CRISPR is on the lips of every science enthusiast nowadays, but are we correctly using this acronym? How do Latin languages assimilate hitech neologisms from English? Italian, like French and Spanish, virtually lacks the neutral gender. As a result new words referring to inanimate objects is problematic for non-anglosaxon speakers when forming an agreement with articles, pronouns or adjectives. The author of this blog is Italian and uses CRISPR as a feminine noun, am I right? If so, why is “laser” masculine in Latin languages? If the two technologies could switch their gender, would it affect how they are perceived? I asked for an opinion the Accademia della Crusca, which is the leading institute in the field of research on the Italian language. They asked Anna Thornton, from L’Aquila University, to answer these questions. First of all she stresses that there are no infallible rules in grammatical gender assignment, only trends.
“Acronyms usually take their number and gender from the syntagma’s head”, says Thornton. Uncertain cases are solved by the unwitting choices made by the bulk of speakers as time goes by. “This kind of gender assignments can be explained ex-post but are not predictable”, she argues. Laser, for example, means “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation”. The keyword, i.e. the syntagma’s head, is amplification, which is feminine in Italian. However Italians say “il laser” instead than “la laser” for a couple of reasons. Because this is what happens to most anglicisms which end with –er and refer to devices, such as freezer. And because masculine is the default choice for words whose gender is doubtful. What about CRISPR then?
The acronym stands for “clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats” and its keyword sounds plural and feminine to Italians: “repeats”. However those DNA repeats have just inspired the technology, which consists of a programmable protein used for genome editing. If the word technique is implied, then it’s easy to understand the prevailing but not yet stabilized use of the singular feminine. The correct pronunciation (“crisper”) ends with–er and this could push toward masculine, as well as the default rule suggesting masculine when gender is doubtful. Think about emails. “Many Italians were using it as a masculine name at the beginning, because this is the gender of “message” in their native language”, says Thornton. Almost everybody has turned to feminine by now, probably because letter and mail are feminine in Italian. “Wait and see which gender will prevail in 20 years for CRISPR”, she adds.
Grammatical gender assignment may be odd, Italians for example assign mostly feminine names to brands of cars, but a fraction of male speakers turns to masculine when talking about particularly powerful and prestigious automobiles. Association studies indeed suggest that people from different countries tend to connect concepts in a way that depends also on gender assignments in their native languages (see the book “Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages” by Guy Deutscher). Might a masculine gender emphasize CRISPR’s power as a technique? Could a feminine gender foster mental connection to qualities such as precision? It is very possible in fact, even if according to Thornton other linguistic aspects could affect public perception more. “CRISPR is a nice word in English, calling to mind the adjective “crisp” which means fresh and crunchy, a positive association that is missing in Italian. In order to understand if the name is appropriate for a technology that is already used in thousands of labs worldwide and could give us many everyday products soon, it would be useful a “lexicon branding” study, searching for similar words in most spoken languages.