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Book reconstructs how grammar was assigned gender in ancient Rome

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

LAWRENCE — A 1972 episode of the sitcom "All in the Family" features a well-known riddle about a boy who was injured in a car accident that killed his father.

The boy is flown to a hospital for emergency surgery, and the surgeon says, "I can't operate on this boy. He's my son." For most of the episode the answer confounds characters, and the riddle is meant to expose gender bias or the perception that the image of a surgeon by default is a man and not a woman. The answer to the riddle is the surgeon is the boy's mother.

For Anthony Corbeill, a University of Kansas professor of classics who researches classical languages and Roman literature and cultural history, that riddle over the years seems to stump fewer and fewer students.

"This history of this riddle provides a good example of the principle of linguistic determinism and the ability to show how perceptions can change by consideration of language," Corbeill said. "The way you speak has a bearing on the way you view the world."

For Corbeill the assignment of grammatical gender to nouns in Latin was thought to reflect a correspondence between words and the things that words represent. Corbeill in his recent book, "Sexing the World: Grammatical Gender and Biological Sex in Ancient Rome," seeks to reconstruct how Latin speakers began to organize objects and aspects of society into sexual categories.

In English today, there are very few dichotomies in gender. The same was true in Latin's earliest stages, Corbeill found.

"Early on these grammatical genders were fluid, so they would be applied depending on the context of what gender you wanted to use," he said.

However, over time ancient grammarians decided to assign objects to one gender — "oculi" for masculine eyes or "arbores" for trees, which is feminine.

"They get put into rigid dichotomies," he said. "A table in Latin will always be feminine. No doubt about it."

In the book he examines this division and how it applies to Roman perceptions of Latin poetry, divine power and even the human hermaphrodite.

"I'm not interested in where grammatical gender comes from," Corbeill said. "I'm interested in where the Romans thought grammatical gender came from."

Students in ancient Rome would then learn these as they were taught to speak and read Latin.

The decisions on the assignment of gender and sex to nouns have persisted. The Romantic languages today — French, Italian and Spanish — still assign gender to nouns. Also, sculptures such as the Statue of Liberty or Justice are both female for a reason.

"In Latin, Greek and early English and French, almost all abstract ideas are feminine, such as truth, liberty, beauty and justice," he said. "Why are abstract concepts feminine? No one has ever been able to solve that."

Corbeill said ancient Rome was a masculine society, and through language there are certain ways in which that masculinity is reinforced and dichotomies were created, such as trees or objects in nature that provide nurturing are feminine and assigned feminine words in Latin.

Today, English has gotten away from most sex identification in a word, though it still exists, like the words "son" and "daughter" or the pronouns "he" or "she." However, that has also changed as people tend to get away from separate words for professions, like calling a female in acting an actor instead of an actress.

"The way we use our language from day to day has a lot to do with how we perceive the world and how we perceive the people around us," Corbeill said.