This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

He and she signs

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

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Relational language: the language of cousins

Trees

It would always throw people when we told them. The four of us – my sister and I, and the two boys – spent all our school holidays together, and we all had dark hair. So when people asked if my “brothers” wanted an ice cream too, I’d have to take a deep breath and explain – in the long-suffering way that only a ten-year-old can – that they weren’t actually my “brothers” but my “second cousins once removed”. Typically, the reaction would be one of deep befuddlement (particularly from other children: “removed from what??”) Meanwhile, anyone vaguely familiar with the workings of kinship would hazard tentatively, “But if they’re once removed…why are they the same age as you?” (If you can guess why we were all more or less the same age, check your answer at Age is just a number.)

So this article is an attempt to help you fathom out your family tree, or at least the lower branches. First, though, let’s look at the pedigree of the word cousin itself.

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Microfiction: Terminal

Door

“They’ve called me back,” she says, letter in hand.

“You’ll be fine, mum,” they all soothe. “Look, it’s snowing!”

White flakes. White coats. White lies.

“I’m very sorry -” but he isn’t, at all -“There’s nothing more we can do.”

No. She’s not ready. She has unfinished business. “Nothing?”

He’s scrawling away.

“Except the usual,” he says, nodding to a door in the corner, an ordinary door, with “Enjoy!”

She opens the door and steps through to sunshine and sea, her bare feet tiny on hot sand.

“And where’ve you been?” asks mum, shaking out a towel.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

Poetry: Aphrodizzyacked

Bougainvillea

Onyx eyes, you hypnotize

My polyandrous heart.

I came in here ambivalent

But found my counterpart.

Though you’re a born philanderer

And I’m more orthodox,

We dialogue, philosophize,

And synch outside the box.

We’re sympathetic telepaths,

And metaphysically

You’re zinging pyrotechnics

Throughout my anatomy

With cryptic, enigmatic,

Hypercharismatic charm.

You render me ecstatic

When you pseudo-brush my arm.

So let’s be democratic

And put it to the vote:

Let’s abandon logic after

Your next anecdote,

And convert to kinetic all

That latent energy.

Kiss and decakiss my

Epidermal geography.

You can be my sine, my cosine,

My hypotenuse,

And I will be adjacent,

Perpendicular, your muse.

Let’s create a synthesis

Of perfect geometry,

Since loving is cathartic, but

love’s just hyperbole.

I don’t care about tomorrow!

Let’s hedonize tonight!

Kaleidoscopophilia,

Ephemeral delight.

Autograph my psyche

In your mythologic guise.

Tonight I’m Aphrodite,

You are Eros, telling lies.

© Joanna Rubery 2017

Chasing the rainbow connection

Rainbow at Pauanui

Reflect and refract

When was the last time you looked out the window and said, “Oh look! There’s a many-coloured refraction of light from drops of water!”? Well – OK, if you said that last week then feel free to skip the next paragraph, but most of us refer to the sudden splash of colours in the sky as a rainbow, an eye-catching natural phenomenon which has been rich in cultural significance throughout human history.

The science behind rainbows is reasonably straightforward: when sunlight hits a raindrop, it slows down and is refracted, or made to change direction. The raindrop acts as a tiny prism, splitting the white light into all its individual hues. Some of this light is reflected back and further refracted on entering the air again, dispersing outwards to create the spectrum of shades whose names we probably all remember from the school playground.

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1001 Words: Stranded in Sihanoukville

The beach at Sihanoukville

Ten minutes after take-off, our “luxury” bus from Phnom Penh rolls straight into the back of an elderly biker in shades. The old man, whose passenger is a pile of cut grass, starts to loudly demand “many doll-ar!” in compensation. Reality shimmers in the heat, and the traffic begins to flow round us like a shoal of dirty fish. There’s time for an Aussie backpacker to buy and eat a whole dish of pork noodles before we chug on, amid the honking, down the cratered road to the coast.

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A Word a Day keeps the cobwebs away: our weird and wonderful “Words of the Day”

Cobweb

Who knew?

Some of the words that have arrived in your inbox this year may look or sound familiar but have unexpected meanings. Who could have guessed that one sense of the French word baraque is hefty person, for instance, or that Bach in German actually means brook? And in Italian the word bottega (shop or workshop), so often seen in restaurant titles, has another rather unexpected sense demonstrated in the following phrase: hai la bottega aperta = your flies are undone.

On the same theme, it’s useful to know that if a French man is talking about his tablettes de chocolat (literally chocolate bars) he’s referring to his six-pack, or that another meaning of choucroute (literally sauerkraut) is a beehive hairdo. And London residents may not be surprised to find out that in Italian fumo di Londra (literally London smoke) means dark grey; while an Italian medusa, on the other hand, is actually a jellyfish.

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The language of leap years

Leaping

What have Italian composer Rossini and American rapper Ja Rule got in common? A number of possible answers may leap to mind here, but the one I’m looking for is that the two musicians were both born on a date that is mysteriously elusive: 29 February. Except that 2012 is a leap year, and so this year the estimated 5 million or so leaplings, leapers, or leap-year babies around the world actually get to blow out the candles on the cake for their quadrennial celebration. During the intervening common years, however, the timing of their birthday festivities depends on the laws of whichever land they’re in. In New Zealand, a leaplings official birthday is deemed to be 28 February, whereas in Britain it’s 1 March. If you timed it right, you could fly from one country to the other for the world’s longest birthday.

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Microfiction: The Other Side

Mum and baby

“Mummy!” Hot hands on my face: “Wake up!”

Kisses for breakfast. Hugs for lunch. We dance in the bathroom and sing on the stairs. I wrap him up warm and we wander down to the park again, stopping for sweets. That miserable shop girl never smiles!

He’s running across the road when the four-by-four nearly flattens him again and I scream, but then he waves at me from the other side, as always. I wave back.

“Alice,” says a familiar voice. That shop girl. “You can’t keep pretending, my love.” Her hand on my arm. “You can’t bring him back.”

© Joanna Rubery 2017