy alliance, on the heels of my etymological dissociation of the two. The parent word genus itself, for all its semantical irrelevance to sex, stems from the Indo-European root gen, 'beget', along with genesis) generate) genital. But this, I protest, has nothing to do with the case.

Gender is sometimes remarkably tenacious. La mana is glar- ingly at odds with Spanish and Italian patterns, but there it stands, a firm monument to the Latin manus) -us) f., hand. Yet there are cases where, for no such good reason, gender slips. Thus whereas the French dent, 'tooth', keeps its Latin feminin- ity, the Italian dente is masculine.

Image in French is an odd feminine among a host of masculine -ages. It is from the Latin feminine imago) accusative imaginem) whereas the usual source of -age is a late Latin -aticum. We might compliment the French on preserving the distinction in gender, but they muffed it in cartilage and mucilage) which went masculine from the feminine -aginem. The endings -aginem and -aticum did not converge in Italian, so gender held its own there. In Portuguese the whole lot were swept into the -aginem pattern, Portuguese -agem) feminine. In Spanish the matter is fussier; but enough of that.

Latin neuters regularly go masculine in the Romance lan- guages, but a funny thing happened to twenty or so of them in Italian. An example is uovo, 'egg'. The masculine singular I)uovo) from the Latin neuter ovum) presages a masculine pluralgli uovi) but we are startled to get instead a feminine plural

 uova.

Its -a is that of the Latin neuter plural ova, but -a suggests to an Italian a feminine singular. The confused and confusing resultant of these forces is this singular-looking feminine plural of a masculine singular. Similarly an arm, a knee, a lip, a bone, and a wall are masculine, but arms, knees, lips, bones, and walls are feminine. But let me not confuse words with things, nor sex with gender.

The Greek and Latin neuter singular problema and its ilk posed a different problem, for here it is the singular that sports the misleadingly effeminate -a. The Italian laudably recognizes the word as neuter, which goes into the Italian masculine: il prob- lema. But what of the plural? Singular -a in Italian normally gives plural -e, but normally it is feminine. What we find is i problemi, as if the singular had been problemo or probleme. Granted, i problemata is too much to ask.

Travelers abroad can be grateful for gender in distinguishing between turning right and going straight ahead: droite and droit. The words are alike except in gender, and stem from the Latin accusatives directam and directum; evidently directam got confused with dextram somewhere along the line. This created an ambiguity that was fortuitously resolved by the femininity of the word for 'hand'; droite is for Za main droite. The story is the same for Spanish and Portuguese.

Outside of Cefalu in Sicily there is a hostelry named Ie GaZette. It is common enough in Anglophone lands, if not in Italy, to give an establishment a French name pour Ie chic. Thus in Oberlin in the twenties there was a beauty parlor named Bon en Chant. Accents adorned the name in all three styles to lend an air of authenticity: Bon en Chant. GaZette, however unfamiliar, is French at a glance, as French as Maurice Chev- alier, but Ie Calette is naggingly indigestible; -ette is always feminine. Can the management, in their elegantly executed sign and leaflet, have committed a Bon en Chant? Comes, then, the dawn: Ie here is not a French singular masculine article, but an Italian plural feminine article. Calette is not a French feminine singular, but