Tag Archives: Language

The Language of Living Things

How do birds chirp? This is a question I asked myself yesterday while taking a walk and listening to a songbird.

Do they have vocal cords? Do they blow air through their nostrils? Or is it something I can’t even fathom, like maybe a hum that starts in their bellies? I’d like to know the answer.

Somehow, the universe must have heard my question, because last night my husband turned on the TV to watch NOVA, and the episode was about how animals communicate. And although it didn’t specifically answer my question about how birds sing, it did have some fascinating things to say about the language of animals.

Did you know, for example, that male spiders have a vocal language when they mate, and that whales have certain hit songs that spread from ocean to ocean like the British Invasion of 1964?

We humans have much in common with other animals when it comes to language, and I’m not just talking about our mating behavior. Take Zipf’s Law, for example, which I learned about for the first time last night on NOVA. According to Zipf (by the way, I’m not sure how to pronounce Zipf, but he probably could tell me if he were still alive, since he was a linguist), there’s a universal rule when it comes to language.

Using computers, linguists have analyzed large texts in several languages and have found that if you rank the words in order according to how often they appear, there’s a mathematical relationship (Zipf’s Law):

  • The frequency of word #1 is two times that of word #2,
  • the frequency of word #1 is three times that of word #3,
  • and so on.

If you plot it on a graph, it makes a straight line (slope) from upper left to lower right. And the same graph happens no matter what language you use. It even works with vocalizations of dolphins, elephants, and birds!

I don’t pretend to know much about animal language, but it’s already changed how I react when I listen to the birds sing.

I wonder if they write poetry, too?

He, She, or It: On Gender in Language

It is widely known that the languages that descended from Latin (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.) utilize gender in their grammatical structure. Nouns are either masculine or feminine, but rarely neutral. But did you know that many other languages also use gender (and other quite different systems) to classify nouns?

According to Wikipedia:

– 76 world languages (including English, Japanese, and Turkish) are gender-neutral
– 39 (including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and Welsh) have a masculine/feminine noun system
– many languages (such as Danish, Hittite, and several Native American) use a classification system of animate vs. inanimate rather than gender to determine grammar rules
– Hawaiian languages use a system based on things you have control over vs. things beyond your control (I’m simplifying a bit here)
– some languages have developed a system of more than three “genders” or classification systems (including Tuyuca, spoken in the eastern Amazon, which is estimated to have between 50 and 140 different noun classes).

In today’s emphasis on gender equality, and sometimes on gender neutrality, are masculine/feminine and other distinctions within nouns still relevant? Or are they destined to go the way of the rotary phone, natural hair color, and the bookstore down the street?

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up. Well, it has to do with something we discussed in Spanish class last night — something that got the old brain cells spinning once again. (I really like when that happens. It gives me something to blog about.)

The topic of last night’s class was Names, which branched off (as our class discussions often do) into a discussion of titles such as Señor, Señora, and Señorita. We learned from our “maestra” (teacher — and yes, she happens to be a maestra, not a maestro) that the practice of calling a woman Señorita if she’s unmarried (the equivalent of being a virgin in the old days) but Señora if she’s married is going out of style in Mexico and elsewhere.  It’s becoming more popular to just use Señor and Señora. This change is similar to the use of the title “Ms.” in English, although there isn’t a Spanish word for “Ms.” — yet.

I’ve seen some people using an “x” at the end of words that normally indicate gender with an “a” or an “o,” as, for example: Latinx). This might simplify things if you don’t know the gender or don’t want to be sexist, and is similar to our trend in the U.S. of using endings such as “person” (chairperson) or of just dropping the “ess,” “ette” and other unnecessary, diminutive tags that for some reason connote something of lesser substance. (I hate it when I catch myself saying “stewardess,” but why does making something female imply that it is lesser? Just another question to set my brain cells spinning.)

Our “maestra” — should I be calling her “maestrx“? — mentioned that there’s even a movement afoot somewhere to use the @ symbol in place of the -a and -o endings on Spanish nouns that refer to people —  such as changing “amigos” or “amigas” to “amig@s“. That way nobody’s offended. Except that people are offended, she warned — people who feel it insults the Spanish-speaking world. By changing one of the foundational rules of that language, it can be seen as an attack on the culture. I agree with that point of view. You shouldn’t mess with someone’s language. Just look at the harm done when the government banned Native American languages in schools.

As an American whose first language was English, I’m not going to change the word endings in anyone’s language to x or @ or any other symbol unless it’s okay with them. But as for myself, I do like Ms. so much better than Miss or Mrs.

P.S. In Spanish, the word “cheer” (humor) is masculine, but “pepper” (pimiento or pimienta) can be either masculine or feminine, depending on the type of pepper. What type of pepper are you?

(This post is part of a blog challenge for the month of November called “Nano Poblano.” A Cheer Pepper is a member of that group who cheers the others on.)

(Also, thanks to Meg for allowing me to use my photo of her paper zombies!)

Badge 2017