Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!

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Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain 🙂

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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There’s Sculptures In My Woods!

Today’s plan already seemed like the perfect plan: A cake outing, preceded by a walk through the woods around a local lake. But little did we know that there had been an invasion of the weird and wonderful:

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What the…? This is when we twigged that something wasn’t quite right…

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Nature sure is amazing, but we’d never seen any of THAT colour before

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Flying tropical fish?

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A giant clothes peg, anyone?

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The Delta-7 Jedi Starfighter prototype

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Wolves or wild boar?

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Not a sculpture, but pretty 🙂

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Awww, someone was worried about her…

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And a delicious Apfelstrudel for me at the end 🙂

 

Pea Soup Productions Presents

Snow on New Year’s Day, they said. Proper Winter to make an appearance, finally, at the crack of 2016, they said. What we’ve got instead is fog, grizzly drizzle and all the cheeriness of a Siberian laundry  with the heating up the creek.

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WW1 Memorial in my village

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Have I depressed you quite enough yet..? Welcome to the club!

Wait… maybe some spiritual guidance to lift our mood? I’ve got just the thing: Last week, while the weather was still nice and sunny, I came across this saucy lady on one of my walks:

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This being Bavaria, there’s thousands of Madonnas everywhere, perched on pedestals, squeezed into grottos and stuck to the lower echelons of crucifixes, but they don’t usually wear bright red undergarments, nor red lipstick, like this one. Whory Mary…!

This is how my village looked last year at this time of year: What a difference!

Germans Like It Explicit!

Everyone knows that Germans have a set of rules for everything. And if there’s no official rule consecrated by some recognised authority, then you will usually find detailed “suggestions” not only on HOW to do something, but also WHY.

I spotted this little gem on the notice board in the block of flats where my mother lives, right next to the Hausordnung (house rules):

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Someone’s got a Phd in Laundry Room Physics… 

Translation:

Please note:

The drying of laundry in the basement leads to high air humidity.

This, in turn, causes already semi-dry items of clothing to re-absorb moisture as well as any newly pegged-out washing to dry more slowly.

For this reason we would like ask you, during times of high humidity (i.e. when a lot of washing has been hung out to dry), to open the windows in the drying room for a short duration of time in order to allow the air to circulate.

Please do not forget to close the window again afterwards.

If only the Kyoto Agreement had been drafted by my mother’s landlords, it would never have failed…

Here’s another example of instructive cajoling, fresh from my village green, aimed at the pooch-owning general public:

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Translation: Dog owners – BE CONSIDERATE! Just in case…for now or for later. Pull bag. [Some hooligan has slapped a parody FC Bayern München sticker right across the pictorial guidance, but at least it matches the dispenser’s colour scheme]

What gets me is the utterly redundant “just in case… for now or for later”. I mean, not even German German shepherd dogs plant their malodorous pine cones like clockwork every day at the same hour in the same spot. So, if you’re walking your four-legged poop machine and you ain’t got a poop bag and you see a poop bag dispenser, you’d know what to do, right?

I suspect that the company was so proud of its word play, that it just had to get it out there. Let me explain: The word “Fall” in the idiomatic expression Im Falle eines Falles (= just in case, or, literally “in the case of a case”) has another meaning: fall/drop. So, in case something happens to…erm… drop from your dog unexpectedly… ah haha… ha.

As you can tell, I didn’t have to go very far to find both of these examples. They are everywhere. But WHY?! Do Germans really think that their fellow human beings are not smart enough to work these things out for themselves? Or do they just enjoy being patronising?

I think the issue is two-fold. First of all, Germans are, on the whole, a bunch of pragmatic realists. As such, they accept that about a tenth of the populace consists of morons. What Germans do not accept, however, is that those 10% are let off the hook on account of being dimwitted. Therefore, they resort to stating the bleedin’ obvious. On every noticeboard, on every street corner.

The other reason is linked to their compulsive drawing up of rules for everything. Rules have to be pretty watertight, not only for the benefit of the cretins, but also for the 10% situated at the opposite end of the spectrum, namely the very special breed of German Smart Arse (“Klugscheisser”). If a German Smart Arse flouts a rule, their first recourse is to poke their sausage finger at an omission or ambiguity in the rules.

This gives rise to the need for detailled written instructions for even the most common-sense behaviours meant to ease communal living. It’s the German way of creating social pressure for a special sub-species of the German Smart Arse, aka the Lazy Arse Klugscheisser, by obliterating their first line of defence, which usually goes something like this: “Wo steht das?!” (Where does it say that?!).

[For some more Germanalysis, see this post: The German National Character Explained in Three Culturally Loaded Phrases ]

 

 

 

 

When Winter Just Isn’t Winter

There’s people walking about wearing T-shirts. And cycling in shorts. In Bavaria. In late December. Outside!

It smells like autumn. But it feels just like spring. Even the bees are busy, but busy with what…? Flowers are far and few between. Plant life is dormant. Or trying to be. The poor buzzy blighters can’t sleep – it’s too hot to hibernate.

This non-winter is a tricky situation not just for them, but also for faux photographers like me. Bavaria is pretty in the snow. In absence of a powdery white blanket beautifying the season’s barrenness, there’s usually at least an early morning dusting of frost gracing the trees, making them sparkle in the sunshine.

But this year, with temperatures persistently well above zero, everything is brown and (brownish) green. The gently rolling countryside, though easy on the eye when you’re standing in it, turns into nothing-to-write-home-about snaps of muddy fields and dead bristly bits. And my camera is way too crappy to capture the faint silhouettes of the snow-capped Alps towering above the landscape in the far distance, like ghostly dinosaurs.

I had to re-think my strategy. So, here it is: Big skies, small details, textures and splashes of colour where I could find them. And trying not to get myself arrested while loitering around people’s garden fences.

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Birch trees laden with mistletoe

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PC260116 copy

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And I know you’ve all been waiting for this:

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Mum’s Christmas baking 🙂

 

Some of you may remember that last year’s winter-time shots of my tiny little village and surroundings were wildly different:

A stunning white Christmas: https://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2014/12/26/a-white-christmas-after-all/

Followed by an equally dazzling New Year: https://ladyofthecakes.wordpress.com/2015/01/01/a-happy-new-year-from-narnia/

Apparently, there will be snow next week. Am not holding my breath…

Polywhat…?

“Let me think about it,” was the response from my Toledo friends when I nudged them to come along to Madrid with me on Sunday for a Polyglot Meet-up. As if I couldn’t see their eyes glaze over with the red **NERD-ALERT** warning lights flashing behind…

So I went on my own.

I’d never been to such an event before. Social gatherings – hrrumpfh. But I quite fancied this one, not least because I would finally get to meet Alex Rawlings in person. I came across this personable polyglot a couple of years ago, when the BBC featured him in this video showing off his language skills. I started following his blog and we exchanged a handful of messages. Then, a few weeks ago, I was delighted to read that he was organising a meeting for language enthusiasts in Madrid.

Atocha Station, Madrid

Beautiful Atocha Train Station, Madrid, taken Sunday night

I’d had no trouble finding the venue, although the restaurant seems kinda deserted when I walk in. I eventually find a member of staff fiddling with a table cloth.

Excuse me, I’m here for the polyglot meeting.

The polywhat…? What is that?!

I decide to take a different approach.

Some people have booked a room for an event here this afternoon. Has anyone arrived yet?

Well… there’s some people downstairs…

He points me in the direction.

I recognise Alex straight away. Unexpectedly, he also recognises me as “Lady Of The Cakes”. I’m not quite sure how or why… it’s been almost a couple of years since we exchanged those two or three messages on the blogs. He’s been hopping from country to country and must have met thousands of new people. I guess having a superhuman memory and being a polyglot go hand-in-hand. That would also explain why I’m not one.

The organisers have prepared tables with language flags and ice breaker games. But there is no ice to be broken: People arrive and they immediately start chatting to the next-best complete stranger. I notice that most arrive unaccompanied… evidently, I wasn’t the only one cruelly abandoned by their so-called friends…

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Mr Circus and Alex Rawlings

Me, Johanna (one of the organisers), Bar (aka Mr Circus) and Alex Rawlings

Pretty much everyone seems to speak Spanish and English, the rest is potluck. I meet a Spaniard who has the best German accent I have ever heard. (From a Spaniard.) I chat to a young Israeli student, switching between English, Spanish and Portuguese. I ask him what he’s studying. Circus studies, he tells me. I blink. I confirm that I understood correctly. It’s like someone telling you they’re an accountant and you’re stuck for a response, but for the exact opposite reason. My brain is whirring with questions. Turns out his specialism is juggling, not lion taming.

My worst fear – that someone accosts me in French (this is my kryptonite right now!) – does not materialise. Instead, I get myself caught up in a maelstrom of Hebrew, until the speaker realises from my deer-in-the-headlights-stare that I’m not getting any of this. I point them towards Mr Circus.

Three hours go by in a flash. I only manage to nab a fraction of the people who I would have liked to interrogate have a chat with. I fix a lunch date for Tuesday with a lovely couple visiting from Vermont who had already been planning to come to Toledo.

On my way back to Atocha station, I’m thinking… I wouldn’t mind doing this again… and it didn’t even involve cake! I must be coming down with something…

And one more...

And one more…

Post Script: It has just transpired that the next Polyglot Meetup Madrid event will be held on 17 January 2016. Just in case anyone wants to “think about it”… ahem.

[Find Alex Rawlings’s language blog here: www.rawlangs.com]

Toledo Tapas Competition 2015 – Drool Alert…

Today is a sad day in Toledo. Today concludes the annual tapas competition, which had us devouring a wonderful array of delicacies conjured up by the town’s bars and restaurants. Here is a small testimony to our greediness devotion over the past three weeks:

Mini curry burgers. Can't go wrong with that...

Our first tapa consumed on 5 November, the day the contest kicked off: Mini curry burgers. Can’t go much wrong with these.

Smoked beef on toast, with sobrasada (a kind of smoked meat spread) and brie. Really strong flavours, but it worked surprisingly well.

Wafer-thin slices of smoked beef on toast, with sobrasada (a kind of smoked meat spread) and brie. A brave combo of some really strong flavours, but it worked surprisingly well.

Salmon with guacamole and lemon mousse. Looks great, but didn't work. The lemon flavour totally overpowered the whole thing.

Salmon with guacamole and lemon mousse. Looks tasty, but, sadly, it was a fail. The salmon was tender but insipid, and the lemon flavour totally overpowered the whole ensemble.

Tuna marinated in soy sauce with peach alioli. Totally delicious.

Tuna marinated in soy sauce with peach alioli. Totally delicious.

I cannot translate this one. Nor can I describe it. It contained the following: deer, shitake mushrooms, apricot, gnocchi, potato. And it tasted weird. But good-weird. Could have eaten it again. And again.

I cannot translate this one. Nor can I adequately describe it. It contained the following: venison, shitake mushrooms, apricot, gnocchi, potato, cream. And it tasted weird. But good-weird. Could have eaten it again. And again. Top marks for creativity and presentation.

Octopus and potato. Very Galician, and tasted just as expected. Perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write home about.

Octopus and potato “lasagne”. There was nothing lasagne about it, it was merely a fancy presentation of a Galician staple, pulpo gallego (which I love). Perfectly acceptable, but nothing to write home about.

A very traditional Manchego affair: Pork medallion with potato, onion and a dollop of creamy mushroom sauce. Totally delish.

A very traditional Manchego affair: Pork medallion with potato, crispy leek and a drizzle of creamy mushroom sauce. Simple, hearty and satisfying. A winner.

Taken on our walk between bars: The sun catching the Christmas lights, with Toledo cathedral in the background.

I managed to take this yesterday while swaying from one bar to the next: The sun catching the newly suspended Christmas lights, with Toledo cathedral in the background.

You know me - it had to end like this! Oh my, that red berry cake was to die for...

How predictable am I… it HAD TO end like this, didn’t it?! Oh my, that red berry cake was to die for. First visit to a new cafe, but definitely not the last 😉

So, although TapaMania may be over for this year, there’s one thought that consoles me greatly: Toledo was recently voted Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy 2016 – I just can’t wait for the New Year!!!