Thursday, June 11, 2009


"English as she is spoke": A notable change in English grammar

I've been meaning to write about this for years, but with the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, I can wait no longer.

The influx of Spanish speakers to the U.S. is having an interesting effect on English that goes beyond the introduction of "chipotle" and "gringo" into our vocabulary. It is a change that bucks two historical trends in the development of modern English.

The first of these is the abandonment of adjective declensions. In Old English an adjective changed form depending upon (1) the use of the noun it was modifying in the sentence, (2) the gender of the noun it was modifying, and (3) the number—singular or plural—of the noun modified.1 So the adjective 'god' ("good") might have the forms godne, godes, godum, godre, gode, goda, godra, godan, godra and godena. By the time of Middle English (1200 C.E. or so) these forms were mostly lost and by the end of the Middle English period (1600) they had completely died out.

In modern English we are left with only two adjectives that decline—'this' and 'that,' which of course become 'these' and 'those' when modifying a plural noun. Adjective forms that depended upon gender have been completely lost.

The second trend, which is quite modern, is the abandonment of noun forms that distinguish gender. We have been in the process of adopting the masculine form for both genders. We once had 'shepherd' and 'shepherdess,' 'comedian' and 'comedienne,' 'actor' and 'actress.' But it's rare nowadays to hear a woman say that she's an actress, and I don't know when I last heard 'comedienne.' Adding to this trend, which may be the natural result of the movement toward greater equality for women, is the conscious, political effort on the part of feminists to remove gender distinctions from the language, which has brought us words such as 'spokesperson' and a host of stylistic problems.

Now comes Spanish. Like French, Italian and Portuguese it has descended from Latin, and Latin—like Old English—had many forms for the adjective. But unlike modern English the Romance languages have retained a number of those forms. So in Spanish for the word 'good,' for instance, we may encounter the forms 'bueno,' 'buena,' 'buenos' and 'buenas' depending upon whether the noun it modifies is masculine or feminine, singular or plural.

Another feature of these languages is the use of adjectives as nouns, which occurs in English only in rather high-minded phrases such as "the good, the bad, and the ugly." Thus it is common to distinguish gender in the form of Spanish adjective-nouns, which doesn't occur at all in English.

Suddenly—after half a millennium—a gender distinction is being reintroduced into English adjectives through the adjective 'Latino,' of which the feminine form is 'Latina.' The first time I heard this usage was over a decade ago. I was listening to a news item from reportress Maria Hinojosa of National Public Radio, who spoke of someone as "Latina." It shook me to my Anglo-Saxon roots.

Since then this usage has only grown. Today I type into Google "Sotomayor is Latina" and get 164 hits. The first of them: "Let the Democrats remind everyone at every turn that Sotomayor is Latina."

Correspondingly we now have two gender-distinguishing nouns 'Latino' and 'Latina.' Type in "Sotomayor is a Latina" and you'll get 1,050 hits or more.2

I suspect this linguistic novelty has grown from the fact that more and more English newscasters are native Spanish speakers. It may be difficult for them to abandon the distinctions they are accustomed to use in Spanish and say, as would be standard English, "Sotomayor is Latino" or "Sotomayor is a Latino." In any case, the usage is now being adopted by native English speakers, and judging from who is using what, it appears that the distinction has become "politically correct."3

As the two languages now exist side by side in the U.S., U.S. Spanish is slowly becoming distinct from Latin-American Spanish—most notably in its vocabulary—to produce "Spanglish." Will we also move toward "Engspañol"? Check back in a century.

In the meanwhile, so far as I'm concerned Sonia Sotomayor is Hispanic.



1Actually there was a fourth distinction—weak-strong—which is a feature only of the Germanic languages. [back]

2For "Sotomayor is Latino" there were 27 hits, and for "Sotomayor is a Latino" there were only 14. In the latter case 'Latino' was almost always used as an adjective, as in "Sotomayor is a Latino racist pig" or "Sotomayor is a Latino KKK." [back]

3It will be interesting to see the outcome if it dawns upon the gender-police that a gender distinction is being reintroduced via Spanish. [back]

Monday, June 08, 2009


A rabbi's call for genocide

Moment Magazine, which claims to be "the largest independent Jewish magazine in North America," features a forum in each issue called "Ask the rabbis" wherein a question is proposed and rabbis from the many flavors of Judaism are invited to respond. This month's question was "How Should Jews Treat Their Arab Neighbors?"

The rabbis responded within the bounds of religious sanity with the notable exception of Rabbi Manis Friedman, a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement within Orthodox Judaism. This was his reply—

I don’t believe in western morality, i.e. don’t kill civilians or children, don’t destroy holy sites, don’t fight during holiday seasons, don’t bomb cemeteries, don’t shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral.

The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).

The first Israeli prime minister who declares that he will follow the Old Testament will finally bring peace to the Middle East. First, the Arabs will stop using children as shields. Second, they will stop taking hostages knowing that we will not be intimidated. Third, with their holy sites destroyed, they will stop believing that G-d is on their side. Result: no civilian casualties, no children in the line of fire, no false sense of righteousness, in fact, no war.

Zero tolerance for stone throwing, for rockets, for kidnapping will mean that the state has achieved sovereignty. Living by Torah values will make us a light unto the nations who suffer defeat because of a disastrous morality of human invention.

Rabbi Friedman's insight is that indiscriminate, ruthless killing of Arabs will bring peace.

Friedman's position has set off a firestorm of controversy within the American Jewish community. Nathaniel Popper, writing in the progressive Jewish newspaper The Forward, reports

Friedman’s use of phrasing that might seem more familiar coming from an Islamic extremist has generated a swift backlash. The editor of Moment, Nadine Epstein, said that since the piece was printed in the current issue they “have received many letters and e-mails in response to Rabbi Friedman’s comments — and almost none of them have been positive.”

Friedman quickly went into damage control. He released a statement to the Forward, through a Chabad spokesman, saying that his answer in Moment was “misleading” and that he does believe that “any neighbor of the Jewish people should be treated, as the Torah commands us, with respect and compassion.”

But Friedman’s words have generated a debate about whether there is a darker side to the cheery face that the Chabad-Lubavitch movement shows to the world in its friendly outreach to unaffiliated Jews. Mordecai Specktor, editor of the Jewish community newspaper in Friedman’s hometown, St. Paul. Minn., said: “The public face of Lubavitch is educational programs and promoting Yiddishkeit. But I do often hear this hard line that Friedman expresses here.

You only need to read the comments to the stories about Rabbi Friedman's "lapse" to discover that he is not the only Jew holding his opinion of what should be done to the Arabs. And it should be noted that the Chabad movement is well represented among the Israeli settlers in the West Bank.

But I don't bring up Friedman's views to excoriate either Judaism or Jews. His opinions are certainly not representative of the American Jewish community and have been widely discussed and rejected in the American Jewish press. The reason I bring it up is that his remarkable statement has not been reported in the mainstream media. The only exceptions have been three stories in the local Minnesota press (here, here and here).

Does anyone doubt that if an American Muslim had made a similar declaration toward Jews, it would instantly become national news? The silence of the American press and of cable news in this instance is stunning but unfortunately to be expected, and it speaks to the uphill battle the Obama administration faces in any attempt to bring an even-handed approach to Israel.

Related post
Subtle Menace of the Day: Barack Obama (6/02/09)


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