If we liken language to a living organism, our minds may be opened to many matters. It would take but a handful of words plucked from this page to reveal the range of ways in which words ripen and rot with time, and in languages where words have genders, this ripening process can be rather delicious.
A recent discovery I’ve stumbled across is the French noun “la poire”, “the pear” changing gender over time. While this isn’t the only word in the world to have undergone such drastic transformation – “whisky” in Russian and “fear” and “honour” in Old English have too – this particular word is peculiar as it’s feminine in France yet remains masculine in Switzerland. Somehow, it’s found itself floating in a linguistic parallel universe, its identity torn into two but with both bodies equally alive.
I’ve often wondered whether there’s a deep symbolic connection between concept and gender, shaping or shaped by the way speakers from particular cultures think. Admittedly, any symbolic significance would be subconscious, buried deep beneath a mountain of memories and other mental debris in a dusty corner of the attic of our minds. And yet, as revealed by research conducted by Lera Boroditsky, gender assigned to abstract concepts in an artist’s language is just as responsible for how it’s portrayed on the canvas as is the very paintbrush in the artist’s hand. What this means is that in German art for instance, “Tod” (m.) death is typically personified as male whilst in French art, “mort” (f.) death is female.
Boroditsky also discovered Germans are more likely to describe “Brücke” (f.) bridge as ‘beautiful’, ‘elegant’, ‘fragile’ and ‘slender’, whereas Spanish speakers envisioned “puente” (m.) bridge as ‘big’, ‘dangerous’, ‘strong’ and ‘towering’. Whilst the English language has been stripped bare to the bone of grammatical gender, surviving examples such as ships described as “she” still allow us to muse over this linguistic link of symbolism.
However, sometimes this link simply snaps. In Italian for instance, a tree is typically masculine and the fruit it bears feminine, when symbolically, you might expect the tree to be feminine. Similarly surprising might be “Mädchen” being neuter in German despite meaning “girl”. In terms of “poire”, the concept of a pear is probably philosophical nonsense, as at its core it’s simply a slightly awkward shaped green fruit. Nevertheless, perhaps “poire” adopts a feminine gender in symbolic emulation of frequent female physicality, although this still doesn’t explain the reasons behind its gender shift.
Whilst abstract thought is intriguing, it has to be said that language likes to be logical, partially because from a psychological perspective the brain feeds itself on patterns. Some say it’s simple, that words gain gender by being grouped with those of a similar form, that since “maison” is feminine then “raison” should be as well. But language also likes to liberate itself from logic and will always break its own rules.
Strangely enough, I learnt a lot of this whilst working as a waitress. There were two French customers, one from France and his friend from Switzerland, and we happened to get round to pondering about pears. The use of different genders for words didn’t create misunderstanding, as gender is only essential when differentiating homophones like “le mer” and “la mère”, and even then, context provides clues. What it did create was amusement – notably for the regional French speaker whilst the speaker from Switzerland became defensive.
It was shortly after this whilst pretending to wipe tables that I suddenly realised something. Perhaps the feminine gender of “poire” is perceived as ‘correct’, not because of a deep symbolic association that most people probably wouldn’t notice anyway, but simply because that’s how it is in the French of France, a language with more speakers than Switzerland, and popularity is associated with prestige. This also followed from a friend of mine, a biologist, reminding me that it’s not actually possible for words to have gender, and that believe it or not, words don’t actually exist.