H: Hallo again, it’s me, Herman. I’m back.
Etty Moloji who spoke to us once or twice a while ago would like to introduce us to her good friend and colleague Lynn Gwyst, who wants to talk to us today about sex.
E: Hallo everyone. I and my partner Dorian Hiss email: hissdorian@Yoohoo.com have had some wonderful intercourse with Lynn concerning the politics and sociology of language evolution, and what she doesn’t know about the ins and outs of tongues is nobody’s business. It’s fascinating stuff, so I’ll get out of your way.
L: Good day, Herman and Etty. I’m very pleased to be here today. I’m interested in general linguistics. I want to look at three words in particular: sex, gender and the other one’s too rude. Um, sorry Herman, I don’t think I can go on.
H: Ahem, a euphemism, perhaps, Lynn?
L: Oh, I couldn’t, not in all honesty, Herman. A euphemism is a kind of lie.
H: Well, yes, but sometimes they’re warranted.
Euphemism, me for use ‘em!
How about: “Sex, Gender and Rolling in the Hay?”
L: Well, really now, Herman, what are you suggesting? Euphemisms do terrible things to languages – like runs in stockings. You’ve got a good stout word for – erm, you know – and you suddenly declare it obscene, taboo, illegal. This is because what it means is too rude. So you replace it with a word that means something else that only indirectly alludes to it until that gets the same meaning, which is too rude so that gets killed too, so you replace that too with some innocent word that gets contaminated, until someone thinks up a way of saying it (or not saying it in the case of words like coitus = a going together) in Latin, because nothing is obscene if you say it in Latin. Which is just as well because until then it’s just a running sore in the language, contaminating and morbidifying word after word. Think of all the words for toilet, and what they originally meant, if you know.
E: Rut’s all right, I think, Lynn.
L: Oh yes, certainly, Etty. Rut’s all right, if you’re ungulates. But as you go north in England, the vowel alters, and so does the meaning, and you’re not talking about deer anymore, you’ve got humans in mind and well, that’s vastly too rude. Unless you mean a plant’s feeding organ, which isn’t quite as bad.
H: Well, what about a Latinisation…
L: All right: Sex, Gender and Erotica. Howzat?
H: Mmmm, what do others think?
E: Erotica? Why. The e is obviously an old definite article, and rot is probably originally pronounced just like its too-rude English equivalent, and the -ic just adjectivalises it so that you can make a noun out of it bu adding –a; and the noun, EROS EROTIS (m) has been commandeered as a name for a god. Why not just call it rut?
L: Well, all right. Ah hmmm. I’d like to talk to you all about Sex, Gender and Rut.
Now to begin with, sex is whether an animal, flower or flower part is male or female – boy or a girl – a daddy or a mummy. It is not rut. Rut is the reproductive act in its many and varied contexts, from flirtation to – erm…
C: Try to keep it clean, please, Ms Gwyst.
L: Who are you?
C: The censor.
L: Oh. Well, all right, there’s really no need for it to be disgust. I mean discussed. You see, I’m really eager to get at this Gender. Shall we?
H: Oh yes, do please, Lynn.
L: Gender is a grammatical term. It is not a biological term. It doesn’t mean sex.
E: It does now. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
L: Oh, look, if you’re all going to be beastly…
H: No, no, no, Lynn. Etty’s only teasing you. Tell us all about Gender.
L: Honestly, class, Gender started out as a grammatical term. Do you think French tables are girls while Irish tables are boys? Do you think a spear reminded the Romans of girls, while a flower looked manly to them? And did they denote a lack of either masculine traits or feminine ones in a building, a column of soldiers, or a javelin, or were these felt to be more neutral in some way? No, of course not. Yes, girl at the back? Yes, you are quite correct. We don’t know what native speakers of Latin thought about it at all. We don’t know whether they thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain ideas or things had – proof of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages (which aren’t really all that old if they’re honest about it). But it’s highly unlikely in view of the fact that an altogether more mundane and relatively modern circumstance sexualised the innocent genders of the pure and simple words that became Latin, French, Irish, or whatever. Can anyone guess what it is? No Robert, not reconstructionist time-travellers from the 22nd century. No, Sylvia, nothing to do with the animistic nature of words driving the evolution of words such that they trying to become life-forms and reproduce like animals, although it’s worth a glance, that idea, now that you come to mention it. No one else? Give up? All right, I’ll tell you. It was – erm…
E: Oh, Lynn.
L: …well, you know.
H: Do you mean…
L: Yes, Herman, I do. You see, males and females er…
L: Yes, that’s the word. And they have children. And if they’re inbred, their off-spring become small and infertile. So communities distant enough to be speaking different languages arrange to marry each others’ merry merry maids to each others’ merry merry men and set up a new colony in a convenient place. Husbands speak one language, wives speak another. Wives rear children to age seven or so, so they grow up fluent in their mother-tongue. Fathers take the sons at age seven and they learn the father-tongue while the girls stay with their mother-tongue. The original husbands can’t understand the women, but their sons grow up speaking both languages well. You still have two distinct languages for a few generations, but after a while, many structural features would coalesce. But you’d still have a memory of which words came originally from the women and which words came from the men. (Also treatments of words, case-endings etc.) Yes, Edwin, I’ve thought of that too, of how the neuter came into being in languages like Latin, German and Greek, and why it isn’t there in French, Irish, and Spanish (well hardly at all). A neuter is added when large amounts of vocabulary enter the language through some means other than by inter-marriage – through mercenaries and other military allies, educators, priesthoods etc for example.
H: Well, the idea’s ridiculous of course, Lynn – you won’t mind me saying that, will you. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language doesn’t mention it anywhere, so we can safely dismiss it, can’t we?
E: Yes, Herman’s right, I think, Lynn. In fact I think we should, straight away, before it gets mistaken for a useful insight leading to really worthwhile discoveries about the linguistic situation of pre-renaissance europe, and thence to understanding of the social and political forces driving language evolution in those times, and from there all the way to new insights about the mind and manners of our ancestors. That would spoil it for those who like their history deep, dark, and mysterious,which is to say unintelligible, so as to remain free to fantasise about it at great public expense.
H: Thank you Etty, for those thoughts, and thank you Lynn Gwyst for your illuminating chat. For homework, class, I’d like four and a half to five and a half thousand words on ‘whether ancient Romans thought of the different genders of nouns as being related to sexual qualities they felt or thought they felt that certain things or ideas had – and whether or not this is evidence of an archaic animistic tendency still lingering in the ‘older’ languages. (HINT: try to avoid facts, since there aren’t any which support this theory and there are several which gravely endanger if not vanquish it.)