Sunday, April 7, 2019

The Syntax and Semantics of Gender in Dairwueh, Bryatesle and Sargaĺk

In the DBS family of languages, gender/noun class, much like in Indo-European, Semitic, Northeast Caucasian and Bantu languages, is an important feature that has remained present over a long span of time. Only one dialect of Sargaĺk has lost the gender system, viz. Inraj Sargaĺk, which has done so under strong influence from a gender-less substrate.

For a conlanger, it's very easy to say 'my conlang has so-and-so many genders' without thinking much about the semantics of the system. This is a post that tries to set a different tone.

Syntactical and Morphosyntactical Properties of Gender
In both Dairwueh and Sargaĺk, there is an independent morphology for adjectives and pronominal determiners that conveys agreement with the head noun. This congruence extends to adjectival complements of verbs, and may also affect verb congruence.

Sargaĺk seems to have an innovative feature in its having dropped the neuter, shifting the nouns over to masculine and feminine.

In Bryatesle, syntactically gender only affects pronouns and determiners, and to a limited extent verbs: neuters and non-neuters have different verb forms in the third person. Morpohologically it also has a strong effect on the morphology of nouns.

Only Sargaĺk retains the gender distinction in the plural.

The obvious semantic split in the gender system of all three is one corresponding to biological sex. However, this only applies to humans: the biological sex of 'generic' animals does not strongly correlate with the gender used. In part, this disconnect has a practical epistemological basis: if you see a horse in the distance, you may not be able to tell what sex it is. (And indeed, animals for which it is likely that a speaker can distinguish the sexes, it is more likely that no generic noun at all exists. This especially holds for some tamed birds, some livestock and dogs, but also in the case of Sargaĺk with regards to some really huge seals.)
When speaking of individuals of the species you either have morphological devices for clarifying the sex of the generic noun, or gender-specific nouns at your disposal.

In Bryatesle and Dairwueh, there also exists a neuter gender. It would be easy to say the neuter gender is for inanimates, but this does not hold; the only strict rule in regard to the neuter is that it does never refer to humans.
For many of the tendencies described here, conflicting tendencies sometimes appear due to the Sargaĺk gender system.

The animals that are neuters are generally not very well "respected" - in both Bryatesle and Dairwueh there's a surprising agreement: certain small predators that kill poultry, stinging insects (except the bee in areas where beekeeping is practiced), frogs, lizards, snakes, and inedible tiny kinds of fish.

Regarding inanimate things, it turns out that there is a rather elaborate distribution between the genders: nouns that provide a context tend to be of the same gender as the gender associated with the context - i.e. men and fishing boats in all of the languages, women and the house in all these languages. A context mostly is a place (natural or a building), or something within which a person can be and act. However, any prevalent and topical tool smaller than a boat is likely to be of the opposite gender (but also possibly neuter in Dairwueh and Bryatesle), whereas objects that appear in many contexts tend to have a rather equal distribution over the available genders. Thus, the hammer is feminine, the spinning wheel is masculine, a net is feminine, a bread paddle is masculine.
teməri ( hammer, feminine )
yənera ( spinning wheel, masculine )
muliri ( net, feminine )
eskəna (bread paddle, masculine )
demby ( hammer, feminine )
yinvinu ( spinning wheel, masculine )
nvuly ( net, feminine )
iska ( bread paddle, masculine )

This distribution probably has emerged to increase the likelihood that a thing and a person spoken about will be of distinct genders, and thus have distinct pronouns. In the case of Dairwueh and Bryatesle, of course, the use of neuters facilitates distinct references to an additional noun if it happens to be neuter.

This also extends to verb nouns: a verb noun that is associated with women will generally be masculine (or neuter), and vice versa, thus
gistas ( breastfeeding, masc )
zexnas ( cooking, masc )
bagrasi ( the act of hunting, fem )
vyrnasi ( participation in a battle, fem )
from the verbs
gistër, gistai, breastfeed
rexnër, zexnai cook
begrer, bagrai hunt
vyrner, vyrnai fight a battle
In both D and B, verb nouns that are not particularly associated with either of these genders tend to go with neuter, but so do verb nouns that are associated with non-human subjects regardless of gender.

1. Size
Things of extreme sizes - very small or very big - tend to be neuter. In Sargaĺk, they tend to be masculine unless they have some kind of cultural prominence, in which case they may be feminine. If there is a progression of sizes (e.g. mountain - hill, river - ditch, tree - bush).
burts - mountain
xyles - snowflake
- valley
sarn - the sky
lyvmat - the world
mal - a grain of sand
nibit - a drop
yfir - a louse
ebik - a birthmark
ryts - a scale (of fish or reptiles)
sinis - a very tiny amount
pəltən - mountain
- a valley
xorm -
the night sky
- the world
ʒiks - the 'details' in a coarse surface
nəf - a drop
ifrəl - a louse

2. Edibility
The more edible a thing is, the more likely it is to be neuter (or in Sargaĺk, masculine). Flavour, nutrition and texture all are factors in this. Live animals are obviously an exception to this. Things that are entirely outside of the scope of even consideration for edibility are not affected by this tendency.

An inedible root or plant is likely to be feminine, as is animal considered to be inedible.

3. Social roles and professions
In all these languages, nouns denoting social roles and professions will follow the gender they are most closely associated with, even if the particular referent is of a different sex: thus, it is grammatically ok in all of these languages to say something like
she is a fisherman
he is a seamstress
However, pronouns that are not determiners will adhere to sex.

In Bryatesle, there is an analogous extension in the function of buildings of different types (i.e. a wooden hut used for storage or for living in or for doing some kind of work in). A storage room for firewood is a
which is masculine , but if the building is a 'hut', it is a  
which is feminine. In this case, the 'actual sex' of the building follows the building type rather than the building 'profession', and so you could have a feminine pronoun referring to an yvalk, if it is known that the yvalk is a sira.

Named buildings also have genders, which tend to be building-specific.

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