Thursday, May 31, 2007

Personne...

What is most difficult about learning another language? My answer would be: the hardest part is figuring out the differences from your first language. That sounds stupid, I'm sure because--hey! It's another language. That means everything is different. Before I learned Spanish or French, I think I just assumed that other languages worked just the same as English, but with different words--like Pig Latin, if you know the key, you can speak and understand everything. But I was wrong.

The gender of nouns was particularly hard for me. I doubt that I am unique, because I think it must be pretty difficult for all anglophones. This gender-specific labeling struck me as sexist at first. Why is a tomato a girl in French but a boy in Spanish? Why are ears female while toes are male? Of course, there are some sexist constructions. For example, in Spanish from Spain, there is an informal second person plural pronoun: vosotros/as. The existence of this pronoun is not sexist, but the fact that you use the masculine version if there is even one man in a room of 500 women is. One of my professors in Spain had a difficult time remembering this--he was teaching a small class of 10 women and was always informal with us...

While in Spain, I even heard some half-baked theories about how language helped our society (American society, claro) become a democracy before others. Because there was no difference between formal and informal pronouns, we were enlightened and decided to treat everyone as equals. Language also helps explain the Queens of England, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Margaret Thatcher.

I sort of believed all this until I realized that the generic word for "person"--persona in Spanish and personne in French--was feminine. It struck me one day when a politician described another man: Il est une personne humaine, intelligente, et forte. ("He is a humane, intelligent , strong person"--but all the words are feminine.) So basically, although there are some sexist parts of Romance languages, I don't think that the very act of speaking that language can shape a sexist society (although I am suddenly reminded of some Orwellian themes--Newspeak, anyone?).

Wow, what a deep post! I am quite the thinker.

4 comments:

Caroline in Rome said...

In German, I was always offended by the fact that the word for little boy, "Der Junge", is masculine, whereas the word for little girl "Das Maedchen", is neuter. The Germans justify this on the grounds that the "chen" at the end of "Maedchen" is a diminutive and always renders a noun neuter. But then if we are to follow the rules that strictly, "Junge" should be feminine, because it ends in an "e".

jchevais said...

What got me is that it also means nobody. Ha! "Is someone there?", "Non... personne..."

Lady Iphigenia said...

Anything that has to do we learning languages fascinates me. Maybe I should learn Japanese. :-)

Gem said...

I think that the next language I want to learn is Japanese. Of course I should probably think about getting my Spanish up to snuff before I start anything new...