(insert clever French grammar title here)

Every once in a while, I drop some comment about language being ‘un-language-like’ when I’m talking about culture. It’s a tick, aggravated by my envy of linguistic anthropology, my wish that bodily practice was studied in anthropology as much (or had produced as much cool theory), and by my secret insecurity that I never took a course from Michael Silverstein when I was at the University of Chicago (what can I say? I was busy…). Most readers probably overlook my comments about language, chalking them up to PGSSD (post grad-school stress disorder) or some moral failing that they don’t want to know any more about. But I feel compelled to explain, especially since I found this great article on French speakers disagreeing on the gender of nouns (thanks to Dr. X’s Free Associations and grant-writing avoidance behaviour on my part).

Too often I think anthropologists use language ‘to think with’ when they are talking about ‘culture.’ Language is a kind of subliminal or suppressed metaphor guiding how they talk about this thing, culture. It leads to various problems, such as ‘code’ metaphors, reification of ‘the language/culture’ in things like meme theory, and the like. That is, people say some pretty daft things about ‘culture’ guided by the analogy with language.

The problem is, they’re not just committing sloppy thinking about human variation, they also don’t generally have a very grounded, empirically based view of language. That is, they assume things about language that linguistic anthropologists would dispute, especially those coming from a pragmatic approach (like Silverstein, from whom i took no courses and thus feel inadequate to be writing this).

Well, every once in a while, web surfing drops the perfect example right in your lap.

In a piece posted on Language Log, You Say Feminine, I Say Masculine, Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off, Heidi Harley discusses a presentation by Dalila Ayoun, of the Department of French and Italia at the University of Arizona. Dr. Ayoun studies second language learning and was looking at how well French-as-a-second-language speakers pick up noun gender. She gave the list of nouns to native French speakers as a control population, not intending to check how well they knew the proper gender of nouns in their native language.

She was in for a surprise. As Harley describes, it’s not so much that native French speakers were wrong about the gender of nouns:

it would be more appropriate to say that native French speakers don’t agree on the genders of French nouns. They really don’t agree. Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns.

That sound in the background is me going, ‘ha!… ha!… told you so!’ Truth is, I’m kind of bowled over by the numbers. I would NOT have guessed that they would be nearly so high, even though I would have argued for this. The problem is not that ‘norm creating’ discourses are themselves ambiguous. Hurley explains:

In these tasks, there is always a normatively ‘correct’ answer — French dictionaries and textbooks all agree on what the genders of nouns are, and how gender agreement in sentences should turn out — in the same way they agree on how to form relative clauses, and how to form passives, and where to put clitic pronouns, and so on. Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don’t.

In other words, the production of a uniform ‘language’ is not a reflection of actual linguistic practice, which is shot through with all these basic disagreements (and not just ‘bad grammar’ among the uneducated). The assumption that there is a uniform, shared grammar is a bit of an ideological fiction. This should come as no surprise to a linguistic anthropologist well versed in pragmatics, but that realization has not filtered over to the use of ‘language’ as a sublimated analogy for ‘culture.’

Over time, Ayoun found that French speakers become more consistent in their gender identification of nouns. Adults have less disagreement about gender than do teen-agers. Language, rather than starting out a shared ‘thing’ that everyone gets growing up, or has ‘transmitted’ to them, is a field of practice in which people develop their own ways of navigating, and when there are strong norms, slowly converge over time. Apparently, the cultural practice of speaking French has centrifugal tendencies — things like media with clear models, social stigma for non-standard practice, and institutions like schools bent on instilling the normative version — but speakers don’t start out with a uniform ‘language-thing.’

The reason I belabor this is that someone asked me on an earlier post what sort of model I would suggest in place of ‘memes.’ I think that the problem is the whole reification of cultural practices into ‘culture’ or ‘language,’ which creates the illusion that we have a thing instilled in us, like ‘a language,’ or ‘a practice,’ or ‘a culture.’ We talk, or act, or try to get along, and as long as we come up with a way that’s good enough, there’s no reason why we all end up doing this the same way. So replacing meme with another reified concept of culture isn’t going to help us; we have to really have a developmentalist, emergentist perspective on cultural variation, recognizing that, just because there is some pattern of greater and lessor similarity — like boundaries between languages and dialects — that doesn’t mean that people have picked up the same ‘thing.’ The variation in French is a good example of this (as is the variation of forms of English that any professor assigning essays will encounter).

Yes, ‘culture’ is language-like. The problem is that language is developmental, idiosyncratic, and pragmatic; if we were less prone to reifying language, we would probably be less prone to erring on the side of misplaced concreteness in our discussion of culture. And besides, it’s nice to know that native French speakers across screw up the damn gender of nouns…

And, yes, if someone wants to suggest a title for this, I’m happy to change the one I, er… don’t have…

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

One thought on “(insert clever French grammar title here)

  1. That is a rather hasty set of conclusions to draw from such a sloppy study. Apparently the author did not control for the frequency of these words in the lexicon; looking at the sample of 10 words that we are given, I find that these are all rare and sophisticated words in French, except for “cible” and “victime”, which everyone got right.

    The author assumes that a single word cannot be both masculine and feminine, which is wrong. For example, primeur can be feminine or masculine (with different meanings). Same for Oasis. In those cases people disagreed because they did not know which meaning the experimenters had in mind.

    An English-speaker might think that idole and superbe are common enough, but that is wrong. Idole was employed to refer to pop-stars in the 1960s, then it almost vanished. “Superbe” (meaning superb) is not uncommon an adjective but as a substantive (meaning pride), the last time I read it was in a tragedy of Jean Racine (XVIIth century).

    A native French speaker, I have taught french as a second language and I have to say that mistakes about the gender of substantives are not half as common as I thought they would be. At home, I hardly ever quarrel over the gender of words. It is simply wrong to state that native French speakers don’t agree on the genders of French nouns.

    PS: Some French words change gender when they are pluralized, such as Amours, Délices and Orgues: Loves, Delights and Organs (feminine plurals, masculine singulars). Now that I think of it, it would be a nice title for your post.

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