Language and Culture

11 Dec

Rorschach linguistics


IT’S a curious fact about the Arabic language that it has no pronoun for “she”, nor for “he”: the same pronoun is used for both.  I’ll hold off on my own speculation for now. Can you think of anything that might explain this?


Chinese, by contrast, has an elaborate set of pronouns in which not only “he” and “she” are distinguished as in English, but “they” (all male or mixed) and “they” (all female) are distinguished, and there are two different you-singular words and two different you-plural words, one for males, one for females. Think, for a moment, about why Chinese differs so signally from Arabic in this regard, and then read on.

((PS:  (ta1, he), (ta1, she),

        他們 (ta1 men, general they), 她們 (ta1 men, female they), 它們 (ta1 men, non-living they), 牠們 (ta1 men, animal they),

         (ni3, general you singular),  (ni3, female you), 你們 (ni3 men, general you plural), 妳們 (ni3 men, female you plural))  


Did you come up with any explanation?

I hope not.  Those who know Arabic or Chinese know that this is a cheap trick. The description I applied to Arabic is actually true of Chinese. The “Chinese” description is true of Arabic.  But if your brain quickly constructed a scenario that explained why Arabic “doesn’t” mark its pronouns for gender and Chinese “does”, based on these scanty and false data, you’re actually fairly normal.


The two most interesting books I’ve read this year have been Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain” and Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow”. Both have exposed just how irrational we are how much of the time, though both authors cloak this bad news in a compliment to humankind. Pattern recognition and story-creation are important survival tools for humans. We developed a habit of quickly trying to make sense of scattered facts, because over-interpretation (“there’s a rustle in the brush—it must be important!”) was more adaptive than under-interpretation (“there’s a rustle in the brush—probably nothing.”) But sadly this habit leads us into many errors, brilliantly catalogued in Messrs Shermer’s and Kahneman’s books.


And so Julie Sedivy, at Language Log, catches a Canadian journalist, Christie Blatchford, reporting on the sad tale of alleged honor killings in an Afghan-Canadian family.

[The witness] also said in the last months of her life, Ms. Amir was unhappy, often calling to complain about her life, and that she told her she’d overheard a conversation among the parents and Hamed, during which Mr. Shafia threatened to kill Zainab, who in April of 2009 had run away to a women’s shelter, and “the other one,” which Ms. Amir took to mean her.

But because the Dari/Farsi languages have no separate male and female pronouns – essentially, everyone is referred to as male, it apparently being the only worthy sex – she can’t be sure if it was Ms. Yahya who asked about “the other one” or Hamed.


[Emphasis added.] It’s fair to speculate that Ms Blatchford doesn’t know any Dari. What she does know is that an honor killing is alleged, that traditional Afghan society is sexist, and that these Afghans speak Dari. She makes the quick leap to interpreting that this sexism is embedded in the Dari language. (Dari is a dialect of Persian.)  She’s quickly fit the linguistic facts to her prejudice, in other words.


But I strongly suspect that if you told her that not only “he/she” but “you (singular)”, “you (plural”) and “they” were gendered in Dari—as they are in Arabic—she would have just as quickly concluded that this elaborate attention to gender reflects traditional sexism: you can’t even say “you”, after all, without specifying a gender. What a segregated language!


All this is to say that people should check and re-check their assumptions. Most of the time we know to do this when discussing science or other “hard” stuff. But scepticism—including about one’s own prejudices—is just too easy to drop when discussing language.



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