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7:11pm on Monday, 19th February, 2007:



One of the many conversations I had when I was in Germany concerned the difference between the English and German languages. Those for whom German was their first language couldn't get their heads round the fact that when I hear a noun, I don't automatically associate it with a gender. OK, I know nouns have genders in many languages, but I wasn't aware of the depth with which the relationships hold. I always thought they just "went together", like how you always remember it's a "sheet of paper", but apparently it's way beyond that. Not only does a gendered noun come with a gender, but it comes with a bunch of associations with gender that are impossible to forego. This means that when Germans (for whom the sun is female) learn French (in which it's male), they get conflicting feelings.

English doesn't have any of this, of course, which may be a reason why the English we're so bad at learning other languages and can never remember what gender something is. The German-speakers could only get a sense of what life is like for the English when I managed to find a class of words (adverbs) for which they don't have genders. The word "quickly" is as agendered in German as it is in English. The realisation that we English have to endure that same bereftness for our nouns was as something of a shock to them: how can we work with words when so much of their meaning is missing to us?

The thing is, of course, that although there is much poetic meaning lost from having no gender to nouns, there is much politics lost too. My wife is a programmer, but the German for programmer is masculine. If you say that you want to hire a programmer, you can't help but give the word male overtones.

The shock was compounded when I explained that on occasions in English we have no gender at all even for things that we know are gendered. It's possible to say, in response to the news that there is a new teacher at school, "What is their name?". In my own East Yorkshire dialect, this is so ingrained that you could even use this response when told that a friend is pregnant, although I suspect most people would actually use "her" in that eventuality (I've heard non-Yorkshire people do it too). Nevertheless, you can have entire conversations in English without ever knowing — or even noticing you don't know — the gender of the person you're talking about. On several occasions, I've been going to meet someone with an unfamiliar (usually foreign) name and it's only when they actually show up that I become aware that I didn't know what gender they were. I may be a little extreme in that regard, I suppose, but it's just one of those things I don't register.

Which brings us to synaesthesia — the association of unrelated sensory information with words. This is a bit like the association of gender with words for speakers of German — you say "9" to someone and they get a sense of tallness, or green, or the smell of the seaside or whatever. Some savants have such strong associations with numbers (it's usually numbers) that they are able to perform prodigious feats of mathematics without thought — they just combine the "feelings" they get from the numbers and get a new "feeling" which is the answer.

OK, so after all my explanations of my own use of "feelings" to describe thoughts, you might think I have amazing associations between numbers and colours or sounds or smells or emotions. I don't. I have absolutely none whatsoever. I once sat down to take an online synaesthesia test on a BBC web site and was unable to get past the first question, which wanted to know which of the things it listed I associated most strongly with the number 6. I didn't associate any of them with the number 6. The test was apparently predicated on the observation that most people have mild synaesthetic abilities and about 1% of people have strong synaesthetic abilities; it was actually an attempt to see how deep these ran and whether they were the same from one person to another. I got no reaction at all. What colour is N? Beats me!

Of course, I associate related sensory information with a concept. Say "brick" to me and I see images of bricks and hear the word "brick". I might get the texture and smell, too, if I didn't move on to the next word in the sentence. Say "six" to me and I'll see, well, when I wrote it just now I saw the numeral, six formless things arranged like the pips on a die, and the English written word (hmm, lower case Times New Roman I think); I heard the word "six" said in my head. Another time, I might get different images (not sound, though). If left long enough for associatons to play, I'd get many, many more images and sounds and possibly even tastes, too. However, in no cases would I get something that was nothing to do with 6. If I want random, I can do random, but it doesn't come from association with words.

For foreign languages, I just don't think of a gender as being part and parcel of a word unless it really is bound up with it in some non-arbitrary way, any more than I think of 6 as having a colour. Maybe that's why I stand no chance of learning the gender of French nouns?

Yes, this is just a rambling way of saying I feel all left out for not having any synaesthetic abilities whatsoever...

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Copyright © 2007 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).