Sunday: Hili dialogue

March 5, 2017 • 6:30 am

Happy Sunday: March 5, 2017. It’s still cold in Chicago—a bit above freezing right now—but the high today is predicted to be at warm 57° F (14° C). As for food holidays, it’s National Cheese Doodle Day, but I’ll eschew those tubes of air-filled Styrofoam, though many do chew them. It’s also St. Piran’s Day in beautiful Cornwall, commemorating the patron saint of tin miners.

On this day in 1616, the Catholic Church added Copernicus’s work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres to its list of banned books. In 1770, the Boston Massacre took place, in which five Americans were shot by British troops: an incident that helped bring on our War of Independence. On March 5, 1933, after huge runs on banks, Franklin Roosevelt declared a “bank holiday” in the U.S., deepening the Great Depression.  On this day in 1940, the Soviet government, including Stalin, ordered the execution of over 25,000 Poles, including many intellectuals and prisoners of war. This led to the Katyn Massacre in April and May. Finally, on this day in 1963, Patsy Cline and three others were killed in a plane crash in Tennessee. She was 30. Here’s the Queen of Country, singing her most famous song—one composed by Willie Nelson and recorded by Cline in 1961:

Notables born on March 5 include Louis Kahn (1901), Rex Harrison (1908), Lynn Margulis (1938), Penn Jillette (1955), Andy Gibb (1958), and Eva Mendes (1974). Those who died on this day include Crispus Attucks (1770; possibly a slave, he was killed in the Boston Massacre and is often considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War), Edgar Lee Masters (1950), Sergei Prokofiev and Josef Stalin (both 1953), Patsy Cline (1963), and Hugo Chávez (2013). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili and Cyrus are conversing, but from separate sofas:

Cyrus: Do you have any bright ideas for what we can do today?
Hili: Yes, I have, but they’re not ripe yet.
(Photo: Sarah Lawson)
In Polish:
Cyrus: Masz jakis pomysł co będziemy robić?
Hili: Mam, ale jeszcze nie dojrzał.
(Foto: Sarah Lawson)
Lagniappe: in both Russian and French, there is no gender-neutral term for “cat”: you must refer to them by the male or female noun—unless they’re kittens, in which case there’s but a single word.  Learn how to say “cat” and “kitten” in Russian here, and in French here. (h/t: Michael)

51 thoughts on “Sunday: Hili dialogue

  1. In German, most traditionally known items and animals are gendered, including the cat (like in French and Russian) — that’s presumably the case in all Indo-European lanuages that retained genders.

    In German, the Katze is female. And the d*g, Hund is male. The kitten doesn’t have a separate word, but is either a diminuitive form of cat, Kätzchen or Kätzlein (probably based on regional dialect), or a compound that however has a dry legalese connotation, Katzenjunges (literally “cat-youngling”). Interestingly, children and babies are gender-neutral, and those of cats are too, as far as language is concerned (for comparison, Welpe for puppy is male, and Küken for chick is female). For cats, its however due to the diminuitive, which always (?) turns something gender-neutral.

    I know, important knowledge! 😀

    1. Ha, correction, Kücken is neutral, too. Now that I think of it, most babies of animals, if they have a special term appear gender-neutral as with humans and cats (e.g. Kitz for fawn, or Ferkel for piglet).

    2. “Interestingly, children and babies are gender-neutral, and those of cats are too, as far as language is concerned.

      In German, “boy” (“knabe” or “junge”) is masculine and “girl” (“mädchen”) is neuter. It could be explained by the “-chen” ending, being a diminutive, bit that doesn’t explain why the alternative, “mädel”, is also neuter.

      Grammatical gender is a deceptive term to nonlinguists. When it refers to grammar, the word is derived from Latin “gens”, meaning “type”. It is coincidental that Indo-European languages mostly use three genders that sometimes correspond to male and female. That does not explain, however, why some IE languages use differing genders for the same thing* (e.g., “bridge” is feminine in German but masculine in Romance languages*). Some languages have no gender system for nouns (English only retains gender in its pronouns and in certain metaphoric senses, such as calling ships “she”). Some have two (Finnish, for example, distinguishes not between male and female but animate and inanimate), and the record is twenty for Shona, a Bantu language (Shona treats singular and plural as genders instead of number). Some Slavic languages break down masculine and feminine further into animate and inanimate, giving them five genders.

      *One of the reason English lost its noun gender system is that when Old English began to merge with Norman French to become Middle and then Modern English, synonyms derived from the two languages often differed in gender, so the concept blurred until it faded altogether.

      1. Minor correction: genus (type) is the Latin etymon of our ‘gender’ (gens means ‘people’).

        Also, I think the loss of gender had more to do with contact with Scandinavian languages than it did with the Normans.

        1. Sorry, but weren’t the “Normans” one or two generations, but not many more, out of the longboats? Oderic IIRC … sacking Paris. Not Oderic, but “Reginherus”, or “Ragnar” ; 845, so 3 generations or so. Doesn’t that count as “contact with Scandinavians”?

          1. I said “contact with Scandinavian languages”. By the time the Normans arrived in England, they had already shifted to French.

        2. No for several reasons. One is that the Scandinavian influence in Britain was not as pervasive or enduring as the Normans, who imposed their rule over the whole of Britain, not just parts, while Nordic Vikings only had local control of small areas. Scandinavian influences do exist in English, particularly in the dialects of northern Britain (York was pretty much a Viking town) and parts of Scotland but the politically dominant south and southeast remained relatively free of those effects. Another is that while there was some loanword traffic, cognate words in Old English and Old Norse mostly had the same genders, so the gender conflicts that resulted when Norman French came in did not occur.

          By 1066, when the British immigration quotas were relaxed, the Normans had largely been assimilated by the French, if not culturally, definitely linguistically. What they spoke when they invaded was, for all practical purposes, Medieval French.

          1. Scandinavians occupied a large chunk of northern and eastern England (the Danelaw) from the 9th century and, while the gender of nouns might have matched, the inflectional expression of those endings wasn’t the same. (There was also a certain amount of dialectal variation in both Old English and Old Norse which would have added to the confusion.) There’s some evidence that the loss of case and gender was already underway by 1066. Because of the social stratification of Old/Middle English and Norman French, the contribution of the latter was largely lexical.

    1. Google Translate suggests:

      Cyrus: Do you have any idea what will we do?
      Hili: I have, but have not yet matured.

      I suspect that the nuanced humour of Ms Hili may have been lost.

  2. You can’t be gender-neutral in Russian and French because (as in many other European languages) *all* nouns have *grammatical* gender, which overlaps in some cases with ‘natural’ gender (sex) but is not synonymous with it.

    1. You could argue that the neuter gender in Russian is gender neutral since it’s neither masculine or feminine. In French there is only two genders of masculine or feminine.

      1. Functionally, Russian has five genders; there is neuter, but the masculine and feminine have both animate and inanimate categories that operate as four genders rather than two. This is a feature commonly found in East Slavic languages.

        1. So does that mean that you can use gender in place of case for inactive and active? I know that Russian has something like 7 cases as well.

          1. When you say “inactive and active” do you mean “passive and active”? If so, those are attributes of verbs in IE languages and not connected to whether a noun is animate or inanimate. Animate nouns (whether that is a distinct grammatical category or not) can take a verb in the passive voice, and inanimate nouns can take a verb in the active voice. However, there are some languages (e.g., in the Athabaskan language family) in which nouns take on aspects that we normally associate with verbs.

            1. No I’m thinking inking off how women cases are us d to indicate motion in some languages and some to indicate stasis. Like in German, the “Dative” can be used in some instances for lack of motion (I remembered it as “d” = “dead”). Perhaps Russian doesn’t need to use cases in this way if the gender embodies it or maybe it’s just another way of expressing the cases.

              1. Damn it. This is what happens when you use an iPhone. I will start over.

                I mean how some cases can be us d to indicate motion or lack of motion. Like how German uses the dative to indicate lack of motion.

              2. You can think of cases and adpositions as being two different ways of achieving the same thing (an adposition is a preposition or postposition). The use of dative in German to indicate lack of motion is almost always in the context of a prepositional phrase. There are German prepositions that take dative when there is a lack of motion, and some that take accusative when there is motion, a distinction that tends to be difficult for English speakers since those two cases have merged into a single objective case. These are known as bigovernate prepositions because the choice between two cases depends on context. For example, in English, “I am in the house” implies no motion, and would require dative in German; “I am going in the house” indicates motion and would require accusative in German. Purists, however, might argue that the second statement should use “into” instead of “in”.

                Languages that have rich case systems are short on adpositions because the cases serve those functions. Finnish (with 15 cases) and Hungarian (with 18 cases) use case endings where English and German use prepositional phrases – Wikipedia has good charts on Finnish and Hungarian case forms. Again, the fact that English has a small number of cases – only three – makes it hard for English speakers to wrap their heads around such complex case systems.

                Russian has prepositions that can govern two or even three cases depending on context. These polygovernates are, in fact a majority of the prepositions in that language. The most common bigovernate cases are locative and accusative (using locative where German uses dative) and some can take locative, accusative or instrumental.

                I think your notion comes from the fact that in languages where the definite article is declined, the article for one gender and case may be the same for a different gender and case. For example, in German, “der” can be either masculine nominative, feminine dative, feminine genitive or plural genitive. “dem” is either masculine or neuter dative and “die” is feminine nominative and plural nominative or dative. To English speakers, this may give the impression that, for example, all nouns in the nominative case “become feminine” when they are pluralized.

                I have not yet run across any situations where gender embodies case, but given the thousands of languages I haven’t looked at, it could be possible. As far as I know, it does not happen in any IE languages.

      2. Except that neuter gender is still a grammatical gender and doesn’t function to indicate lack of natural gender in languages that have it. One of the hardest tasks in introductory linguistics courses is to get students to separate the two kinds of ‘gender’.

          1. I don’t know many students these days that take high school Latin (or any other language, for that matter …)

            1. Yeah, a lot of language classes are shut down. Everyone thinks they need a more technical background. In high school I studied Latin, German and French for 4 years then in university I took Latin and German for a few more and picked up Ancient Greek.

        1. I think you’re confusing introductory linguistics classes with introductory language classes. I don’t remember any of my fellow linguistics students having any problems with the concept.

    2. Which raises the interesting question, how does the Regressive Left with its obsession with non-sexist language get on in French? (Or any other gendered language?)

      Very badly, I suspect.


      1. Very badly, I suspect.

        Seems to me like a problem calling out for a deep inhalation on a Gauloise. Or a Capstan Full Strength. Or a loosely rolled Old Horrible.
        Smokers can imagine the paroxysms that would follow in the innocent lungs of the typical child of these decades.

  3. Happy Godless Sunday! I usually celebrate by being inert. There’s a lot to be said for inertia. But it’s Sunday and i’m at rest, so i won’t move myself to explain! 🙂

    1. I concur, Mr Rounds; and I as well cannot be arsed to expound upon the beauties of Sundays’ inertiae either !


    2. When asked as to what church I go to, I will sometimes answer ‘St. Mattress of the Springs.’

      1. O, that one is hilarious, Dr Sturtevant !

        May I please steal, er, borrow this byte ? ! So, so many there are to whom I could evangelize with my pet woo, er I mean, with my Sacred Place !


    3. “Be inert! Britain needs nerts!
      Inertia is a lovely place for a holiday, but until they get the Watney’s Red Barrel on draught, I wouldn’t want to live there.

  4. Never a big fan of country western but Patsy Cline was exceptional.

    This is the day when an atheist looks around the neighborhood and notices many are gone, however, if you head out later for an early lunch, there they are.

  5. The song by Patsy Cline is associated in my mind with warm memories of listening to the radio (they were still a thing) when life seemed fresh and promising. I vaguely remember her death being strangely like losing a sister. Her voice seemed so casual and familiar. Fortunately, we can still visit the era and the voice.

    1. To me Patsy Cline represents the days when country music had a real distinct character. The Grand Ole Opry was still in the Ryman Auditorium and you had “down home” performers like the Carter Family, Minnie Pearl, Hank Williams, and Uncle Dave Macon. They looked like real people, not Barbie/Ken dolls. Now country is more often twangy rock and roll and it all sounds alike and fits well into the corporate abomination called Opryland.

    2. Yes, reminded me too of the good old days of radio. I grew up in LA of the 1960’s – radio had everything: classical, rock, jazz, country, news, comedy, drama [the Shadow knows]. I listened to them all. Plus four non-network TV stations with nothing better to fill up their time with than those great old black and white movies of the thirties. I guess the internet is an adequate replacement – maybe.

    1. “cattus” is the late Latin word; the earlier term, of course is “felis”. Similarly, late Greek gives us “gata” while earlier Greek had “ailurous”.

      This suggests that cats may have been out of fashion for a period between the loss of the earlier words and the adoption of the later terms. Most European languages follow the general pattern [back consonant][back vowel][front consonant] as the root of the word for cat. Hungarian, a non-IE language, is one of the outliers – its word is “cica’. Three other non-IE languages, Turkish, Finnish and Estonian, have “kedi”, “kissa” and “kass” respectively, suggesting borrowing. Some European IE mavericks are Albanian (“mace”) and Romanian (“pisică) and some of the southern Slavic languages (Slovak, Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian and Slovenian have a variation of “mačka” (Bulgarian is “котка” and Czech is “kočka”) Oddly, Basque, which has no proven relation to any other language, has the word “katu”, probably another borrowing.

      In my college days, when I first looked into this, I found that two likely candidates for the origin of the later European words was “kedis”, which is the word for cat in Old Nubian and a number of Berber dialects. This fits with Felis sylvestris lybica being considered the most likely ancestor of our house kitties.

        1. An Austrian-born friend seems to conflate the grammatical gender of his first language with natural gender in English when he refers to all cats (male and female) as ‘she’.

          1. I have given up trying to tell my family members that Frech people don’t really think certain things are boys and others girls. There should have been different words used for grammar.

  6. Hmm. Copernicus banned in the same year as the death of Cervantes who wrote “Don Quixote”. There’s an irony there of sorts.

    Yesterday’s Hili Dialogue mentioned George Gamow whose book “Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland” was one of my earliest introductions to Einstein’s relativity theory. I had read Martin Gardner’s book on same first. Gamow’s book helped me catch a small error in Bertrand Russell’s “ABC of Relativity”.

    I met Gamow’s granddaughter about 15 years ago and was saddened she had joined a bizarre religious cult.

  7. The Boston massacre 5 killed ,don’t sound like us Brits were involved .
    We do things more bigley than that .

  8. No my no ion doesn’t come from sameness or from articles (Latin has not definite or indefinite article) but simply from wondering if cases can take the place of the gendered nouns for masculine and feminine that you mention for Russian. Ie: is one language unnecessarily complicated or is it redundant?

    1. In languages with gender, inflections for cases incorporate the gender of the noun in the forms of the associated definite or indefinite article and case ending of any related adjectives. It is more accurate to say that the case reflects the gender of the noun but cannot replace the gender; they are separate features that operate independently of each other even though both affect the form of the noun and associated articles (if the language uses them) and adjectives.

      The fact of sameness emphasizes that you cannot replace gender with case alone, but must rely on additional context.

      Even languages without articles can use comparable constructions. Some of them use the word for “one” as a pseudo-indefinite article, which translates into English as “a” or “an”.

      1. I guess what I’m asking is if, as you say, Russian has five genders; there is neuter, but the masculine and feminine have both animate and inanimate categories that operate as four genders rather than two then does Russian due away with using cases to show animate and inanimate that languages like German use? Or is it that it does both? Is there, for instance a grammatical rule that dictates motion toward uses the accusative, for example?

        1. In Russian, case does not show whether a noun is animate or inanimate, because it is possible for inanimate objects to be the actors in a sentence, e.g., “The rock fell.” So in that language, the animate or inanimate quality is reflected in the gender, but its function in the sentence is reflected in the case. Both gender and case determine which ending is applied to the noun. Although I understand the linguistic mechanisms involved, I do not know enough specifically about Russian to give an example.

          Although German does not have explicit grammatical categories to denote animate and inanimate* the concept can be understood. For example, if any German speaker were asked if “knife” denoted an animate or inanimate object, the probable response would be “inanimate”. However that inanimate object is capable of motion, as in “The knife fell on the floor.” (“Das Messer fiel auf den Boden”). Therefore, that inanimate (in concept, not grammatically) noun could take the accusative case if it is in motion or dative if not (as in the sentence “The knife is on the table”.

          *It might be more accurate to say that animate and inanimate in German (or English) is a feature without distinction, i.e., it is a feature that has no effect in grammar.

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