Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gendered verbs: A thought experiment

Plenty of languages have gender for nouns. As far as I know, no language has gender for verbs. Obviously some languages have subject agreement in gender (Arabic, for one), but what I mean is a language in which some other word agrees with the verb it modifies or refers to. This is a bit odd, because - even if we assume that gender always starts out as a property of nouns, which is a pretty big assumption if you think about it - it's not too hard to imagine how verbs could develop gender.

Imagine a language that, like Japanese or Persian, expresses a lot of verbs using "do/make" plus a noun (English allows this in some contexts: "make a donation", "do a runner"). But, unlike Japanese or Persian, let's suppose this language has gender - like Kurmanji, say - and adjectives that agree with the noun in gender. In such a case, it would seem reasonable to have at least some adverbs expressed as adjectives agreeing with the verb's noun: "make frequent donation" for "donate frequently", say. Likewise, ellipsis could be handled with an appropriate pronoun: "I made a donation (masc.) to the library, and he made one (masc.) to a charity."

Now let the forces of phonetic erosion work on the verb phrase for a while, until the former support verb is reduced to a mere suffix attached to the stem (rather like what happened to Latin habere in the development of the future tense in Romance.) Unless the rest of the system has been reworked in the meantime for some reason, the result should be a language in which adverbs and pro-verbs agree in gender with verbs.

Is there any language that has done this? If not, why not?


Elisabeth Strout said...

So for example, if verbs were gendered in French, we would have to assign the correct gender to modifying adverbs? E.g. if 'courir' were feminine, we would have to say 'courir lentementE', rather than 'courir lentement' ? I'm personally not familiar with any languages that do this, though I suppose it could evolve linguistically. Perhaps verbs already have enough conjugation and assignment of prefixes/suffixes that another level of agreement would be too complex.

John Cowan said...

The Russian past tense is just a little like this. Historically it was expressed by the present tense of be followed by the past participle of the main word, which like other IE participles agrees in number and gender with its head. However, when the present tense of be was lost everywhere in Russian in the 18th-19th century, the participle remained, giving an apparently simple verb that does agree in gender (as well as number, but not case) with its subject. Since participles are pretty simple and regular, learners of Russian learn the past tense first. However, adverbs are uninflected in Russian, as everywhere in IE, so there is no further gender agreement of the kind you postulate.

Etienne said...


The problem with this scenario is that:

1-It would only apply to a subset of verbs (i.e. those formed from nouns), and thus any incipient "verbal gender agreement" system would have the weight of the rest of the verb system against it.

2-It assumes that the N + V combination would remain transparent enough for grammatical gender agreement to apply. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Consider the following French examples, involving RENDRE "to return, to give back" and RENDRE VISITE "to pay a visit":

1-Jean rend visite à Pierre.
"John pays Peter a visit"
2-Jean rend à Pierre sa scie.
"John returns his saw to Peter"
3-(*)Jean la rend à Pierre.
"John returns it to Peter"

Example 3 is utterly ungrammatical if it is meant as a synomym of 1, but it is impeccable as a synonym of 2. Since you're now living in Paris you've plenty of native speakers of French around, but I would be amazed if any thought that 3 had the same meaning as 1.

Clearly, "rendre visite", despite its seeming transparency (the verb and the noun are both alive and kicking) is no longer a combination of two free morphemes, and "visite" in this instance, unlike "scie" in 2, cannot be pronominalized.

So my answer is that in any language with a Japanese- or Persian-type method of forming verbs from nouns, the nouns in such N + V combinations will quickly become mere semantic morphemes attached to an empty element bearing verbal morphology. This process will quickly make it impossible for the nouns to trigger gender agreement.

ba said...

I understand your post as posing the possible hypothetical:

For verbs of class-1, adverbs bear some morphological agreement specific to that class. And for verbs of class-2, adverbs bear a different morphological agreement specific to that class.
Example: "run" is class-1 and "sing" is class-2. Modifying "run" with "happily" would produce "run happily-a" whereas modifying "sing" with "happily" would produce "sing happily-e".

If that's what you're proposing, I agree that, in the realm of logical possibilities, this seems reasonable. However, I don't think I've ever heard of differential marking on adverbs that is controlled by the verb (as opposed to being controlled by adverb class [e.g. manner vs. frequency vs. modal vs. ...]).

If such languages don't exist (as I suspect), I suppose we should ask, what is the difference between adverbs/verbs on the one hand, and adjectives/nouns on the other?

Maybe they way adverbs and verbs come to be in a grammatical relationship is inherently different from the way adjectives and nouns do. Or maybe agreement (and whatever linguistic operation is involved in it) treats nouns as inherently different from verbs in that only nouns come with the right kinds of grammatical features (e.g. phi-features) that are able to enter into agreement relationships.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

I think Etienne is on the right track with his problem 2 - that does seem to be what happens. The question is, why should language work that way? Saying that "agreement treats nouns as inherently different from verbs", as BA suggests, is more a restatement of the observation than an explanation...

1 is less of a problem, since some languages express practically all verbs that way - even in Japanese or Persian this seems to be the most productive class of verbs.

Jim said...

Something similar already does happen in some languages WRT the honorific system, but with the diffenrnece being that they refer to scoaila statuses rather than biological sex. But then come to think of it, gender does not primarily refer to sex,,even in the langauges where the genders are called masculine and feminie, either.

In Japanese, from what I have heard, a subset of verbs are marked for social register, and their use is determined by the relationship of the speaker to the interlocutor. Then you just tack these onto the end of whatever the real verb of the clause is. This is pretty much the way a compound nun takes the gender of the last noun in the compound.

David Marjanović said...

Clearly, "rendre visite", despite its seeming transparency (the verb and the noun are both alive and kicking) is no longer a combination of two free morphemes, and "visite" in this instance, unlike "scie" in 2, cannot be pronominalized.

Hm. This kind of thing does seem to happen elsewhere. In and around Viennese, "shut up or you'll get one (f.)/I'll wipe you one (f.)" and the like are explicit threats that what you'll get is a slap on your ear or cheek, despite the complete lack of a taboo on the word for that. In these dialects, it's not possible to express this by a simple verb, because Standard German ohrfeigen doesn't exist there.

It's easily imaginable that such phrases could get narrowed down to a single verb (as opposed to the two examples I've offered). Getting this to work with all verbs, however... :-/

David Marjanović said...

The Russian past tense simply shows gender agreement like in Arabic, right? The unusual feature (caused by its past as a participle) is the agreement with number but not person.

The Polish past tense is like the Russian one plus a person-and-number-agreement suffix derived from the obsolete short forms of the present of "be".