Language Beef

One of my major beefs with European languages is that stupid custom of giving everything a gender — in Latin, a table  is feminine but a house  is masculine (sometimes, depending on the sense of the sentence);  in French a car  is feminine but a horse  is masculine;  and in German, a train  is masculine but a railway  is feminine, and so on.

No wonder they’ve had to declare war on each other every decade or so.

Basically, it’s Latin’s fault.  That Roman nonsense gave every word a gender (with the wonderful addition of a neuter gender which wasn’t very common).  Additionally, Latin has no articles (the, a, an etc.) — which I think is why words had  to have a gender, so that the listener could determine to which word an adjective was being applied to.  Here’s a little summary:

There is a stark difference between English and Latin’s treatment of gender. Only words in English that indicate a biological sex have a masculine or feminine gender. All others are considered neuter. Latin, however, applies gender to many words even when biological sex is not intimated.

No wonder the bloody thing died off.

But that’s not the end of the story, oh no.

As European languages modernized, they added articles — except that with gendered nouns, the articles had to change to continue the form.  Hence la roche  (rock), le matin  (morning) and so on.  German went the same way:  der Zug (train), die Eisenbahn (railway), etc.

All that, so that this little meme would make sense to everybody who’s not a language dork like I am:

Of course, as can be seen in the above, the Germans took the thing to its logical conclusion and over-complicated their language almost to the point of impossibility, making the article also reflect the nouns’s declension case  as well as its gender.  Don’t get me started.

At least the Germans are usually too polite to correct you when you screw up, and will sometimes even switch to English if they can.  The French, however, have no such scruples and will correct your grammar, loudly and often with a smirk — which makes my already-fragile temper turn homicidal in a millisecond.

Thank goodness English is gradually taking over as the international language of business, and is the backbone of this here Intarwebz thingy.

I still read Le Parisien  once a week, though.


  1. I’ve borrowed a metaphor or two to make this point elsewhere: English isn’t really a language, it’s three languages in a horse costume pretending to be a giraffe. (And I may be underestimating it at three, but hey.)

  2. Point of order! You need to go back farther than Latin. The multiplicity of words for The goes back to pre-Classical Greek, and likely more ancient than that. But you can probably blame Byzantium.

    1. Much farther back. Try Proto-Indo-European (PIE, mmh PIE) 4500 BC to 2500 BC. Ancestor to languages from Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Farsi (Persian), Russian, Greek, German, Swedish, Latin and its daughters, and even Gaelic. I know that last one is a stretch, calling Gaelic a proper language, but it was all that the poor Irish brains could handle, so we’ll be generous. 😉

  3. And that my friends is why I don’t really give a shit about other languages, had Spanish in high school, French in college – one year and the way language was taught in the early 1960’s I had no idea how to actually speak and communicate in either one. I had a spoken German course in the Army when I was stationed in Kraut Land for three years and learned enough to order a meal and get a hotel room and say yes, the weather is nice, but I did know how to understand a lot and give a reply that was probably garbled stuff they could understand.

    Lots of Krauts, even in the 1960’s around Nuremberg could speak English when they wanted to because of our heavy military presence in the area and all of the jobs we provided. At times they would kind of do that ‘better than thou’ twist of the head upwards and sideways with a bit of a sniff and say, “I can speak English why can’t you speak German.” My reply was simple, “We won the war.” and ironically they would kind of grin and treat me a bit better because Germans really like to be put down and offended by their betters and they had been beat to shit and half starved after the war.

    As for English, the world over including Asia it has become the common language and a Chinese friend of mine in Dallas who traveled back a forth Shanghai to Dallas explained to me one day that most all of the educated Chinese use English because there are so many dialects and of course English as a shared common denominator works on computers much simpler and more explicit than a lot of Asian languages.

  4. The complication you illustrate is worse than you say. French and German are as different as the Earth and the Moon. (Le Monde and Das Mond).
    And if the French don’t like how I speak French, I can say, in English, “Well, I can always speak German.”
    All joking aside, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak [local language] very well at all seems to work wonders.

    1. My favorite expression to use in Europe was: “Please forgive my terrible _____, and speak to me as though to a retarded child.”
      Never failed to get a smile, along with soothing words — even from the French.

  5. I’m still quite fond of “The Chaos” which points out so many of English’s many vagaries too.

    The 1st 4 stanzas —

    Dearest creature in creation
    Studying English pronunciation,
    I will teach you in my verse
    Sounds like corpse, corps, horse and worse.

    I will keep you, Susy, busy,
    Make your head with heat grow dizzy;
    Tear in eye, your dress you’ll tear;
    Queer, fair seer, hear my prayer.

    Pray, console your loving poet,
    Make my coat look new, dear, sew it!
    Just compare heart, hear and heard,
    Dies and diet, lord and word.

    Sword and sward, retain and Britain
    (Mind the latter how it’s written).
    Made has not the sound of bade,
    Say-said, pay-paid, laid but plaid.

    1. I think KdT is bragging. ( Then again he probably has bragging rights, given his abilities).
      Lord above, most of the Oz newspapers are an insult to ones intelligence. I cancelled my sub to the one that emanates from the capitol of our State. I still read the Weekend Australian, so that nearly puts me in Kim’s league!

  6. Ironically, English has become the lingua Franca of the world.

    This is especially true since our country is governed by an apex predator and the rest of the world is ruled by Kafkaesque bureaucracies led by wussy socialists

  7. Ah, lingua Franca, Latin for the Frankish language as a universal language. True in the old times.

    In Belgium at the Marriott just a few miles away from the European Union headquarters, all the signage was in one language only — English. Who is going to learn Danish outside of Denmark? Finnish? Hungarian?

    By all means learn the customs and pleasantries of a foreign land, it is easy for a traveler to inadvertently and innocently to insult a local. But as Mark Twain is said to have said about the French: “I’ll be damned if I could get them to understand their own language”

  8. I’m Canadian, born to German post war immigrants and I didn’t speak English until I was five, and was forced to attend German school every Saturday morning until I was 14.

    You forgot a few, eg “Whose”, a simple English pronoun, which the Germans twist into
    deren: their, whose, of which, of those
    dessen: whose, its, of which
    wessen: whose, plural I think, but I’ve been trying for 54 years to forget the whole damn works
    wes: whose: singular, maybe, but again, who cares.

    Plus I went to a Catholic boys school where they forced me to learn rudimentary Latin, which, oddly, I enjoyed. “Urinare contra ventum”->advanced Catholic boys school igpay atinlay.

    But seriously, studying the languages of our partners and enemies is important. It’s the software that runs us and forms us. You are utterly correct and have great insight in noting that word ‘the’ is hugely, bigly important.

    It may be a major reason whey we win. It cuts to the heart of the matter. What is the thing? Not what sex is it or some other bullshit, what is it really?

    ‘The’, the word whose time has come, or das Wort dessen Zeit gekommen ist.

    Damn, I forgot all my sentences with a verb to end.

  9. To be fair, the word “the” does have two pronunciations: thuh and thee depending on whether the noun starts with a consonant or a vowel.

  10. ” the Germans took the thing to its logical conclusion and over-complicated their language almost to the point of impossibility…”

    See Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language”:

    Ah, woeful, woeful Ash-heap! Let us take him up tenderly, reverently, upon the lowly Shovel, and bear him to his long Rest, with the Prayer that when he rises again it will be a Realm where he will have one good square responsible Sex, and have it all to himself, instead of having a mangy lot of assorted Sexes scattered all over him in Spots.

    The “Ash-heap” being the remains of a fishwife whose basket was set on fire by lightning.

    1. P. J. O’Rourke once wrote that “German is a language that was developed solely to afford the speaker the opportunity to spit at strangers under the guise of polite conversation.”

      But then again he would, considering how his compatriots have mutilated the English language over the centuries.

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