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Gender, Sex, and Language

I have not written about gender and sex in language partly because gender and sex strike me as ridiculously stilted and obvious constructs, not unalterable  natural phenomena but instead very human and thus malleable. Of course, I do not live in a gender binary, so things which might escape those who do are obvious to me. Still, I don’t usually bother to vector my arguments through gender, except to point out the fact that gender is a social construct which occurs across a spectrum, just like sex, one of the material bases of gender also ranges through a spectrum. Work is the other material fact of gender. Sex and gender are sufficiently conflicted that it is sufficient to point out that they are social constructs to defuse or even resolve varieties of social conflicts which involve sex or gender.

So I did not raise the gender and sex aspects of linguistics that also refute Chomsky’s generative grammar thesis till now.

Another couple of empirical refutations of Chomsky’s generative grammar thesis are seen in gender and articles. Some language have gender, others do not. For example, in Estonian nouns are not gendered, nor or personal pronouns. Tema (formal) Ta (informal) indicate he or she. Likewise, in spoken mandarin Chinese there is no difference between the pronouns “ta” for he or she. Gender is a social construct just like language is which is revealed in a serious study of foreign language.

It is of course interesting that Chinese and Estonian the word “ta” means he or she: a refutation of generative grammar is not necessarily a refutation of the nostratic hypothesis of the origins of human language. However, if generative grammar were  true — and as I am showing, it is not — then the nostratic thesis would necessarily follow.

What about articles, words like “a”, “an” or “the”? In some languages they exist, in other languages they do not exist. Meanwhile, in those languages which have articles some languages gender the articles, others do not, and some languages inflect their articles to reflect case, whereas others do not. In English articles are no longer inflected. In German they are. In Estonian, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese articles do not exist. One can approximate the use of articles in those languages by the use of “one” or “that”.

Again, those are empirical facts which refute Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar.

I believe I have already pointed out that different languages use fairly different structures for indicating tense.

The only aspects of grammar which appear to be universal are: nouns and verbs. Prepositions and postpositions though together existing in the few languages I have (intensely) studied do not exist in all languages. English has no post-positions. Estonian does not naturally have prepositions. And as we know nouns in some languages are inflected, but not in others. Likewise, there are serious differences in the different grammars of verbs, and not only in the existence or formation of tenses. Some languages readily admit that verbs can function as nouns: German is the best example I know of. Some are also ready to gladly join nouns and/or verbs to form new compound nouns — again, German is a most obvious example. English in contrast is more reticent: “That’s good eating.” would be good German grammar but is incorrect in English and not even particularly colloquial — who really talks like that, other than stereotypes? Likewise, English is not agglutinative: English tends not to form compounded nouns. Runningboard is not English, even though we know from old media that cars once had a “running board” on which one could stand and ride, but which was really meant for wiping one’s feet before getting into the car. English indicates compound nouns correctly with the dash, e.g., “running-board”.

Thus, generative grammar collapses into something which even if it were true – and it isn’t – is almost nearly useless. All languages have nouns and verbs? Wow, you don’t say? The generative grammar thesis, which promised that one recursive function could be used to parse all human languages simply is not true as can be seen from so many structural differences even among languages spoken by vast swathes of the planet. It would likely be even more refuted by a consideration of languages of native nations in what we now call the Americas, the South Pacific, and Africa. Generative grammar as a theory simply has no predictive power, which is one of the verifications of the scientificity of a theory.

A more interesting question is how can such an obviously untrue idea have been the foundation of a successful radical academic’s career?

Well, Chomsky said to Finkelstein: “if you follow this, you’re going to get in trouble—because you’re going to expose the American intellectual community as a gang of frauds, and they are not going to like it, and they’re going to destroy you.”

But I’m not Finkelstein. 🙂

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