Linguistic Gender Crossing

Cross Gender

Last week we discussed the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in detail; however, seeing as the somewhat complicated-sounding term means nothing more than a “crossing” (like the shape of the Greek letter chi), it is often used as well to describe what happens when linguistic genders get crossed.

For those with an interest in language, linguistic gender crossing is every bit as titillating as cross dressing and sex changes. The first type of gender crossing is called chiastic agreement, a special type of agreement between a noun and its qualifiers. A qualifier is any word which specifies characteristics of a noun, such as adjectives, adverbs and possessives. So in the noun phrase “seven new red cars”, new and red are both qualifiers. The number seven, on the other hand, is a quantifier. Agreement between a noun and its qualifiers means that if a noun is feminine and singular, its qualifiers will be feminine and singular as well. So in Spanish we have “siete nuevos coches rojos” but “siete nuevas bicicletas rojas”; coches (car) is masculine and plural, so “new” and “red” are nuevos and rojos, while the feminine bicicletas are accompanied by nuevas and rojas.

Notice that the quantifier – siete – is invariable. Obviously the number seven will always be plural, but, as with all quantifiers in Spanish and most other languages, it has no gender. This is not the case in Arabic, where quantifiers in fact express agreement with the noun which they enumerate; i.e. they will be feminine if the noun is feminine and masculine if it is masculine.

However, the numbers 3 to 10 in Arabic show chiastic agreement, which means that the genders are swapped. So in the Quranic verse في ستة أيام (God created the world in 6 days), the masculine plural noun أيام (days) is qualified by the feminine number ستة (six). If the period had been six years we would have seen six written as ست, which is its masculine version, in chiastic agreement with the feminine word عام (year). All other numbers show normal, homogender agreement.

Although numbers are genderless quantifiers in most other languages, there is one Romance language in which the gender of numerical quantities can be slightly confusing. In Italian, on top of the difficulty of identifying the gender of a noun, one must also learn to recognize those nouns which undergo the equivalent of a sex change when they pass from the singular to the plural.

Two of the words which change gender when pluralized refer to numerical quantities: the masculine singular nouns il centinaio (a group of one hundred) and il migliaio (a group of one thousand) become the feminine plurals le centinaia and le miglia.

Many of the Italian nouns which undergo a similar gender change refer to parts of the body; we have il braccio (the arm, m.) but le braccia (the arms, f.), il ginocchio (the knee, m.) but le ginocchia (the knees, f.), il labbro (the lip, m.) but le labbra (the lips, f.), and l’orecchio (the ear, m.) but le orecchie (the ears, f.). Head, shoulders, knees and toes (testa, spalle, ginocchia e piedi) is all that more difficult to remember in Italian.

All of this probably sounds confusing – nice-looking rules inevitably have exceptions. Remember – grammar, in our own language as well as foreign languages, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive science. To learn to speak Arabic and Italian correctly you not only have to learn your genders; you have to learn when to cross them!


The Bilingual U.S. – Middle Eastern Detroit Part II

In 2002 the National Security Education Program, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense which collaborates with educational institutions, launched a pilot version of the Language Flagship as part of an effort to enhance language skills in “critical need” languages identified by the U.S. State Department as Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Chinese (Mandarin), Hindi, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish, and Urdu. The Language Flagship is a challenge to U.S. universities to endow students with professional proficiencies in these languages; generous funding and additional resources at the K-12 level are part of the program.

Arabic is at the top of the list alphabetically but is certainly near the top in importance as well. Interactions with the Arab world are important commercially, politically, and militarily, and this importance will only continue to grow. The United States needs professional capabilities in Arabic in many sectors, and it seems only natural that it should try to develop these capabilities in the Arab capital of America.

The University of Michigan and Michigan State University have both received funding for their Arabic programs; in addition State has launched a partnership with the Dearborn Public School District to “develop a national K-12 model for Arabic foreign language instruction that flows smoothly across all grades and builds on previous learning.” Starting in Kindergarten, children in the school district will be taught Arabic by highly qualified teachers.

Many children are already native Arabic speakers- the approximately 32,000 Arab Muslims in Dearborn are nearly one-third of the city’s population and in some public schools the Arab population is as high as 90 percent. Given quality instruction all the way through the 12th grade, students will graduate with a respectable knowledge of Arabic. They will then be eligible for one of forty university scholarships to continue their studies of the language at a higher level.

The push for Arabic language instruction by the federal government is in direct contradiction with some currents of popular sentiment in Dearborn. A 2009 report by the Wayne County Regional Education Service Agency recommended that Fordson High School prohibit all non-English use except in circumstances where it was absolutely necessary-“To do otherwise reinforces a perception by some that Fordson is an Arab School in America rather than an American school with Arab students.” In 2010 the United States Department of Education had to step in to ensure that the Dearborn Public School District would fulfill their obligation to provide limited English proficient (LEP) parents with information about the children’s education in Arabic. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights also found that the school district was denying English language learner (EL) students access to “non-academic and extracurricular programs, services and activities such as guidance and counseling” on the basis of their national origin.

The complete integration of Arabs into the community in Dearborn and the greater Detroit area while encouraging them to preserve their language is no simple task. However it is clear that as the world economy undergoes massive changes, Detroit will no longer be able to survive on its faded industrial glory. It can transform itself for the future by taking advantage of another part of the heritage left behind by Henry Ford- the country’s largest Arab-American population.

The Bilingual U.S. – Middle Eastern Detroit Part I

On the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, you can count on hearing the Arabic language at least five times a day. From its telltale location on Ford Street, the Islamic Center of America broadcasts its calls to prayer from a loudspeaker, calling out to the city’s Lebanese, Yemeni, and Iraqi residents in the language which unites them.

The Islamic Center of America- the largest mosque in America- and the Arab-American Museum are testimony to what any visitor to Dearborn would probably quickly gather by way of the Arabic signs throughout the city- Dearborn is the heart of Arab-America.

Part of the mission of the brand-new museum- the first of its kind- is to educate people about the role that Arab-Americans have had in our country since its founding. Most people are not aware that it was Henry Ford to first call the Arabs to Michigan. According to the Ford Motor Company, “Upon landing in America, many immigrants were not headed for Detroit, but changed their paths when they heard about Ford Motor Company’s wage of $5 for a day’s work.” Many of the immigrants who came first to Highland Park- the site of Ford’s first factory and the birthplace of the Model T- and then to Dearborn’s South End to work at the Ford Rouge plant- which with its 90,000 employees would soon become the world’s largest industrial complex- came from Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The beginning of the 20th century saw the rise of many Lebanese Maronite Christian churches in the area as well as what were perhaps the first Muslim Mosque and Chaldean Catholic Church in the United States- the former in Highland Park in 1921 and the latter in Detroit in 1947.

Arab Christians far outnumbered the Muslims among the early immigrants and aside from professing different faiths, the immigrants from the large area generally known as the “Middle East” had linguistic differences as well. The Levantine dialects of Arabic spoken in Lebanon and Syria are quite different from Yemeni Arabic even though many of the immigrants would have also spoken the Modern Standard Arabic which linguistically unites the Arabic world. The language of the Chaldeans, on the other hand, Christians from modern-day Iraq, is an eastern dialect of Aramaic, the “language of Christ,” although many- especially modern-day refugees of the Gulf and Iraq Wars- have learned Arabic at school.

The Chaldeans, not a well-known population anywhere in the world, are an important part of the Detroit Metropolitan Area, which is now home to “the largest single concentration of Chaldeans, Assyrians, and Syriacs in the Western Hemisphere,” estimated to be from 100,000 to 120,000 strong. Chaldeans are Detroit’s merchants- they own 75 of the city’s 84 supermarkets.

Interest in the Chaldeans’ ancient language- a form of which many Americans may have heard in Mel Gibson’sThe Passion of the Christ– is palpable in the Detroit area. Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church offers Chaldean language courses from the basic (101) to the advanced fluent (501) level- free while the University of Detroit- Mercy offers courses in Aramaic open to any and all college students. evens offers tips on how to teach the language to the family pet.

The Chaldean language is an important part of world history and a source of pride for the Motor City. Oppressed for millennia in the Middle East, the Chaldean community has flourished in Detroit. Practicing a Christian faith has made their integration into the city’s fabric much more seamless than that of their Muslim brethren, who are nonetheless a crucial part of Michigan’s present, and future.