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How an airplane got to be a vegetable

Over the past few decades, some of the most fraught issues in the English language, for educated people trying to do right by their mother tongue, have involved inclusive, or nonsexist, language. A number of traditional standard grammar rules seem to have been designed to put women down.

Is it proper to say, "Each student must do his own work"? Back in the days when grammar was taught in schools, that was the standard that was taught. But with women accounting for half or more of the students at a lot of institutions, the idea that the statistically "average" student was male has lost credibility.

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This is the sort of thing that has prompted a reader query, "Are there languages without genders?"

Well, come to find out, there are. The Bengali language, for instance, has no genders. But before we go there, I'd like to note that a useful aspect of gender in language is that it gives an easy, convenient way to sort pronouns, which can be useful, space-saving placeholders.

Journalists are always in the market for synonyms and alternatives to keep from repeating the same words over and over. This sometimes puts them on the awkward path of what usage guru H.M. Fowler called "elegant variation."

During my high school years in South Carolina, every time the local paper ran a story about the city's recreation director, a Northern transplant of Italian descent, he would be referred to at some point as "the Philadelphia native." His name was longer than "Smith" or "Jones," but it wasn't as long as "Philadelphia." This is where pronouns come in handy: Think of all the space you save once you've introduced a public official with full name and title, and thereafter the person can be "he" or "she."

Gender isn't just about sex and all that "chairperson" stuff. Gender really means "kind" or "sort," and refers ultimately to the ways people classify people and things. We borrow the word's French cousin, "genre," to refer to styles of painting or literary classifications: murder mysteries are a genre of fiction. A great many languages do classify nouns according to sex, but there are other ways of ordering the universe.

Some languages divide the world into animate and inanimate nouns, rational and nonrational beings, humans and nonhumans, male and others, or male human and others. Sometimes the distinctions are quite subtle. The Algonquian languages divide nouns into animate and inanimate - and they consider raspberries to be animate and strawberries inanimate. Go figure.

The Aboriginal languages of Australia are well known, in linguistic circles at least, for having four classes: men and animate things; women, fire, and dangerous things; edible fruits and vegetables; and miscellaneous things. Political guru George Lakoff, who focuses on how people's political thinking grows out of the metaphors they embrace, picked up on this second gender and wrote a book about it called "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things."

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This gets us to how "airplane" became a vegetable. In the Aboriginal language of Gurr-goni, spoken in northern Australia, there is a special gender for "edible vegetables," according to linguist Guy Deutscher in his book "The Unfolding of Language." Other plants were eventually included in this "edible" gender, he speculates, as were wooden objects, such as canoes, the Aboriginals' main means of transport. When Gurr-goni borrowed the English word "airplane" into their language, as "erriplen," they conceived of it as a sort of flying canoe, and assigned it to the vegetable gender. And that is how an airplane became a vegetable.

Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

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