April 21, 2007

Keep the cucumbers away from the tomatoes

From an AP story by Todd Pitman, 4/20/07, printed in the Houston Chronicle under the head "Iraqi insurgents now fighting each other":

American commanders cite al-Qaida's severe brand of Islam, which is so extreme that in Baqouba, al-Qaida has warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders, Col. David Sutherland said.

Ok, it's a bit dubious, but on the other hand, I've had to confront some pretty strange ideas, and this one is not even close to the edge; it looks like a more-or-less standard confusion of sex and grammatical gender.

(Original tip from Ron Hardin on sci.lang, who heard about it here.)

Here's the idea: ordinary people learn something about the conventional grammatical terminology for their language, and they assume it maps pretty directly onto the real world.  If the terminology includes grammatical genders labeled "feminine" and "masculine", they figure those labels pick out females and males, respectively (and, of course, sometimes they do). 

Now in Arabic, as various Language Log informants tell me, the ordinary words are (in transliteration):

Modern Standard Tuma:Ta / Iraqi Tama:Ta  'tomato'  (fem.)
khiya:r  '(smooth salad) cucumber'  (masc.)

so that juxtaposing the two vegetables in public would be an indecent mixing of the sexes, if you believe in that "grammatical gender = sex" idea.  The fact that, chopped up, tomatoes and cucumbers mingle in salads all the time throughout the Arab world -- and even in Palo Alto, where my local Jordanian restaurant serves some delicious combinations of the two vegetables -- suggests that something is going on other than simple identification of grammatical gender with sex, plus an enforced separation of the sexes.  The simplest theory is that somebody is having somebody on here, but as I say, weird things happen.  Maybe what's relevant is the difference between the whole vegetables, the obviously (metaphorically) female tomatoes and the obviously (metaphorically) male cucumbers, and those vegetables chopped up so as to lose their identities as sexualized entities.

Lila Gleitman suggests (but very much does not advocate) a heavy-Whorfian interpretation, in which even people who know nothing about the grammatical terminology would connect the grammatical categories with categorizations in the real world, and would use those connections in understanding the world around them.  That is, they would "see" tomatoes as female and cucumbers as male.

My own inclination is to see something less complex: either crude identification of grammatical gender with sex, or media embroidery on a slow news day (if it's not true, it makes a good story).

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 21, 2007 09:06 PM