Sunday, August 21, 2011

Racial Impurity and Gender Confusion

Here's a speculation. I'm reading John McWhorter's new book What Language Is (Gotham Books, 2011), which begins with a lengthy discussion of the difference in complexity among languages. Some have intricate systems of case, gender, or counting; others don't. This much I knew already. McWhorter argues, though, with numerous examples, that the "simpler" languages are usually the result of a sudden influx of speakers trying to learn them as adults. Infants acquiring their first language can, and do, master complex grammars effortlessly. After about the age of fifteen, this ability shrivels up, and few adults can learn new language with any fluency. Therefore they tend to simplify the new language, stripping away verb conjugations, noun cases, genders, and expressive particles. Their children learn the simplified version, and if there's a critical mass of such new speakers, they may affect the language as a whole: "over generations," as McWhorter says, "the very essence of what [a language] is starts to change. Namely, it gets simpler" (24). His first example is ancient Persian, but English went through a similar process.
English, like Persian, was stunted by too many adults learning it for an extended period of time. In this case it was the Scandinavian Vikings who invaded, starting in the eighth-century A.D., and stayed on to marry local women and knit themselves into English society. As new waves of Vikings kept blowing in over generations, children grew up hearing as much "funny" English as native: that is, without gender, using here instead of hither, chucking the difference between has seen and is departed, and so on. Scribes kept writing Old English more or less as if this wasn't happening, but then ... the Norman Conquest put written English on pause.

For two centuries, the written language of England was French, and when English started being used on paper [parchment and vellum, more likely] again, it was "middle" in the same way as Persian when it came back to light -- slimmed down and more user-friendly [27-28].
How do languages become complex in the first place? McWhorter argues that this a consequence of what he calls "ingrown" languages, where a population is relatively isolated, and so has the time and freedom to elaborate its language.
Even if we are aware that what is unusual is when a language is less complicated rather than when it is extremely complicated, a temptation always looms to attribute the complexity of language to some kind of utility. The idea that it is due to something as wan as drift or incremental habit formation sits awkwardly in the mind, especially for speakers of a moderately complex a language as English. Surely, we may think, all of that machinery in a language like Pashto must be for something. It couldn't just be buildup, like some ring in a bathtub [55].
McWhorter thinks that language complexity is just buildup, and gives plenty of reasons for believing that the complications "vastly overshoot anything that would be of any use to a child getting a grip on the system."
Languages are complicated because they can be. They complicate as a natural result of millennia of habits developed by people using them quickly and unconsciously. Because babies can pick languages up despite the massive accretion of complexity this yield, languages stay complex -- unless something intervenes, such as grown-ups learning them [59].
So, on to my speculation. McWhorter's discussion reminded me of gender, which after all relates to language. English is a relatively ungendered language compared to many others, such as French or German or Spanish. But in such languages, which randomly assign genders to inanimate objects, such as la mesa (how do you tell whether a table is masculine or feminine?), there are also contradictions.
German has a suffix, -chen, that makes things dear and small ... and it has neuter case. That means it takes the article das instead of the masculine der or feminine die. ... But once that suffix exists, you just know that somewhere along along the line, -chen will be applied, quite logically, to a woman to create a word meaning something like girly or maiden. It was: Mädchen. But that meant, automatically, an irregularity -- das Mädchen is a neuter word even though it refers to something clearly female [71].
In Spanish, -o is a masculine ending, but the word for hand is feminine: la mano. And so on.

Anyway, this got me to thinking about the way young children assign gender to objects in the world around them, as described by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender (Norton, 2010).
At just ten months old, babies have developed the ability to make mental notes regarding what goes along with being male and female: they will look longer, in surprise, at a picture of a man with an object that was previously only paired with women, and vice versa. This means that children are well-placed, early on, to start learning the gender ropes. As they approach their second birthday, children are already starting to pick up the rudiments of gender stereotyping. There's some tentative evidence that they know for whom fire hats, dolls, makeup, and so on are intended before their second birthday. And at around this time, children start to use gender labels themselves and are able to say to which sex they themselves belong [211].
But even as they are forming themselves into little gender cops, they can be fooled, because so many of their gender categories are as arbitrary and fanciful as the notion that a hand is feminine or a girl is neuter:
Indeed, so powerful are these metaphorical gender cues that five-year-old children will confidently declare that a spiky brown tea set and an angry-looking baby doll dressed in rough black clothing are for boys, while a smiling yellow truck adorned with hearts and a yellow hammer strewn with ribbons are for girls [224].
So this makes me wonder if the elaboration of such cues might be connected to the elaboration of linguistic categories, both of which seem to be congenial to children, but which can be and sometimes have to be abandoned. In the case of gender, the fanciful imposition of rigid categories, the insistence that everything has to be crammed into one or the other box, doesn't work for most adults. There's a popular tendency to blame bigotry on adult indoctrination of children, but I don't believe it's always so. I think a lot of it is invented by children trying to make sense of the world, who find it difficult and painful to break down the walls they set up at an early age, especially since our minds "harden" as we get older. Just a thought, though.