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I have been reading a book about the cultural experiences of someone from Iran living in the U.S. and speaking English, even though she was raised speaking Farsi. She got all mixed up with using "he" and "she" and wondered why languages bother to specify sexes.

This all made me wonder...do all languages do this? Does Farsi?
 
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English does so only when referring specifically to things of gender: men and women; cows and bulls; dogs and bitches. And even then we do not change the word or its article to agree with the gender.

We do not arbitrarily allocate a gender to something that has none as do many other languages.

For example, in German, Der Wagen (m), Das Auto (neuter) - both mean "the car"


Richard English
 
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According to Wikipedia there is no grammatical gender for nouns in Farsi, nor are pronouns marked for natural gender.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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Most Indo-European languages have grammatical gender: the Germanic, Baltic, Slavic, Romance, Greek, Anatolian, and Indian branches come to mind. So, the Iranian branch probably had grammatical gender earlier on in its history, but has since lost it. As I've mentioned before, not all languages that have grammatical gender (sometimes called noun classes) divide things up by biological sex. For example, the Bantu family of languages in Africa have more than a dozen genders. I've read a study where people speaking a language that has grammatical gender are given new loanwords and have to assign them to a gender; they're pretty consistent about it, which leads one to believe that the assignments are not arbitrary. The second and third person pronouns in Mandarin ni and ta have different characters based on the biological sex of the antecedent. They are pronounced identically. So, Mandarin makes a distinction only in the written language.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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there is no grammatical gender for nouns in Farsi, nor are pronouns marked for natural gender.


My Persian officemate has been here for 20 years and still confuses he and she now and then.
 
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I've read a study where people speaking a language that has grammatical gender are given new loanwords and have to assign them to a gender; they're pretty consistent about it, which leads one to believe that the assignments are not arbitrary.

I wonder what the process is if it's not arbitrary. Why is the German for "car" masculine and that for "automobile" neuter?


Richard English
 
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I wonder what the process is if it's not arbitrary.

I'll try to find the reference and let you know.

[Edited after a trip to the family library and a quick googling for online sources.]

One of the best books I've read on grammatical gender is in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series. Published in 1991, written by Professor Greville Corbett, and called simply enough Gender. It should be available in your local university library or new / used in your favorite bookstore (online or not). Chapters 2 through 4 discuss gender assignment (i.e., pp.7-104; 2. Gender Assignment I: Semantic Systems; 3. Gender Assignment II: Formal Systems; 4. Psycholinguistic Status of Gender Assignment).

I found some papers online that discuss gender assignment, too: one, two, three, and four.

The criteria for gender assignment for loanwords are not always the same, but may include semantic, formal rules, phonological, and morphological.

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Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Good question, Richard.

quote:
English does so only when referring specifically to things of gender: men and women; cows and bulls; dogs and bitches. And even then we do not change the word or its article to agree with the gender.

In the book she was referring to words as simple as "he/she," as Neveu indicated. I also have a colleague from China who has been here 20 years and is quite articulate, and yet she still gets "he/she" confused.
 
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In languages with grammatical gender, e.g., Latin or Greek, nouns that can stand for both the male and female sexes of certain animals, but which have a single grammatical gender are called epicene. In modern English, this grammatical term has taken on the pejorative meaning of 'effete' and such like.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Arabic Does, Hungarian dosen't


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Originally posted by Kalleh:
This all made me wonder...do all languages do this? Does Farsi?

Yes, Persian (Farsi) is a gender-neutral language. We don't have "he, she", "him, her", "his, her". We don't have grammatical gender. Persian is so from Middle Persian (ca. 300 BCE). I think most Turkic languages are also gender-neutral.

Personally, I rarely confuse them. But when it comes to French, German and other languages having grammatical gender I confuse which word is f., which m., which n.

My question about English is that which pronoun to use for "God". "He, She" denote a sex while we can't ascribe a sex to God (at least from Islamic point of view). and as far as I know "it" is for inanimate. Am i right?

This message has been edited. Last edited by: Alijsh,


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Hamdeli az hamzabâni behtar ast
To be one in heart is better than to be one in tongue

- Rumi (Persian poet)
 
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Alijsh, it's a contentious issue nowadays. Traditionally the masculine pronouns are used (with a capital letter He,Him, His etc) in Christian religions. However some people - usually trying to make a point - now choose to use feminine pronouns. However to most people these just sound strange and awkward. Most people still use masculine pronouns. You are right that noone would ever use It.
 
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On second thoughts, it seems that I said nonsense. I don't think "He" refers male sex in religious texts. Capital form says it refers to God. By the way, I made a mistake. "it" is for non-humans: animals, objects, etc., isn't it?


----------------------
Hamdeli az hamzabâni behtar ast
To be one in heart is better than to be one in tongue

- Rumi (Persian poet)
 
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Usually, but people do refer to their pets as he or she.

We also refer to some inanimate objects that way. Ships and boats, for example, are often called "she".

As for pronouns in religious texts, in Christian religions God has traditionally been thought of as male. The Lord's Prayer begins

Our Father which art in Heaven (Our father who is in heaven in modern English).

not

Our Mother which art in Heaven.

Also remember that Christianity, unlike Islam, has no prohibition on painting pictures of God and the traditional image is of a bearded man.
 
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To pick up on what someone mentioned earlier about Bantu languages, I live in South Africa where a number of Bantu languages are official languages of the country. I'm most familiar with isiZulu, and it has basically 8 grammatical genders or 'noun classes', 6 of which have plural forms (the last two being non-countable nouns, like 'humanity'). The assignment of words to classes is not entirely arbitrary, but doesn't really follow any strict rules. There is one class reserved for people (e.g. mother, grandmother, teacher, doctor etc all fall within this class) but many nouns referring to people are in other classes (e.g. fool). Some of the classes have general semantic properties that are associated with them, for example there is one class in which many members are 'large-ish or round-ish' things, like the sun, and a nation. Another class has most animals in it. But it's not predictable - plenty of round things aren't in that class and plenty of things in that class aren't round. The only classes that are truly predictable are the people class (everything in it refers to people, and words for people derived from verbs, like aforementioned teacher, generally go there), the 'abstract' class, which can form abstract nouns from other stems, be they adjectives, verbs or nouns. This class holds the famous 'ubuntu'=roughly humanity/human-ness, as well as words like 'difficulty' and 'manhood' and 'womanhood'. Finally there is a class for nouns directly derived from verbs.

So the point of this thread was about gender in pronouns - in Zulu and other Bantu languages biological gender (more correctly sex) is not marked - there is no equivalent of 'he' or 'she' but a sex-neutral pronoun. It is a common mistake for speakers of these languages to mix up he and she when speaking English.

Apologies for not including any examples of Zulu words as illustration, but given the grammatical structure of Zulu it would have to be a whole new post just to explain what's going on. If anyone is interested, or knows much about other Bantu languages and wants to chat about them, I'm here.
 
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Oh man, just seen the dates on these posts. I've just arrived, forgive me for digging up old threads Wink
 
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Zvakanaka, one of the greatest joys of getting new members is that they often dig up old threads and when they do it by adding a new viewpoint and interesting information the pleasure is doubled.

Welcome to the board.
 
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I hope you'll pardon a dumb question from an only-English speaker, but in cultures where there is no noun for gender, if a group has one woman in it and you want to summon her, but not the men (not knowing her name), would you have to say, "You in the dress, come here"? I assume there is some more polite wording bthan that.

Beyond that, welcome aboard the Wordtitanic, Zv.
Can't call you Z since we already have one.


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Apologies for not including any examples of Zulu words as illustration, but given the grammatical structure of Zulu it would have to be a whole new post just to explain what's going on. If anyone is interested, or knows much about other Bantu languages and wants to chat about them, I'm here.

If you look at the very bottom of the board you'll find a Linguistics forum. Please feel free to post about isiZulu or any other language you wish down there. And welcome aboard.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Zvakanak's home town is described here.

It's not far from the antipode of my home.
 
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you'll find a Linguistics forum. Please feel free to post about isiZulu or any other language you wish down there.

Umm ... Don't forget that only moderators can start threads in the Linguistics 101 forum, though.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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Thanks, arnie. I'll copy Zvakanak's isiZulu thread to a new one down south of the border way.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Proofreader,

There are nouns for things like 'woman' and 'man', so it would be no harder than in English (since 'hey you' is sex-neutral too). Culturally, you normally address somebody as brother/sister if they're of a similar age to you and mother/father if they're older than you. So calling the woman in the croud of men could be as simple as 'Mama!' or 'Sisi!'
 
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brother/sister if they're of a similar age to you and mother/father if they're older than you
But those words are not gender neutral.


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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In Filipino.

We use the word 'siya' for both 'him' and 'her' so I guess we're one of the languages that don't have gender specifications.
 
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Of course English only has gender for items that are genuinely male or female: man, woman; cow, bull; dog, bitch.

Unlike many other languages it does not accord an arbitrary gender to a word. For example, in German "Das Auto" (neuter) means "the car" as does "Der Wagen" (masculine).

The proliferation of genders and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders, makes langauge far more complex than it need be, for no reason that I can conceive.


Richard English
 
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Originally posted by Richard English:
The proliferation of genders and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders, makes langauge far more complex than it need be, for no reason that I can conceive.


The need for plural "s" on nouns, and the need for irregular plurals (man-men, goose-geese) when plurality is already signaled by the verb, and also sometimes by the determiner (for instance "these dogs", "two cats") makes English far more complex than it need be, for no reason that I can conceive.
 
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The proliferation of genders and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders, makes langauge far more complex than it need be, for no reason that I can conceive.

Rubbish! Grammatical gender (aka noun classes) are a common occurrence in many languages. In fact, Old English had the standard Germanic (and Proto-Indo-European) genders. Many languages have them; many languages don't. Using gender as an index of complexity is usually only voiced by people who speak a language without genders. All languages are complex systems. Anglophones tend to see languages with many phonemes that are not in English and unnecessarily complex. People who speak languages like Russian or Chinese find the grammar of definite and indefinite articles (aka determiners) as useless complication.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Excuse me. Where did I suggest that English is not a complicated language?

I said ( and read my words)"...The proliferation of genders and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders, makes langauge far more complex than it need be, for no reason that I can conceive...".

To have masculine, feminine and neuter nouns adds nothing to a language's intelligibility and much to its complexity. That English has complexities of its own does not alter that fact.


Richard English
 
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Ah, well, we just have yet another thing upon which to disagree.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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In any given language, who determines what gender attaches to a new word used for a new object?


Give a man a fish and he can eat for one day; give a man a fishing pole and he will find an excuse to never work again.
Nollidj is power.
 
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In any given language, who determines what gender attaches to a new word used for a new object?

I've read of experiments where native speakers of languages with grammatical gender were given new words to use, and a majority of the test subjects assigned the same gender to the nonce words. Some languages indicate gender by surface form (e.g., affixes), and others by semantics (e.g., inclusions in categories). Therefore, in some languages like Italian or Spanish it's easy to determine the gender of a word by looking at it, but in others like Russian or German it is more difficult. Indo-European languages tend to have two or three genders if they still have gender. Bantu languages, spoken by millions of people, have up to 13. Grammatical gender is not necessarily based on biological sex.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Originally posted by Richard English:
Excuse me. Where did I suggest that English is not a complicated language?


You didn't. My point was that if you say that grammatical gender is more complicated than necessary, then you might as well say that English articles or plural markers are more complicated than necessary, or indeed say that just about every feature of grammar in every language is more complicated than necessary. All languages contain complex, redundant features. If you want an efficient, non-redundant, uncomplicated system of communication, then you'd be better off not using a natural language.

But grammatical gender and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders serves a purpose: redundancy. Information is always lost due to background noise, inattention, etc. Redundancy ensures that if some information is lost, the message still gets through.

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My point was that if you say that grammatical gender is more complicated than necessary, then you might as well say that English articles or plural markers are more complicated than necessary, or indeed say that just about every feature of grammar in every language is more complicated than necessary.

I would say that.

And I do not agree that talking about "the car" or "the automobile" is any less clear than talking about "Der Wagen" or "Das Auto". If a person does not understand the noun but understands the gender, that only reduces the possibilities by a factor of three (in German) or two in most other languages. Not a great deal of help, I would suggest.


Richard English
 
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Originally posted by Richard English:
I would say that.


Then we sort of agree on something! Let's have a beer.

quote:

And I do not agree that talking about "the car" or "the automobile" is any less clear than talking about "Der Wagen" or "Das Auto". If a person does not understand the noun but understands the gender, that only reduces the possibilities by a factor of three (in German) or two in most other languages. Not a great deal of help, I would suggest.


But it is still help.
 
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Not a great deal of help, I would suggest.

This expression, in UK English, actually means "Of absolutely no help at all". Sadly, English speakers who do not hail from our Sceptred Isle would not usually realise this.

To reduce the number of possible words from which to guess (assuming the number of German words is a million) from one million to 333,000 will effectively make no difference at all to the situation.


Richard English
 
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But grammatical gender and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders serves a purpose: redundancy. Information is always lost due to background noise, inattention, etc. Redundancy ensures that if some information is lost, the message still gets through.
I've often wondered about the reasons for grammatical gender, as well. This makes sense, goofy, though are there any other reasons?
 
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Originally posted by Kalleh:
quote:
But grammatical gender and the need for articles and other qualifiers to agree with the genders serves a purpose: redundancy. Information is always lost due to background noise, inattention, etc. Redundancy ensures that if some information is lost, the message still gets through.
I've often wondered about the reasons for grammatical gender, as well. This makes sense, goofy, though are there any other reasons?


It's just my guess about the purpose of gender. It makes sense to me, but I could be wrong. It could be something to do with the fact that humans like to classify things.
 
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It's just my guess about the purpose of gender. It makes sense to me, but I could be wrong. It could be something to do with the fact that humans like to classify things.

Also, grammatical gender rarely occurs by itself. It is usually augmented by linguistic agreement or concord. For example, in inflected languages like Latin or Russian, adjectives agree with nouns in number, gender, and case. It's a kind of redundancy we've discussed before. In Kiswahili, a Bantu language and lingua franca in Africa, subjects, objects, and verbs all agree by number and gender (or noun class).

1. Mtoto mmoja anasoma. ("One child is reading.")

2. Watoto wawili wanasoma. ("Two children are reading.")

The prefixes m- on adjectives and nouns signifies human and singular, and agrees with a- on the verb. The prefix wa- sifgnfies human and plural.

Old English had grammatical gender, but only nouns and adjectives were marked. We still have a trace of agreement in third person singular present indicative: he reads vs. I/you/we/they read. (Also in the translation above, the verb form changes to agree with the subject in number and in person. Many more languages in the world have grammatical gender than do not.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Today I was at a conference where the speaker was reading a quote from awhile ago; the person quoted was speaking of leaders in health care as "he." Our speaker, in an attempt to be politically correct, kept changing it to "he/she" which was distracting. I kept thinking that a neutral pronoun, or one that included both genders, would have been perfect.
 
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I kept thinking that a neutral pronoun, or one that included both genders, would have been perfect.

I agree. Having said which, the plural pronoun, they, being gender neutral seems more and more frequently being called upon to fill that role.

I would draw a parallel between this shift and the shift in meaning of "you" which long ago took on both singular and plural pronoun roles, leaving "thou" as a remnant to be found only in poetic or archaic works.


Richard English
 
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To reduce the number of possible words from which to guess (assuming the number of German words is a million) from one million to 333,000 will effectively make no difference at all to the situation.

Context limits the number of possible guesses considerably. We can usually ____ a missing word in a sentence from the context. Gender would be just another cue.
 
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Context limits the number of possible guesses considerably. We can usually ____ a missing word in a sentence from the context. Gender would be just another cue.

Context I agree 100% - even though your example permits of several substitutions and several shades of meaning. Gender I rather doubt makes any difference at all - if only because most languages have many synonyms that can be of any gender (in those languages that use gender).

So "Ich farht mit dem ****..." doesn't give much of a clue as to what one is travelling with - except it's masculine. And, if it's a car that one is travelling with, then it could equally well be neuter, "Ich farht mit das****..." In both cases it could be a car - Der Wagen or Das Auto - or it could be almost anything else.

And I suggest that the extra help that gender gives to understanding, if any, is well outweighed by the complexity thus introduced. Gender means that German has many words (a dozen I seem to recall) for the article "the". English manages just fine with one.

(Apologies for any errors in my German, by the way - it's a long time since I learnt the language.)


Richard English
 
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Just for information.

"Mit" requires the dative.

Masculine would be "mit dem"
Feminine would be "mit der"
Neuter would be "mit dem" (same as mascline)
Plural would be "mit denen" (regardless of gender)

"mit das" would never be an option.

On the subject of language complexities German manages "just fine" without any continuous tenses. "I go" and "I am going" are both "Ich gehe". I don't hear anyone calling for the abolition of continuous tenses in English to bring us in line with the simpler German tense system.
The truth of the matter is that all languages have their little quirks and that one man's unnecessary grammatical feature is another man's subtle beauty of the language.

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I told you it was a long time ago that I learnt my German. I recall now that "das" becomes "der" in these circumstances.

I know that German has no present continuous tense and I believe that it loses an important shade of meaning by the omission.

"I go to London" has a quite different meaning from "I am going to London" and German needs additional words in a sentence to indicate the distinction that the different forms so clearly make. The distinction between the neuter Auto and the masculine Wagen is simply one of convention; the meanings of the two words are as identical as are the meanings of the car and the automobile in English.


Richard English
 
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Hold on... you say that the fact that German has no present continuous means an important shade of meaning is lost. Then you say that German can indicate the distinction with additional words. Therefore, the important shade of meaning isn't lost, it's just expressed differently. Different languages convey meanings in different ways.
 
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You are making my point for me. Most people respond this way. Something that their language has that someone else's doesn't have adds an "important shade of meaning". Something that another language has that theirs doesn't is "unnecessarily complex".

Though German doesn't have the tense in question, that doesn't mean that German can't express that meaning. Au contrair, mon ami, the phrase "Ich spreche jetzt" would do the job for "I am speaking", as would other phrases. Would English really be impoverished if we said "I speak now" rather than "I am speaking"? It's all down to what you are used to.
 
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Incidentally

"Ich gehe" -> "Ich gehe jetzt" adds one word to express the new meaning.

"I go" -> "I am going" adds one word and changes one word, more complex surely?
 
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Incidentally, for the dative, der becomes dem, die (fem singular) becomes der, das becomes dem and die (plural) becomes denen.

Of course one could argue that the entire case structure is unnecessary, as you could - as we usually do in English - use prepositions to indicate case rather than using noun declensions, but is that really any simpler?
 
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"Ich gehe" -> "Ich gehe jetzt" adds one word to express the new meaning.

"I go" -> "I am going" adds one word and changes one word, more complex surely?

Except that Ich gehe jetzt" (I go now) does not mean the same as "I am going".

But I agree that it is easy to argue that additional complexities add additional meaning in many cases; I simply do not agree that the plethora of German genders and gender modified articles and the like, add anything but complexity.


Richard English
 
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