Thursday, April 8, 2010


So, I have to admit that lately I have a ridiculous obsession with diagraming things. It started with the hierarchy of expat needs, but now I think of at least ten diagrams a day. I diagram the thesis of a conversation in my head, whenever possible.

I've also been making a lot of color work knitting charts, so I found the strange need to use something equivalent to MS Paint to edit them. I find myself being a self-righteous Mac user, the kind of person Lisa and I vowed never to become all throughout college. But here I am. And as someone who grew up with Windows 95, I knew that everything I needed to do could be done simply in MS Paint. So I downloaded a shareware equivalent for Mac and now... behold the diagraming.

We start off with the old favorite: The Venn Diagram. John Venn, I thank you for your contribution to humanity. My favorite mental Venn diagram lately has been related to how much it sucks trying to learn another language as a native English speaker. There are two things that make English, a language for which orthography is so arbitrary we might as well make it pictographic, a fairly easy language to learn to speak: we don't really have cases or genders for nouns. This means that whether a noun is a subject or an object, it's usually the same word. The bird runs. I eat the bird. Same same. And while we may assign gender to specific (and generally sentient, ships be damned) nouns, these don't affect how we match them with adjectives. I eat the tasty male bird. I eat the tasty female bird. The bird is tasty. Same same same.

So far, I have not studied a language with this ease of use. They all require that when pairing a noun with an adjective, I properly match the case, gender, or both. If I had to pick which, case or gender, was easier to learn, I'd definitely pick gender as there is a maximum of three, double that for singular and plural, and you've got six possible ways to end a word. So, Spanish, your bubble is definitely the easier of the two in this mix. Finnish, while it has an exciting lack of genders even in the first person singular pronoun that makes all of us queermos jump for joy, requires that I decide before placing an ending on restaurant whether I am going up to (but not entering) or going inside of said restaurant. Cases, you are the bane of my existence. I submit. But now, the double whammy: matching case and gender. Latin and Czech, for this reason, are actually more difficult to some extent than the infamously impossible Finnish. I have to decide not only if I am going to be in or at the restaurant, I have to remember if it's a boy, girl, or other.

Trying to learn languages from this perspective makes them all feel impossible. I curse them for having cases and genders, when really, I should be cursing English for its simplicity. Why oh why did I have to grow up speaking such an easy language so now these concepts which exist in most languages are so foreign to me? I might lament. But I wonder what it's like from the other side. I know from experience with English language learners that they do want to gender nouns in English, "The restaurant, she is so nice!" But what I don't know is if you grow up with cases, do you want to say "I will meet you in the restaurant-u"?


  1. I hate to say it, since you're so excited about the Venns, but your diagram seems incorrect to me... you're talking about 4 different languages and how they relate to each other, not how two relate and are connected by 2 others. So, English relates to Latin and latin relates to Spanish, and somehow Finnish relates but my point is that there should be four different circles that overlap --as in with Gendered nouns, etc.

    also, i wish you wouldn't decry macs, or compare open source software to MS in any way... it makes my heart sad.

    -- Clare

  2. I think the diagram, while not perfect, does make sense--Finnish only has cases, Spanish only has genders, while Latin and Czech have cases AND genders. And then I am extrapolating information from this diagram to compare to English? Or I know nothing about diagrams but think they're fun!

    And I wasn't decrying Macs! I was trying to say that I am embarrassed that I wanted MS Paint, which, by the way, "Paintbrush" willingly billed itself as a replacement for. :-)