|Re: What it's all about|
Message #93 Posted by Thomas Okken on 4 Nov 2010, 11:39 p.m.,
in response to message #91 by George Bailey (Bedford Falls)
Thanks for your interesting answers, which were very enlightening but did not answer my question.
Well, we'll keep trying, then. :-)
My guess (and that's all it is!) is that sometime in pre-historic times, when language was much more primitive than it is today, people started feeling the need to qualify nouns. For example, if you're herding cattle, the difference between male and female cattle is important. If you're foraging for fruit, the difference between unripe and ripe is important. And so on.
Now, when you have to design a way to express certain attributes of physical objects, and you already have words that reference those objects (i.e., nouns), what are you going to do? You could modify the existing nouns in a way that expresses those attributes, like the Latin pattern of adding -us to anything male and -a to anything female, or you could define a new word that expresses the gender property (i.e., an adjective), and say that word just before or just after the noun in question, whenever the attribute in question is important.
From where we are now, it seems obvious that the approach of using separate words to express attributes (adjectives) is better, but if you try to put yourself in the position of someone for whom the very notion of expressing such properties is totally new, the choice may not be very obvious at all. Inventing the words "male" and "female" would be a big leap for people who speak a language that doesn't have adjectives yet; if you do have them, adding gender to the set of adjectives is a lot easier. Maybe Navajo is weird simply because they were late inventing adjectives?
I think that the choice of making gender an intrinsic part of a noun was a bad one (and the Navajo pattern of making aspects like softness, sharpness, hairiness, etc. part of a word was even worse) but once such a choice is made, it's not easy to go back and revisit it.
The worst aspects of Indo-European seem to have eroded almost completely by now. In English and Dutch, for example, cases have disappeared almost completely (only the Nominative remains, plus the Genitive for proper nouns, plus a small handful of special cases), and the tense system for verbs has been reduced almost completely to present imperfect and past imperfect (everything else being constructed using a few auxiliary verbs plus infinitives and participles).
Gender in Germain remains, I think, mostly because dropping it would sound weird, and because it still serves a purpose in establishing cases (ich setze mich auf die Bank vs. ich sitze auf der Bank).
In short -- cases, genders, etc.: bad idea, using separate words to convey that information is much more efficient. Why were those bad choices made in the first place? Because people make bad choices sometimes (to err is human) and also because it isn't always obvious which choices are best initially (short-term benefits are often at odds with long-term ones). Why do bad choices persist even after it becomes obvious that another choice would have been better? Peer pressure, inertia, and because many of them aren't really all that bad. The really bad features of Indo-European have mostly disappeared already; the questionable ones survive because they're not really all that problematic anyway, and because reversing them would feel weird.