Why Romance languages aren’t “gender-neutral”

Somebody forwarded me a derposaurus item about the “sexism” of the French language. The argument, such as it was, primarily proves Orwell’s Law, but an interesting linguistic curiosum occurred to me. Why does French have no neuter gender, and neither do Spanish and Italian — while their common ancestor Latin clearly does?

English, of course, has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of English nouns is also extremely regular: pretty much every inanimate object or concept is neuter. (In literary and poetic usage, countries or (star)ships can be female.) Compare German, which also has three genders. (Neuter gender is actually called sachlich, lit. thing-like, objective, business-like in German.) Who would have guessed that a carpet is male (der Teppich), a page is female (die Seite) — as is physics (die Physik) — while a boat is neuter (das Boot). [There are actually some, fairly complex, rules that allow you to guesstimate correctly about 4 out of 5 times. More here.]

In Hebrew (or Arabic), for instance, there is no neuter gender, so anything is male or female. As a rule, in Hebrew, unspecified gender defaults to male. So a dog is a kelev, plural klavim — except if you want to specifically point out it’s a she-dog, then kalba (which also can mean “bitch” as a pejorative), plural kalbot. A donkey is a khamor, except if you specifically mean a she-ass, atonAvot (the plural of av) literally means “fathers” but also can generally mean “ancestors” of both genders.

Back to French now, and Romance languages in general. Classical Latin obviously had three genders. In nouns of the second declension, they are quickly identified by the endings -us for male (dominus, domus), -a for female (domina, ancilla), -um for neuter (museum, ferrum). But of all the major Romance languages, only Rumanian seems to have a neuter gender at all — and even that is a strange beast that behaves like male in the singular and female in the plural. What gives?

The thing is: Latin existed in different “high”/formal/literary and “low”/informal register variants, and the differences were so pronounced that they amounted to two dialects of the same language. (Linguists call this situation diglossia. It is also seen with classical vs. demotic Greek, Sanskrit vs. Prakrit, and — in the modern era — literary Arabic vs. its regional dialects.) The classic Latin works we learned in high school were all written in easier or more difficult forms of classical Latin: the language spoken (and to some extent written) by the common people (Latin: vulgus) was called vulgar Latin. All Romance languages descend from vulgar Latin, rather than classical literary Latin.

Typically, the informal language variants have a simplified grammar compared to the literary form. For example, this is the case with spoken informal German (Mundart, lit. “the way of the mouth”) vs. the written language, and with “street Hebrew” vs. the formal language (e.g., the use of “[noun] sheli” for the possessive instead of inflecting the noun). Vulgar Latin was no exception to this rule: among other things, the neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine.


Et voilà. As vulgar Latin fragmented into dialects, which ultimately evolved into Old French etc., those descendants retained the binary gender.

In contrast, while classical Greek existed in a similar state of diglossia, both classical Attic Greek and demotic Greek had three genders —  and hence modern Greek (which descends from Demotic) retains the neuter gender.retains it as well, even if many other grammatical features of literary Greek were discarded.



Saturday musical delight: Well-Tempered Clavier in MuseScore animation

Via YouTube channel “gerubach”, which has been presenting “scrolling score” youtube videos of musical compositions for many years, I stumbled upon the following gem of a playlist:

All of Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is being rendered there in MuseScore animation: as you hear the audio, not only do you see the score on screen (two systems at a time) and a pointer scrolling across the notes being played, but at the bottom of the screen, you see the notes currently sounding displayed on a piano keyboard.

Especially in combination with YouTube’s ability to play back videos at reduced speed without altering the pitch, this is a marvelous self-tutoring tool for keyboard playing as well as music theory.

The audio is taken from the performance by pianist (and former competitive weight lifter!) Kimiko Ishizaka [official website]. The MuseScore team could legally do so as the (IMHO excellent) performance was released in the public domain (!)

The onetime child prodigy pre-funds her recordings through Kickstarter campaigns (most recently, she ran one for a “Libre”recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue), then releases them online under PD or Creative Commons licenses. The word “Libre” she uses has some currency in the open source software developer community: It refers to one of the two words in French (and other Romance languages) that correspond to the English “free”, namely libre (without restrictions, “free as in speech”) vs. gratis (without cost, “free as in lunch”).  She does not work gratis, but on what I have been calling a “massively distributed commissioning” model, and what is becoming known as a “threshold pledge” model: she sets a funding goal, solicits pledges from patrons on Kickstarter, and if her threshold is met, the work is performed and the money collected. For her last campaign, the threshold she set was 20,000 Euro, and the minimum pledge was 10 Euro — the price of an album at a CD store (remember those). Larger pledge amounts (20 Euro, 50 Euro, 100 Euro) get various extra goodies, such as live recordings from recent concerts, a physical CD of the music, and admission to one of three “meatspace” live concerts.

D. Jason Fleming has been talking a lot about the “Open Culture Movement”. I believe this is an interesting example, and may actually point a way toward the future for classical performers. The big losers here, of course, are the classical music labels, who in this model are about as profitable as illegal CD bootleggers….


Guitars with more than six strings? What for? An overview

Following my Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar post, a few people have asked me what else guitars with more than six strings are good for.  In response, here is a quick overview.

The standard guitar, of course, has six strings tuned (scientific notation) E2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4. There are a variety of alternate tunings being used in especially nonclassical music, of which I will only cite a few examples:

  • Drop-D: D2-A2-D3-G3-B3-E4 as used by many metal and alternative rock outfits
  • Drop-C: C2-G2-C3-F3-A3-D4 as used by bands like Killswitch Engage
  • Open G tuning: D2-G2-D3-G3-B3-D4 as used by, e.g., Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones
  • “New Standard Tuning” C2-G2-D3-A3-E3-G4 as advocated by Robert Fripp of King Crimson

But those merit another article. Suffice to say that some of the more exotic tunings require restringing with lighter or heavier gauge strings.

“Baritone guitars” are standard six-string instruments with longer necks, tuned a fourth or fifth lower than standard.

Seven-string guitars come in both “classical”/acoustic and electric varieties

  • acoustic, Russian: open G tuning with extra top string tuned to high G4
  • acoustic, Brazilian: standard plus an extra bottom string tuned to low C2.
  • electric: typically with an added low B1 string. Somewhat popular in progressive rock and metal. Stevie Vai and Dream Theater’s John Petrucci are acknowledged virtuosi on the instrument. In heavier genres, the bottom string may be tuned down to A1 (Korn).

Eight-string guitars likewise come in classical and modern varieties

  • acoustic: “cello guitar” or Brahms guitar. Originally devised for playing Theme and Variations, Op. 21a by Brahms. Adds low A and high A strings to standard: A1E2A2D3G3B3E4A4
  • electric: either with extra bass and treble string), or with two low strings (“djent” guitars, as favored by “math-metal” band Meshuggah), which can be tuned F#1B1. Or E1B1, giving it the same low-end range as a standard bass. (e.g., Tosin Abasi of Animals As Leaders switches between guitar and bass parts thay way.)

Nine-string guitars are rare: the rare examples are like six-strings with the three upper strings (in pitch, not geometry) being doubled up into pairs. (“Courses” in guitar speak.)

Ten-string guitars exist in three types:

  • “harp guitars” (see below)
  • Narciso Yepes guitar: the famed classical guitarist played an all-frettable 10-string with the top six strings in standard, the remaining four chosen to maximize sympathetic resonance: F#2-Ab2-Bb2-C2-E2A2D3G3B3E4 Note that this tuning is “re-entrant”, i.e., the strings do not go from low to high in a neat row.
  • English guitar: C-E-GG-cc-ee-gg (two strings plus four courses)

Harp guitars exist in (at least) 11-string, 13-string, and 10-string variants. The idea of a “harp guitar” is that below your standard strings, you have a set of 5-7 bass strings that are tuned harp-style, on a diatonic scale. You can then use the thumb of your picking hand to strike bass notes as open strings, and accompany your fretted playing.

This was a common performance practice on the Baroque lute, and harp guitars are indeed used for this type of repertoire. The bass strings may be retuned half steps up or down to fit the scale of the piece being played. For instance, here is a piece by the lutenist and composer Sylvius Leopold Weiss, a contemporary of J. S. Bach:

Last but not least, we are left with twelve-string guitars, which have seen some notable use in folk, rock, and pop music. 12-strings are strung in six courses. The standard tuning has the bottom four courses in octave pairs, and the top two in unison pairs. In scientific notation:


Playing what would normally be single lines on the bottom four courses effectively turns your part into parallel octaves, and chords on a 12-string sound particularly rich and full, kind-of like double-fisted piano chord played Rachmaninoff-style 🙂

If one wishes to reproduce the 12-string sound in the studio without an actual 12-string guitar, the answer is to have two guitarists play the part on standard 6-strings, one tuned normally, the other strung with lighter-gauge strings and tuned E3—A3—D4—G4—B3—E4, i.e., to the upper half of each 12-string course. (This is known as “Nashville tuning” in guitar lingo.)

Many folk musicians use an open-chord variant of this tuning. Some jazz musicians tune courses to intervals other than unisons or octaves in order to generate more complex chords. For instance, on the album Twelve by Anthony Phillips (a personal favorite of mine), the erstwhile Genesis guitarist uses this tuning throughout


“June” is my favorite tune from that album. Here is a cover by “hyperboreal”: His instrument’s tuning is a little off, and he flubs a few runs, but you will get the idea.

Let me conclude with Anthony Phillips himself, in a rare on-camera performance since crippling stage fright made him quit the stage:

Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian:



Media bias: nothing new under the sun


Forsyth, Frederick. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue (p. 111). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Judging from all the chatter about “Fake News,” one might think media bias is a wholly new phenomenon. Of course, there is nothing new under the sun.

I have earlier blogged about Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography “The Outsider,” specifically on how he reinvented himself as a pioneering thriller writer after his journalistic career came to an abrupt end. (The Day Of The Jackal to me still stands as perhaps the greatest thriller ever written.)

Forsyth never went to journalism school (he’d probably snicker at the thought): his formal training was as a jet fighter pilot! He had instead learned the craft on the job as a cub reporter for a regional newspaper, then decided to try his luck in London. By coincidence, the Reuters deputy bureau chief in Paris had just returned home with a heart condition. As this was a time of great political turmoil in France following de Gaulle’s decision to withdraw from Algeria, the agency needed a replacement urgently. The polyglot Forsyth spoke French like a native and thus was hired basically on the spot.

Forsyth credits his boss in Paris, Harold King, with teaching him the value of professionalism and objectivity even on a subject where your own passions are palpable — such as de Gaulle, whom both men admired.

In this spirit, Forsyth relates a telling anecdote for those who think manufactured press conferences with planted questions are a recent innovation:

“I had turned twenty-four, and in January attended the now-famous press conference in the Elysée when de Gaulle vetoed the British application to join the European Economic Community. It was a huge slap in the face to British premier Harold Macmillan, who, in Algeria in the Second World War, had pushed de Gaulle’s claims to be the sole leader of the Free French.

His conferences were no press conferences at all. He simply planted five questions with five ultraloyal senior pressmen in the audience, memorized the speech he intended to make in reply, and also memorized the placements of the five so-called questioners, because he could not see them. Harold King, in the front, was awarded a question to ask.

Later, Forsyth became the Reuters correspondent in East Berlin. I won’t detract from his many humorous tales of that period, many of which feature unintentionally comic behavior by the Stasi and regime officials. Pride of place is given to the press secretary of the East German Communist government, who acted as a de facto censor for the foreign press. Forsyth discovered that Kurt Blecha was, in fact, a former Nazi who underwent a “conversion” in a POW camp and now served the competing brand of totalitarians.

At Christmas, Easter, and on his birthday, I sent him an anonymous greeting card at his office. It was bought in East Berlin but typed on a machine in the West Berlin office of Reuters, in case my own machine was checked. It wished him all best, with his Nazi Party membership number writ large and purporting to come from “your old and faithful Kameraden.” I never saw him open them, but I hope they worried the hell out of him.

He tells of a few amusing amorous capers, one of which made it quite advisable for him to get back to the West. After another stint in Paris, he obtained a job with the BBC.

I learned quite quickly that the BBC is not primarily a creator of entertainment, or a reporter and disseminator of hard news like Reuters. Those come second. Primarily the BBC is a vast bureaucracy with the three disadvantages of a bureaucracy. These are a slothlike inertia, an obsession with rank over merit, and a matching obsession with conformism.[…]

The upper echelons of the bureaucracy preferred a devoted servility to the polity of the ruling government, provided it was Labor, and it was.

After various assignments, the BBC sent him to Nigeria to report on the developing civil war and the secession of what became the short-lived Republic of Biafra. Here, Forsyth became an eyewitness to an unfolding human tragedy — his collected dispatches were later published in book form as The Biafra Story.

The BBC toffs were in lockstep with Whitehall (the Foggy Bottom of the UK) and the Wilson administration: they sided with the predominantly Muslim, pseudo-democratic, feudal regime of Nigeria against the predominantly Christian Igbo people who populated Biafra. (In this respect too, nothing new under the sun.) They repeated the propaganda of the Nigerian dictatorship as gospel truth.

Every journalist will know that he may have to report what a dictatorship is saying, but must make plain early on that it is the government talking, not him. This is the “attribution”—the words “according to the Nigerian government.”

Forsyth reported what he actually saw, and that did not go down well:

What I had actually done was point a Colt .45 at the forehead of my reporting career with the BBC and pull the trigger. It was not out of mischief but naïveté. I was trained by Reuters. I had never covered a controversial story in my two years with the BBC. I did not realize that when broadcasting for the state, a foreign correspondent must never report what London does not want to hear. And that is what I had done.

Forsyth was recalled to England, and then resigned from the BBC to continue reporting as a freelancer.

Every day, the horrors of Vietnam were copiously reported, but that was an American mess. Nigeria was a very British one, apparently to remain clothed in secrecy.[…]

For the record, there were no starving children visible at that time. They would appear later, and the ghastly images of them, splashed across the world’s media, would transform everything.

This happened after the blockade against Biafra had been enforced for a while. The Igbo grew their own sources of starches, but for protein were basically dependent on imports:

 It is a fact that an adult needs one gram of pure protein per day to stay healthy. A growing child needs five. The native population had always raised a few chickens and some small pigs for their eggs and meat. Other than these, there was no protein source and, unperceived, the hens and pigs had been consumed. The traditional protein supplement had always been fish; not river-caught fish but enormous quantities of Norwegian-imported dried cod called stockfish. These rock-hard sticks of cod went into the family stew pot, became rehydrated, and served as the family protein ration. For nine months, no stockfish had entered the surrounded and blockaded enclave. The meat/milk sources were gone. The national diet was now almost 100 percent starch.

And hence kwashiorkor made its appearance. Forsyth and others reported.

I did what I did, not in order to do down the Biafrans—far from it. I did it to try to influence the Whitehall argument that continued intermittently for the next fifteen months until the final crushing of Biafra, with a million dead children. The argument was between: “Prime Minister, this cannot be allowed to go on. The human cost is simply too high. We should reconsider our policy. We should use all our influence to urge a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution,” and “Prime Minister, I can assure you the media reports are as usual sensationalist and grossly exaggerated. We have information the rebel regime is very close to collapse. The sooner it does, the sooner we can get columns of relief food into the rebel territory. Meanwhile, we urge you to stick with the hitherto-agreed policy and even increase the support for the federal government.”

Guess which path the Whitehall mandarins chose? Worse, through a sleight-of-hand, they actually armed the Nigerian regime while professing neutrality.

Another early lie was that no weapons at all were being shipped from Britain to fuel the war. The key word was from, not by. In fact, the supplies were coming from British stocks at the immense NATO weapons park outside Brussels, and thus technically from Belgium. They were then replaced by shipments from Britain to Belgium.

And thus, slowly but surely, Biafra was crushed to death, even as the famine became an international humanitarian cause célèbre. Forsyth tells at some length of the aid efforts by Catholic and Protestant aid organizations —including an improvised air bridge that is estimated to have saved over a million lives. A secular relief effort that started in France would later (1971) rename itself Doctors Without Borders.

On another occasion, the war hero Group Captain Leonard Cheshire VC was asked to go to visit, be shown around Nigeria only, and return to peddle the official line. He duly went to Nigeria, but then refused not to go to Biafra. What he saw on the second visit so shocked him that he came back and denounced the official policy. He was immediately smeared as a gullible fool.

It was pretty standard to smear every journalist who expressed disgust at what was going on as either a mercenary, arms dealer, or [Biafran leader] Ojukwu propagandist, even though a million pictures are rather hard to dispute. No massive humanitarian tragedy, save those inflicted by nature herself, is possible without two kinds of contributors[: perpetrators and enablers].[…]

Starting with Sir David Hunt’s biased and flawed analysis, which was adopted by the Commonwealth Relations Office, taken over and intensified by the Foreign Office, and cravenly endorsed by Harold Wilson and Michael Stewart, what happened could not have happened without the wholesale and covert contribution of the Wilson government. I remain convinced of it to this day.

Nor was it necessary to protect some vital British interest, and what interest merits a million dead children? Britain could have used its huge influence with Lagos to militate for a cease-fire, a peace conference, and a political solution. It chose not to, despite repeated opportunities, pursuing Hunt’s conviction that Biafra must be crushed no matter the cost, but without ever explaining why.

That is why I believe that this coterie of vain mandarins and cowardly politicians stained the honor of my country forever, and I will never forgive them.

Frederick Forsyth was a journalist not just with a brain and a heart, but with a kind of raw moral integrity and intellectual honesty that made it impossible for him to continue in that profession, as he was “blackballed” upon his return to England. Looking for a way to support himself, he struck gold as a fiction writer, almost single-handedly establishing a new kind of tightly factual thriller.

Many journalists were presstitutes [sic] and mediatamites [sic] in Forsyth’s day — nothing is new there. What has changed is more that they morphed from high-class courtesans to pathetic streetwalkers—and that the tools to expose them are more readily available to those of us who want to hear what really went down.

Damnatio Memoriae by Nitay Arbel

A guest post at Sarah Hoyt’s place, looking at the slippery slopes of “condemnation of memory” from another angle.

According To Hoyt

Damnatio Memoriae by Nitay Arbel

The slippery slopes of “damnation of memory”

[See also this earlier PJMedia article by the blogmistress, https://pjmedia.com/trending/2017/08/20/remembering-the-past/ ]

Ancient Rome had a practice called “damnatio memoriae”  in which emperors or public figures that had fallen into disgrace were literally erased from view: not only were any monuments to them torn down, but their name was erased from things they had built.

In the wake of the recent push to demolish statues to military leaders from 150 years ago — respected on both sides of the war they fought in — the POTUS facetiously asked whether the Founding Fathers would be next. [Sure enough, some regressive leftist soon answered, “hold my beer!”.]

But seriously: as long as we’re engaging in “damnatio memoriae” by tearing down statues of historical figures who owned slaves etc. — why stop there? Let’s have a look at the sciences.

Karl Pearson…

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