The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

MIT Colloquium 12/1 - Nina Sumbatova (RSUH)

Speaker: Nina Sumbatova (Russian State University for the Humanities)
Title: Referential, Radical Alliterative, and other uncommon instances of gender agreement
Time: Friday, December 1st, 3:30-5pm
Place: 32-155

According to the widely cited definition by Charles Hockett, “genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words” (Hockett 1958: 231). In other words, genders are defined via agreement. At the same time, in most languages with gender systems, the speakers cannot determine the gender of an arbitrary noun neither by its meaning nor by any formal properties – it is a lexical feature of the noun and should be kept in the lexicon.

However, there is a whole number of languages whose gender systems are described as totally semantic as well as some languages where (almost) all nouns are assigned to particular genders by applying some simple and highly regular formal rules. In this talk, I shall discuss some languages of these two types.

First, I shall present the data of Dargwa (East Caucasian), a language with a “semantic” gender system. I hope to show that gender assignment in Dargwa is rather based on the properties of the NP referents than on the lexical features of the nouns.

Second, I shall discuss the possibility of systems where gender is assigned solely by a set of rules and probably does need to be stored in the lexicon. The language of Landuma (Mel < Niger-Congo) is a unique example of a language where the choice of agreement markers seems to be conditioned by a purely phonological rule. The “gender” system in Landuma needs a serious discussion, since it looks as a violation of the well-known principle of phonology-free syntax (Zwicky 1969; Zwicky, Pullum 1986, etc.).

The data of Dargwa and Landuma were obtained in course of fieldwork in Daghestan (Russian Federation) and in the Republic of Guinea, respectively.