Cognitive categories and grammatical gender from Latin to Romance

The way in which the evolution of Latin gender has been presented most of the time makes an interesting case, proving -- once again -- that confusing ‘real properties' (as perceived by a certain cultural community) and linguistic semantic features, either extensional or intensional, can lead to inappropriate descriptions of linguistic phenomena. If studies of non Indo-European languages pointed to the fact that the scale of "Animacy" differs from one culture to another (see Dahl 2002), historical grammars of Romance languages have interpreted the distribution of genders in Latin according to Western culture, as a way of encoding a ‘primitive type of animism'. But the remotivation and even the loss of neuter gender in Romance languages cannot be explained if one fails to account for the fact that Latin non-neuter nouns could also refer to forces of nature and even to things: comp. masculines such as ventus ‘wind', ignis ‘fire', scopulus ‘crag, promontory', lapis ‘stone, landmark', rupes ‘cliff' or feminines such as terra ‘earth', aqua "water', fornix ‘vault', ruga ‘wrinkle', etc. However [±Animacy] equated with [±Living] has been a feature ingrained in historical accounts of I.E. languages for so long that it has been almost impossible to accept that it should be redefined according to the culture it encodes. In fact, according to several ancient and even contemporary cultures (as reflected or not in religious beliefs), every entity has a soul, a spirit, a special type of energy, as the link with their Creator (or with the Universe). Consequently, the hypothesis of a ‘primitive animism' cannot explain the fact that nouns such as saxum ‘stone, rock', malum ‘apple', mare ‘sea', melos ‘tune', are neuter. As Antoine Meillet (1937) pointed out long ago, the gender subclassification of IE nouns encoded ‘Agency' (namely the difference between ‘être agissant' and ‘non agissant') rather than ‘Living'. More recently, in order to explain the evolution of I.E. grammatical gender, Luraghi (2009) added to ‘Animacy' such features as ‘being in control' and ‘the capacity of manipulating'. The present contribution brings arguments in favor of the hypothesis that the gender subclassification of nouns in Latin was rooted in an earlier Mediterranean culture, in which the cognitive category of ‘Efficacy' reflected a perception of the ‘(in)capacity of doing, affecting other beings' as an inherent property of objects (see Aristotle's Metaphysics). In consequence of different if not even contradictory cultural, civic, social and religious characteristics of the peoples that came into contact at various times within the Roman world, this ‘(in)capacity of being effective' ceased to be encoded in an inherent semantic feature in Romance languages, whereas a feature such as ‘being an Agent' remained a contextually assigned role. The ‘Efficacy' hypothesis has a higher explanatory power than other current hypotheses because it can be the starting point for explaining a whole sequence of changes in various Romance grammatical categories such as gender, voice and aspect.

Key words: animacy, efficacy, feminine, masculine, neuter, natural/grammatical gender


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