Sunday, September 7, 2008

Latin and French nouns are gender-specific

So, today, I was at a writers' festival, and, when it was time to do my autographing, I was sitting next to a very nice female writer. She had a copy of her book, and I asked if I could see it. I turned to the back and read the "About the Author," which said she "is an alumnus of ..."

No, I pointed out to her, she's not. She's an alumna of said program (or, if one prefers gender-neutral language, she's a graduate of or an alum of said program).

And, just yesterday, a female friend sent me a note on FaceBook saying, "My fiancée just surprised me with November's Analog - good story!"

To which I replied, "Thanks! But unless it's a gay wedding, he's your fiancé (but you are his fiancée)."

(A gender-neutral phrasing would be, "My bethrothed ..." or "My intended ...")

(I knew it wasn't a gay wedding because the lucky man's picture was on her FaceBook page.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At September 08, 2008 7:31 AM , Blogger John F said...

Thank you, Rob! I knew the alumnus/alumna distinction, but not fiancé vs. fiancée. I think this is because I studied French as a detached, resentful high schooler, and Latin as an engaged, fascinated university student. What a difference a couple of years can make...

At September 09, 2008 5:41 PM , Blogger Evan said...

I find it strange when people say "my spouse" or "my partner" -- it sounds evasive to my ears. Why hide the gender?

At September 09, 2008 5:55 PM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

There are contexts in which it's no one's business, and there are contexts in which it simply is more inclusive, and there are contexts in which it is simply more natural:

"Oops! Better get going -- gotta pick up my kid from school."

"Why didn't you say 'my boy' or 'my girl?' What are you trying to hide? Oh, and when did you stop beating your ... spouse?"


At September 12, 2008 12:25 AM , Blogger gdtownshende said...

I studied French in the 4th grade, Spanish in jr. and sr. high school, then more French as an adult, and now Portuguese (my girlfriend is Portuguese). I'm always amazed at the number of people who, although they, too, have studied at least one Romance language before graduating, fail to understand the distinctions between words such as fiancé and fiancée. And then, of course, there are French words like idiot (a male idiot) and idiote (a female idiot) which can make a conversation very humorous when a person of one gender tries some self-deprecating humor, using French, and ends up calling themselves an idiot of the wrong gender. I've seen it happen!

Another interesting observation is that nouns in Romance languages almost always require definite articles. For example, if, when a friend blushes, I want to say, "Red suits you well," I have to say Le rouge te va bien, which, when the article is translated, comes out as "The red suits you well." Obviously, that's also an acceptable way to say the same thing in English, but many, because they think in terms of their native tongue, fail to realize that an acceptable omission in English isn't always acceptable in other languages. What sometimes happens, though, is that English speakers will include the definite article when it isn't needed, as when the British call Porto, a city in northern Portugal, Oporto (which is a contraction of the definite article "o" and the noun "Porto"). Fact is, the Portuguese NEVER call Porto "Oporto." Nonetheless, because of this inadvertent blunder, the aviation abbreviation for Porto's airport is OPO.

I've heard that the rule in English that one should not split an infinitive is due to a grammar rule in Latin. The sentence "I can't wait to be with you again" (containing the infinitive "to be") can be translated one of two ways in Portuguese. Eu não posso para estar contigo outra vez or Eu não posso estar contigo outra vez. "Para" in this case means "to". It can be eliminated without losing the meaning of the sentence, but move that "para" elsewhere and it wreaks havoc. Technically, however, infinitives in Romance languages are one word, not two: Estar means "to be" (in a temporary sense; ser means "to be" in a permanent sense). That said, I think the world's most famous split infinitive was the result of a good ear, and not bad grammar: "To boldly go where no man has gone before" sounds a helluva lot better than "To go boldly where no man has gone before." Even so, one is best advised to avoid doing such grammatical splits.

At September 12, 2008 12:29 AM , Blogger RobertJSawyer said...

Yes, indeed, gdtownshende. I include "Notes for the Copyeditor" at the front of each of my book manuscripts, and one of them is this:

"I'm aware of the supposed prohibition against split infinitives; however, I don't agree with it. Please do not adjust my usage; I prefer to boldly go where a great many writers have gone before ..."


Post a Comment

<< Home