What Gender Is The Sea?

sea waves sunrise

What gender is the sea?

In the masterful novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway doesn’t shy away from addressing how the Spanish language spoken by his fictional creations might mean that they see the world around them in a different light than the English-speaking author (and most of the readers of the original, untranslated work) would.

The possibilities which looking at the world through a different language can open up are immediately apparent in the book’s title. “The Old Man” has a quite clear gender – masculine – but what about “the Sea?” The boats which travel the sea are usually feminine for English speakers, and the cities that they dock in often are too. The sea, on the other hand, isn’t usually attributed a gender in the English language – we might say that the question is moot.

In Spanish, on the other hand, the question of gender is omnipresent. The sea – el mar – is masculine, meaning that the title could be perceived as a conjunction of two masculine nouns – The Old Man and El Mar. However, it is likely that Hemingway did not want his novel to be about a relationship between two masculine entities, and to this end he inserts a substantial internal soliloquy in the mind of Santiago, the Old Man:

“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”

Through this bit of the text Hemingway helps to correct the way in which readers receive his novel, but he also illuminates us as to the possibilities which the Spanish language offers. Just by changing the article which precedes mar, a speaker of Spanish can indicate a feminine or a masculine perception of the sea.

Spanish has a number of “ambiguous” nouns whose gender may depend on desired connotation, usage, or regional differences. The Catalan language demonstrates the same phenomenon, and allows for both el mar and la mar. In Italian (including all Italian dialects) and Portuguese, the sea is strictly masculine: il mare (Sicilian: u mari, Venetian: el mar, Neapolitan: ‘o mare, Sardinian: su mari, Corsican: u mare) and o mar (the same for Galician); however in French and Romanian it is feminine: la mer and la mare.

What gender is the sea in your mind?

The Celtic Languages

Before the discovery of America the western edge of Europe seemed like the end of the world. And it was here at the world’s precipices that the Celts, pushed out of their original homes by immigrants arriving from the East, found their final resting place. Today the six Celtic Nations– Brittany (Breizh), Cornwall (Kernow), Ireland (Éire), the Isle of Man (Mannin), Scotland (Alba), and Wales (Cymru)- are the last living reminder of a vast Celtic presence which once stretched from the British Isles to the Iberian Peninsula to Anatolia (Turkey).

The Celtic people originated in Central Europe (Austria and surrounding areas) during the Iron Age and thereafter began an immigration which took them far and wide. The letter of Saint Paul to the Galatians (the name for the Celts in Anatolia), the Galician dialect in Spain, and the Gauls who fought against Julius Caesar in what today is France are historical reminders of their ubiquitousness.

The Celtic languages once spoken across Europe and Asia Minor- known as “Continental Celtic languages”- are today completely extinct. Only on the rocky western shores of the continent has some form of the language been able to cling on to life. The six “Insular Celtic languages” have managed to carry Celtic culture into the 21st century, albeit with relatively small numbers of speakers.

The Irish (Gaeilge) and Welsh (Cymraeg) languages are the healthiest of the bunch with 1.3 million and 700,000 speakers respectively. Breton (Brezhoneg) and Scottish (Gàidhlig) are in the middle of the group with 200,000 and 60,000 speakers, while Cornish (Kernowek) and Manx (Gaelg) have less speakers than some high schools do students- 3,500 and 1,800 respectively. In all, less than 2 and a half million people worldwide speak a Celtic language- a small number but certainly respectable for a language group that has risked complete eradication by more dominant languages.

Bilingual education programs have been founded to help the languages survive in this new millennium. In the Gaelscoileanna (Ireland), Ysgolion Meithrin (Wales) and Diwan (Brittany) students study the various complexities of their ancestral languages. They learn that while Subject-Verb-Object is the correct word order in English, they must use the order of Verb-Subject-Object when speaking a Celtic tongue. They memorize the 28 letters of the Welsh alphabet- which replace j, k, q, v, x, and z with curious “double-digit” letters ch, dd, ff, ng, ll, ph, rh, and th. They learn to “conjugate” their prepositions; the Breton word for withgant– will change depending on its object: ganin (with me), ganit (with you), gantañ (with him), ganti (with her), ganimp (with us), ganeoc’h (with you plural), or ganto (with them).

Pronunciation is surely one of the most difficult aspects of learning a Celtic language. Even just sounding out the names on road signs in Wales can be difficult for non-Welsh speakers, especially when it comes to places like Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which translates to “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of Llandysilio of the red cave.” Luckily for visitors, this town of 3,000 on the island of Anglesey in the north-western part of the country can also be referred to by its nickname, Llanfair PG, although that initial “double L” is always problematic for “foreigners.” It is what linguists call a “voiceless alveolar lateral fricative,” a sound which does not exist in English, although it is often approximated as “thl” or “chl” (where “ch” is as in the Scottish or Irish word “loch” or the German “ich”).

Luckily not all Celtic words will seem so foreign and difficult to the English speaker; many have entered into our vocabulary. Irish words such as banshee (bean sídhe- woman of the fairies) and galore (go leor– to sufficiency) are commonplace. Scottish has given us trousers (triubhas) and slogan (sluagh-ghairm- army shout). Penguin probably comes from the Welsh pen gwyn (white head).The French word bijou (jewel) derives the Breton bizou (finger ring- biz is the word for finger).

Though spoken by a small number of people, the Celtic languages are still quite alive in the six Celtic nations. And “small” is of course a relative description- in Llanfair PG 76% of the population speaks Welsh fluently, including 97.1% of those aged 10 to 14. At least in this small village with the long name the Celtic languages are far from being cornered into extinction.

The Uralic Language Family

Although Indo-European languages represent the vast majority of languages in Europe, they are not the only language group on the Old Continent. Finland is certainly part of Scandinavia, but the Finnish language is not at all a relative of its Nordic neighbors to the west. Nor is it a cousin, not even a distant one, of the mother of all Slavic tongues spoken by its eastern neighbor. The Uralic language family which includes Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian is not related in any significant manner to other European languages.

Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian seems like an odd mix- while Finland and Estonia are Baltic Sea neighbors, Hungary is a landlocked Eastern European country with Germanic (Austria), Romance (Romania), and Slavic (Slovakia, Slovenia, Serbia, Croatia and the Ukraine) neighbors. Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia lie between Hungary and its closest linguistic relative, Estonia, and it is even farther from its ancestral linguistic homeland in the Ural Mountains, the spine of mountains which is traditionally considered to be the natural Eastern boundary of Europe.

Today the area just to the west of the Ural Mountains is still home to a number of minor Uralic languages, each spoken by approximately half-a-million people, all of which have official language status alongside Russian in their respective regions.

According to some linguists, the ancestral homeland of the Uralic languages was not confined to the Ural Mountains but extended westward all the way to the Baltic Sea. The Karelian language spoken in the Russian Republic of Karelia along the Finnish border and the Saami languages of Northern Scandinavia join Finnish and Estonian in testifying to this past.

The most distinctive feature of the Uralic languages is agglutination. To understand agglutination- which literally means “gluing together”- it is first necessary to understand inflection– the practice of specifying the syntactical role of a word through affixes (prefixes and suffixes) rather than relying on auxiliary words and word order. In English inflection is used only in a few instances, for example when we form the plural (usually by adding “-s”), turn an adjective into an adverb by adding “-ly” (happy -> happily), or say “he”, “him” or “his” depending on whether we are talking about a subject, object or possessor.

Other languages rely much more heavily on inflection. Those who studied Latin will certainly remember the torture of memorizing cases and declensions. A “house” is casa when it is a subject (nominative case), casae when it is possessive (genitive case), casam when it is a direct object (accusative case), and so on. The high level of inflection in Latin allows for much greater liberty in word order, making the poetry of Horace, Catullus, and Vergil that much more interesting and that much harder to translate.

Agglutination takes inflection to its extreme consequences by instating a one-to-one relationship between syntactical category (i.e. subject, direct object, possession) and affix. The result is a vast number of possible prefixes or suffixes and highly specific syntactical categories. Hungarian has 18 noun cases, while Finnish has 15 and Estonian has 14.

So while “house” in Hungarian is Ház when it’s the subject of the sentence (nominative case), it is Házat when it is the direct object (accusative), Háznak when it is “of the house” (dative-genitive), Házzal when it is “with the house” (instrumental), házastul when it is “with the house and its parts” (essive-modal), házzá when it is “into a house” (translative), házért when it is “for the house” (causal-final), házba when it is “into the house” (illative), házra when it is “onto the house” (sublative), házhoz when it is “to the house” (allative), házban when it is “in the house” (inessive), házon when it is “on the house” (superessive), háznál when it is “at the house” (adessive), házból when it is “out of the house” (elative), házról when it is “from (top of) the house” (delative), háztól when it is “from (nearby) the house” (ablative), házig when it is “as far as the house” (terminative), and házként when it is “as a house” (formal). In addition, there is a temporal case which cannot be illustrated with the word house- “house o’clock” isn’t an actual time, even in Hungary.

Features like agglutination make Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian difficult for a speaker of an Indo-European language to learn. Have you had any experience with a Uralic language?