The Dragons of Grammar–Chocolate Cake and Acceptable Guest Quarters
When someone asks a dragon why he or she can’t look or act a little more human, the dragon is likely to remind the interlocutor that we humans vary quite a bit in appearance, and yet all of us are the same species. Dragons report, in fact, that it can be quite a drag to be around someone who doesn’t have wings or breath fire. Humans return the compliment by noting how isolated and damp a dragon’s guest accommodations can be.
Well, well! RT supposes that the tendency to categorize things by appearance is unavoidable, but it can lead to some testy conversations. For their part, the Dragons of Grammar have reminded him that these distinctions are found even in the hallowed grammar of Dragonish and, above all, in the grammatical category called noun class. That’s right: in their speech, dragons tag nouns as (among other things) Human-like or Dragon-like.
Just about all languages categorize nouns; the most common category is grammatical gender, a distinction so widespread that it is sometimes used as a synonym for noun class. Other distinctions include moving/static, thinking/nonthinking, and (you guessed it) human/nonhuman. English has a vestigial noun classification system, which mainly distinguishes between 1) gender (he, she, and it) and 2) persons and nonpersons (who and which). But some languages, such as Swahili and its related languages, incorporate an elaborate system of noun classes (in the case of Swahili, there are as many as 22 classes).
Readers should note that in English the process of dropping noun class distinctions has accelerated in recent years; just consider the differences between waitress, wait-person, and server.
Social, political, and linguistic processes such as those responsible for transforming waitress into an example of impolite speech are of course at work in all languages, resulting in arbitrary assignment of nouns to their various classes. For instance, as English speakers who have studied French may recall, there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to un amour de jeunesse (“a young love,” singular, masculine) and les amours enfantines (“childish loves,” plural, feminine). The French will reply that only three nouns in their language are masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural.
And so it goes. Dragonish assigns “big fire blasts” (as from their mouths), “raspberry sherbet,” and “talking heads” to humanlike, but “smoking mists” (once again, from their mouths), “double chocolate cake,” and “boring conversation” to dragonlike. But just now the DoGs have informed RT that the double-chocolate-cake classification is due to the fact that it was a dragon who discovered the culinary uses of chocolate. RT, however, suspects that that may be a story for another post…and he will add that when he has stayed with dragons, he has been quite satisfied with the accommodations.
Photo: A Slice of Chocolate Cake; Author: Krista. WikiCmns; CC 2.0 Generic.