Grammar Jokes, German Genders, and Frank Lloyd WrightLeave a comment
April 10, 2014 by libroshombre
Successful jokes depend greatly upon their recipients. Some listeners recoil at puns while others revel in them. Dante must have reserved a special sitting room in his inferno for those who appreciate grammar jokes. Are you one? Try this test: Do you laugh after hearing “A pregnant woman went into labor and began shouting ‘Couldn’t! Wouldn’t Shouldn’t! Didn’t! Can’t!’ She was having contractions.” Or “A noun and a verb are at a bar. The verb sidles up and asks, ‘Wanna go back to my place and conjugate?’ The noun replies, ‘I decline.’”
A lesser example of the genre is “What sort of noun should you invite to a fancy tea party? A proper one!” That’s my lead-in to the current German grammarians’ gender controversy. Unlike our English “the,” as in “the girl,” in German, whose articles can be masculine (der), feminine (die), and neutral (das),” it’s “das Madchen.” The Germans’ articles have been allocated haphazardly, according to linguists quoted in a Guardian.com story by Philip Olterman. For example, “spoon” is masculine (der Löffel), “fork” is feminine (die Gabel), and “knife” is neutral (das Messer). Now German linguists are trying to straighten things out.
The German Federal Justice Ministry recently ordered all state organizations to use only the neutral “das,” but other German institutions are approaching it differently. Newspaper job ads, for example, often employ the feminine “die” in describing all professions. The same confusion reigned when Mark Twain visited Germany and noticed that “die Rube,” or “the turnip,” is feminine, while “das Madchen” or “girl” is neutral. “Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip,” he wrote, “and what callus disrespect for the girl.”
Some linguists believe the Germans are tiring of this mounting confusion and settle on some non-gender article, like the English did in the Middle Ages. Despite our useful “the,” a he-she debate simmers among English-speakers, and it’s easy to see both sides of the argument: equal treatment versus tradition. Sometimes happy middle-grounds are found. Lao Tzu’s immortal “Tao Te Ching” is a book that profoundly altered my life, but it didn’t speak to me until I encountered Stephen Mitchell’s acclaimed 1988 translation. The Tao Te Ching is composed of short passages, each complete within itself, so it worked whenMitchell alternated using masculine and feminine pronouns, but that would be confusing in many other contexts.
The English language is confusing enough as it is, and even more so with us calling ourselves “Americans” as though Canada and Mexico were afterthoughts. Back in 1927, the great U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a new adjective, “Usonian,” to use instead of “American” when referring to things of our particular nation. A term with the same meaning, “Usono” had been used earlier in a 1910 speech by L.L. Zamenhof, the father of Esperanto, but “Usonian” was coined by U.S. writer James Duff Law in a 1903 collection of articles titled “Here and There in Two Hemispheres.”
Several decades after Law’s book, Wright was challenged by his friend, Milwaukee journalist Herbert Jacobs, to design and build a modern home for $5,000. Wright’s design, “small, single-story dwellings without a garage or much storage,” had flat roofs, two bedrooms, small kitchens and bedrooms “encouraging the family to gather in the main living areas.” His L-shaped houses were designed to not include servants, and the small kitchen, dining areas opened directly onto the main living area. Wright’s Usonian houses contained many other innovations — he coined the word “carport” — that would be mimicked by countless other architects and contractors.
Wright’s idea of having a building’s various areas flow together is epitomized in the designs of our local public libraries. Foot-traffic patterns, overlapping uses, maximizing lines of staff to increase efficiency and minimize the size of the necessary staff, are all there, especially in the new North Pole Branch Library that will open this summer.
That grand achievement has been made possible by a bunch of your friends and neighbors who saw a need, and pulled together to design and fund a new library. They know that the most important pronoun for a community is “us.”