September 11, 2010 | Hindi

Gender Is Not Convenient

Gender blocks the path of language learners. My path anyway.

Gender in language studies is often a huge pain. In modern English, gender is largely irrelevant, but Old English apparently had three genders for nouns: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

I would say I’m glad I missed that era, but of course if you speak a language natively, you pick such things up automatically. The absence of hot running water in the Middle Ages would have been much more trying to me than the presence of grammatical gender.

Rice in Hindi: Masculine

Rice in Hindi: Masculine

Other languages are accompanied by varying degrees of gender-related complications. Depending on which language you are talking about, gender can affect noun forms, adjective forms, article choices, verbs, and probably some things I don’t even know about yet.

That gender could affect verb forms was something I hadn’t realized before starting this project. Russian was the first language where I personally had ever encountered this phenomenon, but the gender effect is much more prominent in both Arabic and Hindi verbs.

In present-tense Hindi, if you speak about a man, the verb is different than it would be if you were speaking about a woman. And if you are a man and are speaking in the first person, the form is different from the form that a woman speaking in first person would use. 

For someone living in a language where virtually nothing is affected by gender—except obvious things such as “he” and “she”—the addition of verbs to the list of gender-affected parts of speech, while fascinating, has at times been a hassle. In the learning world, it slows things down for sure.

Does This Bread Look Feminine to You?

Does This Bread Look Feminine to You?

Don’t get me wrong: nouns are a nuisance as well. I find German nouns quite difficult, as you have to memorize which of three genders a given noun is, then also memorize the various cases (nominative, accusative, dative, genitive), then also know how the noun as well as its accompanying article and adjective forms change based on case and gender. Non-native speakers are naturally inclined to errors.

In Hindi, as in Spanish, there are only two noun genders: masculine and feminine. No neuter—which is nice. But as Mohini Rao points out in Teach Yourself Hindi, “Nouns belonging to the same subject or of the same group like the different parts of the body, or different fruits or vegetables have different genders.” He observes that “rice” in Hindi is masculine and “bread” is feminine, while “ear” is feminine and “nose” is masculine.

There is nothing to do but memorize, memorize, memorize.

I love Rosetta Stone’s reading lessons. In them I get introduced to two Hindi letters at a time—manageable pairs. Those exercises are a lot of fun. The pace is much better than in the writing lessons, and you learn some of the same things.

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