- Grammatical gender
Grammatical categories Animacy
Degree of comparison
Grammatical gender is defined linguistically as a system of classes of nouns which trigger specific types of inflections in associated words, such as adjectives, verbs and others. For a system of noun classes to be a gender system, every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be very few that belong to several classes at once. If a language distinguishes between genders, in order to correctly decline any noun and any modifier or other type of word affected by that noun, one must identify the gender of the noun.
The linguistic notion of grammatical gender is distinguished from the biological and social notion of natural gender, although they interact closely in many languages. Both grammatical and natural gender can have linguistic effects in a given language.
Grammatical gender is typical of Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, Northeast Caucasian, and several Australian aboriginal languages such as Dyirbal. It is usually absent in the Altaic, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic and most Native American language families. The Niger–Congo languages typically have an extensive system of noun classes, which can be grouped into several grammatical genders (Corbett, 1991).
Many languages place each noun into two or three gender classes commonly called masculine, feminine, and neuter in English. These classifications were originally assigned to modern High German by Jakob Grimm (of the Brothers Grimm) under the names maennlich, weiblich, and neutrum. Grimm follows a long tradition of mistaking grammatical gender for natural gender in choosing these names. In fact, the word "gender" itself, which simply means "type, kind, or sort," is now generally mistaken in English as referring specifically to social and biological distinctions. It is important to note that the terms are used purely for linguistic classification and have no biological implications. It is possible for words pertaining to the sexes (male and female) to be inconsistent with their respective gender designation in any specific language.
For example, in their nominative singular forms Polish nouns are typically feminine if they have the ending -a, neuter when they end with -o, -e, or -ę, and masculine if they have no gender suffix (null morpheme). Thus, encyklopedia "encyclopaedia" is feminine, krzesło "chair" is neuter, and ręcznik "towel" is masculine. When the adjective duży "big" is combined with these nouns in phrases, it changes form according to their grammatical gender:
Gender Noun Phrase Meaning Masculine ręcznik duży ręcznik big towel Feminine encyklopedia duża encyklopedia big encyclopaedia Neuter krzesło duże krzesło big chair
As can be seen, the neuter gender does not include all nouns that correspond to genderless realities. Some of these may be designated by nouns that are grammatically masculine or feminine. Also, some nouns that refer to males or females may have a different grammatical gender.
In general, the boundaries of noun classes are rather arbitrary, although there are rules of thumb in many languages. In this context, the terms "masculine", "feminine" and "neuter" should be understood merely as convenient labels. They are suggestive class descriptors, but not every member of a class is well described by its label. Note that some words, called epicene, may have identical forms for different genders. For example, in Spanish testigo "witness" and grande "big" can be masculine or feminine.
Spanish is also an example of a language with only two genders, masculine and feminine; it has no neuter noun class (see Grammatical gender in Spanish). Nouns that designate entities with no natural gender, such as objects or abstractions, are distributed among the masculine and the feminine. In a few other languages, notably North Germanic languages like Danish, the former masculine and feminine genders of nouns have become indistinguishable with time, merging into a new class called the common gender, which however remains distinct from the neuter gender  (while pronouns in Danish have grown into four genders: male, female, common, and neuter: "han", "hun", "den", "det").
- Common gender
- includes most words that refer to males or females, but is distinct from the neuter gender.
A full system of grammatical gender involves two phenomena:
- Many words have different forms for different genders, and certain morphological markers are characteristic of each gender.
- Every noun is associated with one gender class. In a phrase or clause, words that refer to a given noun inflect to match the gender of that noun.
Other languages still, like English, are rarely regarded as having grammatical gender, since they do not make gender distinctions through inflection, and do not generally require gender agreement between related words. Although gender marking is not significant in modern English, some distinctions in personal pronouns have been inherited from Old English, in which nouns had grammatical gender, giving speakers of Modern English a notion of how grammatical gender works, although these gendered pronouns are now ordinarily selected based on the physical sex (or lack thereof) of the items to which they refer rather than any strictly linguistic classification:
- John insisted that he would pay for his own dinner.
- Jane insisted that she would pay for her own dinner.
Here, the gender of the subject is marked both on the personal pronouns (he/she) and on the possessive adjectives (his/her). Marking of gender on the possessive form can be considered redundant in these examples, since his own and her own must refer to their respective antecedents, he and she, which are already unambiguously marked for gender.
In many languages, gender is marked quite explicitly, and in different ways.
- "I love you" in Arabic:
- said to a male – uħibbuka (أُحِبُّكَ)
- said to a female – uħibbuki (أُحِبُّكِ)
- "I am very grateful" in Portuguese:
- said by a male – muito obrigado
- said by a female – muito obrigada
The switch from one gender to the other is typically achieved by inflecting appropriate words, the object suffix of the verb uħibbu-ka/ki in the Arabic example (gender is not marked in the first person, in Arabic), and the suffix in the past participle (or adjective) obrig-ado/a in the Portuguese example (literally this means "much obliged," with "I am" understood; thus it agrees with the gender of the speaker).
In Spanish, most masculine nouns and their modifiers end with the suffix -o or with a consonant, while the suffix -a is characteristic of feminine nouns and their modifiers (though there are many exceptions). Thus, niño means “boy," and niña means “girl." This paradigm can be exploited for making new words: from the masculine nouns abogado "lawyer," diputado "member of parliament" and doctor "doctor," it was straightforward to make the feminine equivalents abogada, diputada, and doctora.
Sometimes, gender is expressed in more subtle ways. On the whole, gender marking has been lost in Welsh, both on the noun, and often, on the adjective. However, it has the peculiar feature of initial mutation, where the first consonant of a word changes into another in certain syntactical conditions. Gender is one of the factors that can cause mutation, especially the so-called soft mutation. For instance, the word merch, which means girl or daughter, changes into ferch after the definite article. This only occurs with feminine singular nouns; for example, mab "son" remains unchanged after the definite article. Adjectives are affected by gender in a similar way.
Gender Default After definite article With adjective Masculine mab son y mab the son y mab mawr the big son Feminine Singular merch girl y ferch the girl y ferch fawr the big girl Feminine Plural merched girls y merched the girls y merched mawr the big girls
Personal names are frequently constructed with language-specific affixes that identify the gender of the bearer. Common feminine suffixes used in English names are -a, of Latin or Romance origin (cf. Robert and Roberta) and -e, of French origin (cf. Justin and Justine). Although gender inflection may be used to construct cognate nouns for the people of opposite genders in languages that have grammatical gender, this alone does not constitute grammatical gender. Distinct names for men and women are also common in languages where gender is not grammatical.
Personal pronouns often have different forms based on gender. Even though it has lost gender-related inflections, English still distinguishes between "he" (generally applied to a male person), "she" (female person), and "it" (object, abstraction, or animal). But this also does not guarantee the existence of grammatical gender. There is a spoken form, "they," which although not part of the standard literary language, is cosmopolitan in the English-speaking world and is used when the gender of a person being referred to is not known (e.g. "This person doesn't know where they are going").
Gendered pronouns and their corresponding inflections vary considerably across languages. In languages that never had grammatical gender, there is normally just one word for "he" and "she," like dia in Indonesian, hän in Finnish, ő in Hungarian and o in Turkish. These languages have different pronouns and inflections in the third person only to differentiate between people and inanimate objects (and even this distinction is commonly waived in spoken Finnish).
In languages with only a masculine and a feminine gender, the default dummy pronoun is usually the masculine third person singular. For example, the French sentence for "It's raining" is Il pleut, literally "He rains." There are some exceptions: the corresponding sentence in Welsh is Mae hi'n bwrw glaw, "She's raining." In languages with a neuter gender, the neuter gender is usually used: German: Es regnet, literally "It rains." In fact, the English word 'it' comes from the Old English neuter gender. In a pro-drop language, the dummy pronoun can be dropped: Choveu ontem is literally "rained yesterday" in Portuguese, meaning "It rained yesterday;" and Hace frío in Spanish literally means "Makes cold." In Arabic, a dummy pronoun, known more specifically as a resumptive pronoun, is used in relative clauses to refer back to the relative pronoun: .كريم هو الرجل الذي رأيته قبلاً karīmu huwwa ar-rajlu ul-laḏī raʾaytuhu qablan literally meaning "Kareem he is the man which I saw him earlier," or in other words "Kareem is the man that I saw earlier."
In the French sentences Lui, c'est un grand acteur "He is a great actor" and Elle, c'est une grande actrice "She is a great actress", almost every word changes to match the gender of the subject. The noun acteur inflects by replacing the masculine suffix -eur with the feminine suffix -rice, the disjunctive personal pronoun lui "he" changes to elle "she", and the feminine suffix -e is added to the article (un → une) and to the adjective (grand → grande). Only the presentative set phrase c'est "he/she/it is" remains unchanged.
Old English Seo brade lind wæs tilu and ic hire lufod. Modern English gloss That broad shield was good and I her loved. Modern English translation That broad shield was good and I loved it.
The word hire "her" refers to lind "shield". Since this noun was grammatically feminine, the adjectives brade "broad" and tilu "good", as well as the pronouns seo "the/that" and hire "her", which referred to lind, must also appear in their feminine forms. Old English had three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, but gender inflections were greatly simplified by sound changes, and then completely lost (as well as number inflections, to a lesser extent).
In modern English, by contrast, the noun "shield" takes the neuter pronoun "it", since it designates a genderless object. In a sense, the neuter gender has grown to encompass most nouns, including many that were masculine or feminine in Old English. If one were to replace the phrase "broad shield" with "brave man" or "kind woman", the only change to the rest of the sentence would be in the pronoun at the end, which would become "him" or "her", respectively.
Grammatical vs. natural gender
The grammatical gender of a word does not always coincide with real gender of its referent. An often cited example is the German word Mädchen, which means "girl", but is treated grammatically as neuter. This is because it was constructed as the diminutive of Magd (maidservant; archaic nowadays), and the diminutive suffix -chen conventionally places nouns in the "neuter" noun class. There is a certain tendency to keep the grammatical gender when a close back-reference is made, but to switch to natural gender when the reference is further away. Therefore, it is possible to say either Das Mädchen ist aus der Schule gekommen. Es macht jetzt seine Hausaufgaben. and Das Mädchen ist aus der Schule gekommen. Sie macht jetzt ihre Hausaufgaben. (both: The girl has come home from school. She is now doing her homework). With one or more intervening sentences, the second way (which may be frowned upon by language purists) becomes more likely: Das Mädchen ist aus der Schule gekommen. Heute ist es ziemlich spät geworden, da der Schulbus im Stau stecken blieb. Sie macht jetzt ihre Hausaufgaben. (... It has gotten pretty late today, as the school bus was caught up in a traffic jam. ...). However, no number of adjectives put between the article and the noun (like das schöne, fleißige, langhaarige, blonde, Jeans und T-Shirt tragende [...] Mädchen) can license a switch from the neutral to the feminine article, so it is always considered wrong to say a sentence like die schöne [...] Mädchen.
A few more examples:
- Old English had two common words for "woman": þat wīf (neuter) and se wīfmann (masculine). (These words are the origins, respectively, of modern "wife" and "woman".)
- German die Frau (feminine) and das Weib (neuter) both mean "the woman", though the latter is considered archaic for most purposes (although some people may use mein Weib in a jocular fashion in non-formal contexts, and Weiber is still used sometimes with a derogatory meaning).
- Irish cailín "girl" is masculine, while stail "stallion" is feminine.
- Scottish Gaelic boireannach "woman" is masculine.
- Slovenian dekle "girl" is neuter, while its cognate dekla "maidservant" is feminine.
- Swedish människa "human" is feminine; in proper Swedish the feminine pronoun is used to refer to människa regardless of natural gender, although this usage may sound overly formal today.
- Spanish la gente "the people" is feminine, even if the collective term refers to a group of men.
Normally, such exceptions are a small minority. However, in some local dialects of German, nouns and proper names for female persons have shifted to the neuter gender (presumably further influenced by the standard word Weib), but the feminine gender remains for words denoting objects, and few words for outstanding women, such as "nun" or "queen" (but not usually "princess"). Some dialects switch the gender of proper names to female, when they refer to one of those outstanding female persons.
It is also sometimes found to be counterintuitive that nouns associated with one of the sexes, such as those denoting male or female sex organs, need not have a corresponding gender. For example, in French le vagin ("vagina") is masculine.
In languages with a masculine and feminine gender (and possibly a neuter), the masculine is usually employed by default to refer to persons of unknown gender. This is still done sometimes in English, although a disputed alternative is to use the singular "they". Another alternative is to use two nouns, as in the phrase "ladies and gentlemen" (hendiadys).
In the plural, the masculine is often used to refer to a mixed group of people. Thus, in French the feminine pronoun elles always designates an all-female group of people, but the masculine pronoun ils may refer to a group of males, to a mixed group, or to a group of people of unknown genders. In English, this issue does not arise with pronouns, since there is only one plural third person pronoun, "they". However, a group of actors and actresses would still be described as a group of "actors". However, this is also because the word "actress" is falling out of use in English, while the word "actor," like "doctor," applies to thespians of both sexes.
In all these cases, one says that the feminine gender is semantically marked, while the masculine gender is unmarked.
In Swedish, on the other hand, it is the masculine form of an adjective that is marked (in the weak inflection, with an -e,) e.g. min lille bror "my little brother". This form is reserved for naturally masculine nouns or male human beings in modern Swedish. Even so, the third person singular masculine pronoun han would normally be the default for a person of unknown gender in Swedish, although in practice the indefinite pronoun man and the reflexive sig and/or its possessive forms sin/sitt/sina usually make this unnecessary.
Often, the masculine/feminine classification is only followed carefully for human beings. For animals, the relation between real and grammatical gender tends to be more arbitrary. In Spanish, for instance, a cheetah is always un guepardo (masculine) and a zebra is always una cebra (feminine), regardless of their biological sex. If it becomes necessary to specify the sex of the animal, an adjective is added, as in un guepardo hembra (a female cheetah), or una cebra macho (a male zebra). Different names for the male and the female of a species are more frequent for common pets or farm animals, e.g. English cow and bull, Spanish vaca "cow" and toro "bull".
In English, it is common to refer to animals, especially house pets, for which the natural gender is known as "he" and "she", accordingly, and to animals of unknown gender as "it". Individual speakers may refer to animals of unknown sex by a gender, depending on species – for instance, some speakers may tend to refer to dogs as "he" and to cats as "she".
Objects and abstractions
Since all nouns must belong to some noun class, many end up with genders which are purely conventional. For instance, the Romance languages inherited sol "sun" (which is masculine) and luna "moon" (which is feminine) from Latin but in German and other Germanic languages Sonne "sun" is feminine and Mond "moon" is masculine. Two nouns denoting the same concept can also differ in gender in closely related languages, or within a single language. For instance, there are two different words for "car" in German: "Wagen" is masculine, whereas "Auto" is neuter. Meanwhile the word "auto" is masculine in Spanish, but it is feminine in French. In all cases, the meaning is the same. Similarly, there are two Swedish words for "boat." "En båt" is common gender, while "ett skepp" is neutral.
Several words ending in -aje in Spanish are masculine: viaje (travel), paisaje (landscape), coraje (courage). But their Portuguese equivalent are feminine: viagem, paisagem, coragem. The Latin word via, from which both variants (viaje and viagem) derived was feminine. Conversely, the Spanish word "nariz" (nose) is feminine, whereas the Portuguese word for "nose" is spelled identically, but it is masculine.
Also, in Polish the word księżyc "moon" is masculine, while its Russian counterpart луна is feminine. The Russian word for "sun", солнце, is neuter, while Latin word of the same archaic root sol is masculine. Also, the Russian word собака "dog" is feminine, while its Ukrainian counterpart (with the same spelling and an almost identical pronunciation) is masculine.
Language Word Meaning Gender Polish księżyc moon masculine Portuguese lua moon feminine Russian луна moon feminine Spanish luna moon feminine Russian картофель potato masculine Russian картошка potato feminine Spanish patata potato feminine Polish tramwaj tram masculine Czech tramvaj tram feminine Romanian tramvai tram neuter Polish tysiąc thousand masculine Russian тысяча thousand feminine
There is nothing inherent about the moon which makes it objectively "male" or "female". In these cases, gender is quite independent of meaning, and a property of the nouns themselves, rather than of their referents.
Sometimes the gender switches: Russian тополь (poplar) is now masculine, but less than 200 years ago (in writings of Lermontov) it was feminine. The modern loanword виски (from whisky/whiskey) was originally feminine (in a translation of Jack London stories, 1915), then masculine (in a song of Alexander Vertinsky, 1920s or 1930s), and today it has become neuter (the masculine variant is typically considered archaic, and the feminine one is completely forgotten). In Polish kometa (comet) is nowadays feminine, but less than 200 years ago (in writing of Mickiewicz) it was masculine.
Other types of gender classifications
Some languages have gender-like noun classifications unrelated to gender identity. Particularly common are languages with animate and inanimate categories. The term "grammatical genders" is also used by extension in this case, although many authors prefer "noun classes" when none of the inflections in a language relate to sex. Note however that the word "gender" derives from Latin genus (also the root of genre) originally meant "kind", so it does not necessarily have a sexual meaning. For further information, see Animacy.
Some Slavic languages, including Russian, Czech, and Slovak, make grammatical distinctions between animate and inanimate nouns (in Czech only in the masculine gender; in Russian only in masculine singular, but in the plural in all genders). Another example is Polish, which can be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.
masculine translation animate inanimate personal impersonal Polish To jest
It's a good teacher
/ a good dog / good cheese.
I see a good teacher
/ a good dog / good cheese.
I see good teachers
/ good dogs / good cheeses.
Slovene To je
dober učitelj / dober pes.
It's a good teacher
/ a good dog / good cheese.
dobrega učitelja / dobrega psa.
I see a good teacher
/ a good dog / good cheese.
See Polish grammar, for further information.
There are three main ways by which natural languages categorize nouns into genders: according to logical or symbolic similarities in their meaning (semantic), by grouping them with other nouns that have similar form (morphological), or through an arbitrary convention (lexical, possibly rooted in the language's history). Usually, a combination of the three types of criteria is used, though one is more prevalent.
In Alamblak, a Sepik Hill language spoken in Papua New Guinea, the masculine gender includes males and things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow such as fish, crocodiles, long snakes, arrows, spears and tall, slender trees, while the feminine gender includes females and things which are short, squat or wide, such as turtles, frogs, houses, fighting shields, and trees that are typically more round and squat than others.
Sometimes, semantics prevails over the formal assignment of grammatical gender (agreement in sensu). In Polish, the nouns mężczyzna "man" and książę "prince" are masculine, even though words with the ending -a are normally feminine and words that end with -ę are usually neuter. (See also Synesis). Interestingly, in Sicilian dialect the noun indicating the male sexual organ is feminine (a minchia), while the female sexual organ is masculine (u sticchiu). (This is true also in Latin, for the words mentula and cunnus, as used by Catullus.)
In Portuguese/Spanish, grammatical gender is most obviously noticeable by noun morphology. Since nouns that refer to male persons usually end in -o or a consonant and nouns that refer to female persons usually end in -a, most other nouns that end in -o or a consonant are also treated as masculine, and most nouns that end in -a are treated as feminine, whatever their meaning. (Nouns that end in some other vowel are assigned a gender either according to etymology, by analogy, or by some other convention.) Morphology may in fact override meaning, in some cases. The noun membro/miembro "member" is always masculine, even when it refers to a woman, but pessoa/persona "person" is always feminine, even when it refers to a man. It would however be far more useful to consider that the grammatical gender of almost all nouns in the Romance languages is determined by etymology, that is to say that on the whole, the gender of a word in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or French is the same as the gender of its cognate word in Latin with very few exceptions.
In German also, diminutives with the endings -chen and -lein (cognates of English -kin and -ling, meaning "little, young") are always neuter, which is why Mädchen "girl" and Fräulein "young woman" are neuter. Another ending, the nominalizing suffix -ling, can be used to make countable nouns from uncountable nouns (Teig "dough" → Teigling "piece of dough"), or personal nouns from abstract nouns (Lehre "teaching", Strafe "punishment" → Lehrling "apprentice", Sträfling "convict") or adjectives (feige "cowardly" → Feigling "coward"), always producing masculine nouns.
In Irish, nouns ending in -óir/-eoir and -ín are always masculine, while those ending -óg/-eog or -lann are always feminine.
In Arabic, gender can often be guessed from morphological clues. Nouns whose singular form ends in a tāʾ marbūṭa (traditionally [t] that becomes [h] in pausa) is a marker of feminine gender, with the only significant exceptions being the word خليفة khalīfah (Caliph) and certain masculine personal names (e.g. أسامة ʾUsāmah). Furthermore, gender may be understood on the basis of the stem of the word in question: for instance, the verbal nouns of Stem II (فعّل، يفعّل، التفعيل faʿʿala, yufaʿʿil, al-tafʿīl) are always masculine.
On the other hand, the correlation between grammatical gender and morphology is usually not perfect: problema "problem" is masculine in Spanish (this is for etymological reasons, as it was derived from a Greek noun of the neuter gender), and radio "radio station" is feminine (because it is a shortening of estación de radio, a phrase whose head is the feminine noun estación).
In some languages, gender markers have been so eroded by time that they are no longer recognizable, even to native speakers (this is generally known as deflexion). Most German nouns give no morphological or semantic clue as to their gender. It must simply be memorized. The conventional aspect of grammatical gender is also clear when one considers that there is nothing objective about a table which makes it feminine, as French table, masculine as German Tisch, or neuter, as Norwegian bord. The learner of such languages should regard gender as an integral part of each noun. A frequent recommendation is to memorize a modifier along with the noun as a unit, usually a definite article, e.g. memorizing la table – where la is the French feminine singular definite article – der Tisch – where der is the German masculine singular nominative definite article – and bordet – where the suffix -et indicates the definite neuter singular in Norwegian. In French the noun's ending often indicates gender. As a very broad trend, nouns ending in -e tend to be feminine, while the rest tend to be masculine, but there are many exceptions; certain suffixes are quite reliable indicators though, such as the suffix -age, which when added to a verb (e.g. garer ("to park") -> garage; nettoyer ("to clean") -> nettoyage ("cleaning")), indicates a masculine noun; however, when -age is part of the root of the word, it can be feminine, as in plage ("beach") or image. On the other hand, nouns ending in "-tion" "-sion" and -aison are all feminine.
Whether a distant ancestor of French, German, Norwegian, and English had a semantic value for genders is of course a different matter. Some authors have speculated that archaic Proto-Indo-European had two noun classes with the semantic values of animate and inanimate.
Useful roles of grammatical gender
Ibrihim:p.27-28 identified three possible useful roles of grammatical gender: (1) In a language with explicit inflections for gender, it is easy to express the natural gender of animate beings. (2) Grammatical gender "can be a valuable tool of disambiguation", rendering clarity about antecedents. (3) In literature, gender can be used to "animate and personify inanimate nouns."
Gender in English
There are a few traces of gender marking in Modern English:
- Some loanwords inflect according to gender, such as actor/actress, where the suffix -or denotes the masculine, and the suffix -ress denotes the feminine.
- The third person singular pronouns (and their possessive forms) are gender specific: "he/his" (masculine gender, overall used for males), "she/her(s)" (feminine gender, for females), "it/its" (neuter gender, mainly for objects and abstractions), "one/one's" (common gender, for anyone or anything).
But these are insignificant features compared to a typical language with grammatical gender:
- English has no live productive gender markers. An example is the suffix -ette (of French provenance), but it is seldom used, and mostly with disparaging or humorous intent.
- The English nouns that inflect for gender are a very small minority, typically loanwords from non-Germanic languages (the suffix -ress in the word "actress", for instance, derives from Latin -rix via French -rice). Feminine forms of Latin-derived words may also use -rix, as in aviatrix.
- The third-person singular forms of the personal pronouns are the only modifiers that inflect according to gender.
It is also noteworthy that, with few exceptions, the gender of an English pronoun coincides with the real gender of its referent, rather than with the grammatical gender of its antecedent, frequently different from the former in languages with true grammatical gender. The choice between "he", "she" and "it" invariably comes down to whether they designate a male or female human or animal of a known sex, or something else.
- Animals are generally referred to as it unless the gender is known. Some animals such as cattle and chickens have different words for male and female animals (bull and cow, rooster and hen, for example) and he and she are therefore used correspondingly. The gender of other animals such as rabbits, insects, etc. is not usually obvious and so these animals are usually referred to as it except in some veterinarian or literary contexts. Alternatively, the use of "it" referring to an animal may imply the speaker lacks or disdains emotional connection with the animal. Thus, even though physical gender is undetermined, Rabbits for Dummies advises "You can win your bunny over to the point where he's incredibly comfortable with you."
- The pronoun "she" is sometimes used to refer to things which can contain people such as countries, ships, or vehicles, or when referring to certain other machines. This, however, is considered a stylistically marked, optional figure of speech, and may reflect a tendency of early translators to reflect grammatical gender in the original language. This theory is strengthened by the fact that in many classical and modern languages the word for e.g. "ship" (Hebrew אניה, Greek ἡ ναῦς, Latin navis, Spanish la nave, Czech loď) or "city" (Hebrew עיר, Greek ἡ πόλις, Latin vrbs, Sanskrit पुर्, Spanish la urbe, German die Stadt, Irish cathair) is in the feminine gender. This usage is furthermore in decline and advised against by most journalistic style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style. If used, the terms she, her, and hers apply regardless of the entity's name – for example, "The U.S.S. John F. Kennedy (CVA-67) was laid down October 22, 1964. She was launched on April 1, 1967..."
Gender across language families
Many Indo-European languages, though not English, provide archetypical examples of grammatical gender.
Research indicates that the earliest stages of Proto-Indo-European had two genders, animate and inanimate, as did Hittite, but the animate gender (which, in contrast to the inanimate gender, has an independent accusative form) later split into masculine and feminine, originating the classical three-way classification into masculine, feminine, and neuter which most of its descendants inherited. Many Indo-European languages kept these three genders. Such is the case with most Slavic languages, classical Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, and German, for instance. Other Indo-European languages reduced the number of genders to two, either by losing the neuter (like Urdu/Hindi, most Romance languages and the Celtic languages), or by having the feminine and the masculine merge with one another into a common gender (as has happened, or is in the process of happening, to several Germanic languages). Some, like English and Afrikaans, have nearly completely lost grammatical gender, while Persian and Bengali have completely lost it. On the other hand, a few Slavic languages have arguably added new genders to the classical three. In those ancient and modern Indo-European languages that preserve a system of noun declension (including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Slavic, and some Germanic languages), there is a high but not absolute correlation between grammatical gender and declensional class. Many linguists also believe this to be true of the middle and late stages of Proto-Indo-European.
Exceptionally for a Romance language, Romanian has preserved the three genders of Latin, although the neuter has been reduced to a combination of the other two, in the sense that neuter nouns have masculine endings in the singular, but feminine endings in the plural. As a consequence, adjectives, pronouns, and pronominal adjectives only have two forms, both in the singular and in the plural. The same happens in Italian, to a lesser extent.
Some nouns have different genders in two different languages; for example, une équipe "a team" in French is feminine, while un equipo in Spanish is masculine.
Italian third-person singular pronouns have also a "neuter" form to refer to inanimate subjects (egli and ella vs. esso and essa). In fact, even in those languages where the original three genders have been mostly lost or reduced, there is sometimes a trace of them in a few words.
- English, personal pronouns: he, she, it
- Spanish, definite articles (words meaning "the"): el, la, lo
- Spanish, demonstratives (words meaning "this, this one"): este, esta, esto
- Portuguese, indefinite pronouns (words meaning "all of him/her/it"): todo, toda, tudo
The Spanish neuter definite article lo, for example, is used with nouns that denote abstractions, e.g. lo único "the only thing"; lo mismo "the same thing". In Portuguese, a distinction is made between está todo molhado "he's all wet", está toda molhada "she's all wet", and está tudo molhado "it's all wet" (used for unspecified objects). In terms of agreement, however, these "neuter" words count as masculine: both Spanish lo mismo and Portuguese tudo take masculine adjectives. English modifiers do not generally inflect with gender.
In Venetian, only the demonstratives have a neuter form referring to abstractions, so a distinction is made between varda questo "look at this thing" (neuter), varda 'sto qua "look at this one" (masculine e.g. man, book, mobile) and varda 'sta qua "look at this one (feminine eg. woman, pen, hand); along the same line a distinction is made between l'è queło / queła "it's that thing/fact" (neuter), l'è qûeło là "it's that one" (masc.) and l'è qûeła là "it's that one" (fem.) where the û sound can be dropped only in the masculine and in the feminine which however take là.
Australian Aboriginal languages
The Dyirbal language is well known for its system of four noun classes, which tend to be divided along the following semantic lines:
- I – animate objects, men
- II – women, water, fire, violence
- III – edible fruit and vegetables
- IV – miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three)
The class usually labeled "feminine", for instance, includes the word for fire and nouns relating to fire, as well as all dangerous creatures and phenomena. This inspired the title of George Lakoff's book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (ISBN 0-226-46804-6).
Gurr-goni, an Australian Aboriginal language spoken in Arnhem Land, has the loanword erriplen (English aeroplane) in its noun class for edible vegetables. This confusion arose through some logical analogies: firstly, the gender of 'edible vegetables' must have been extended to other plants, and hence to all kinds of wooden things. Canoes are made of wood and so, logically, they came to be included in this class as well. The class was then widened to include modes of transport more generally and so, when the borrowed word erriplen first entered the language, it was assigned to the 'edible vegetable' gender. Each analogy made perfect sense in its own local domain, but the end result however, seems ever so slightly bizarre.
The Ngangikurrunggurr language has noun classes reserved for canines, and hunting weapons, and the Anindilyakwa language has a separate noun class for things that reflect light. The Diyari language distinguishes only between female and other objects. Perhaps the most noun classes in any Australian language are found in Yanyuwa, which has 16 noun classes.
Some members of the Northwest Caucasian family, and almost all of the Northeast Caucasian languages, manifest noun class. In the Northeast Caucasian family, only Lezgian, Udi, and Aghul do not have noun classes. Some languages have only two classes, while the Bats language has eight. The most widespread system, however, has four classes, for male, female, animate beings and certain objects, and finally a class for the remaining nouns. The Andi language has a noun class reserved for insects.
Among Northwest Caucasian languages, Abkhaz shows a masculine-feminine-neuter distinction. Ubykh shows some inflections along the same lines, but only in some instances, and in some of these instances inflection for noun class is not even obligatory.
In all Caucasian languages that manifest class, it is not marked on the noun itself but on the dependent verbs, adjectives, pronouns and prepositions.
The Zande language distinguishes four noun classes:
Criterion Example Gloss male human kumba man female human dia wife animate nya beast other bambu house
There are about 80 inanimate nouns which are in the animate class, including nouns denoting heavenly objects (moon, rainbow), metal objects (hammer, ring), edible plants (sweet potato, pea), and non-metallic objects (whistle, ball). Many of the exceptions have a round shape, and some can be explained by the role they play in Zande mythology.
In Basque there are two classes, animate and inanimate; however, the only difference is in the declension of locative cases (inessive, locative genitive, adlative, terminal adlative, ablative and directional ablative). There are a few words with both masculine and feminine forms, generally words for relatives (cousin: lehengusu (m)/lehengusina (f)) or words borrowed from Latin ("king": errege, from the Latin word regem; "queen": erregina, from reginam). In names for familiar relatives, where both genders are taken into account, either the words for each gender are put together ("son": seme; "daughter": alaba; "children"(meaning son(s) and daughter(s)): seme-alaba(k)) or there is a noun that includes both: "father": aita; "mother": ama; "father" (both genders): guraso.
Gender in words borrowed from one language by another
According to linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, "morphemic adaptations of English words into American Italian or British Italian often carry the linguistic gender of the semantically-similar word in Italian itself, e.g. British Italian bagga ‘bag’ (feminine), induced by Italian borsa ‘bag’ (feminine)."
Zuckermann argues that "Israeli" (his term for "Modern Hebrew") demonstrates the same phenomenon. One of the examples he provides is the Israeli word for "brush": mivréshet. He suggests that the choice of the feminine noun-template miXXéXet (each X represents a slot where a radical is inserted) was engendered by the (feminine) gender of the following words for "brush": Yiddish barsht (feminine), Polish szczotka (f), Russian shchëtka (f) (also kist’ (f) "painting brush"), German Bürste (f), French brosse (f) and Arabic mábrasha (f). Although the miXXéXet noun-template is used for instruments, there were many other possible suitable noun-templates, cf. *mavrésh and *mivrásh, both masculine.
Ibrihim:p.61 identifies several processes by which a language assigns a gender to a newly borrowed word; these processes follow patterns by which even children, through their subconscious recognition of patterns, can often correctly predict a noun's gender. (1) If the noun is animate, natural gender tends to dictate grammatical gender. (2) The borrowed word tends to take the gender of the native word it replaces. (3) If the borrowed word happens to have a suffix that the borrowing language uses as a gender marker, the suffix tends to dictate gender. (4) If the borrowed word rhymes with one or more native words, the latter tend to dictate gender. (5) The default assignment is the borrowing language's unmarked gender. (6) Rarely, the word retains the gender it had in the donor language.
Auxiliary and constructed languages
Many constructed languages have natural gender systems similar to that of English. Animate nouns can have distinct forms reflecting natural gender, and personal pronouns are selected according to natural gender. There is no gender agreement on modifiers. The first three languages below fall into this category.
- Esperanto features the female infix -in-. While it differentiates a small number of male and female nouns such as patro (father) and patrino (mother), most nouns are gender-neutral and the use of it is not necessary. For instance, hundo means either a male or female dog, virhundo means a male dog, and hundino means a female dog. The personal pronouns li (he) and ŝi (she) and their possessive forms lia (his) and ŝia (her) are used for male and female antecedents, while ĝi (it) and its possessive form ĝia (its) are used to refer to a non-personal antecedent, or as an epicene pronoun.
- Ido has the masculine infix -ul and the feminine infix -in for animate beings. Both are optional and are used only if it is necessary to avoid ambiguity. Thus: kato "a cat", katulo "a male cat", katino "a female cat". There are third person singular and plural pronouns for all three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter, but also gender-free pronouns.
- Interlingua has no grammatical gender. It indicates only natural gender, as in matre "mother" and patre "father". Interlingua speakers may use feminine endings. For example, -a may be used in place of -o in catto, producing catta "female cat". Professora may be used to denote a professor who is female, and actrice may be used to mean "actress". As in Ido, inflections marking gender are optional, although some gender-specific nouns such as femina, "woman", happen to end in -a or -o. Interlingua has feminine pronouns, and its general pronoun forms are also used as masculine pronouns.
- The fictional Klingon language has three classes: capable of speaking, body part and other.
List of languages by type of grammatical genders
Masculine and feminine
- Albanian The neuter has almost disappeared.
- Ancient Egyptian
- Arabic However, Arabic distinguishes masculine and feminine in the singular and the dual. In the plural it distinguishes between male humans, female humans and non-human plurals (including collectives of humans, such as "nation," "people," etc.); non-human plurals are treated as feminine singular regardless of their gender in the singular.
- Italian There is a trace of the neuter in some nouns and personal pronouns. E.g.: singular l'uovo, il dito; plural le uova, le dita ('the egg(s)', 'the finger(s)').
- Lithuanian There is a neuter gender for adjectives with very limited usage and set of forms.
- Manchu Used vowel harmony in gender inflections.
- Portuguese There is a trace of the neuter in the demonstratives and some indefinite pronouns.
- Scottish Gaelic
- Spanish There is a neuter of sorts, though generally expressed only with the definite article lo, used with nouns denoting abstract categories: lo bueno.
- Tamazight (Berber)
Common and neuter
(note that the common/neuter distinction is close to animate/inanimate)
- Dutch (The masculine and the feminine have merged into a common gender in standard Dutch, but a distinction is still made by many when using pronouns, and in Southern-Dutch varieties. See Gender in Dutch grammar.)
- Low German
- Norwegian (In the dialect of Bergen, elsewhere three genders.)
- Swedish The distinction between masculine and feminine still exists for people and some animals. Some dialects retain all three genders for all nouns.
- Hittite language
Animate and inanimate
- Basque (two different paradigms of noun declension are used, although adjectives and demonstratives do not show gender)
- Many Native American languages, including most languages of the Algic, Siouan and Uto-Aztecan language families, as well as isolates such as Mapudungun
- Russian. Note that 3 genders present there as well.
In many such languages, what is commonly termed "animacy" may in fact be more accurately described as a distinction between human and non-human, rational and irrational, "socially active" and "socially passive" etc..
Masculine, feminine, and neuter
- Dutch The masculine and the feminine have merged into a common gender in standard Dutch, but a distinction is still made by many when using pronouns. In South-Dutch (Flemish) spoken language all articles, possessives and demonstratives differentiate between masculine and feminine: see gender in Dutch grammar.
- Greek In the Attic dialect of Ancient Greek, neuter plurals are treated like singulars in verbal agreement.
- Norwegian The three-gender system is widely used throughout the country, except in the Bergen dialect (some sociolects in Oslo also lacks it), where the dialect allows feminine nouns to be given the corresponding masculine inflections or do not use the feminine gender at all.
- Old English
- Old Irish
- Old Persian
- Old Prussian
- Romanian The neuter gender (called neutru or sometimes ambigen in Romanian) has no separate forms of its own; neuter nouns behave like masculine nouns in the singular, and feminine in the plural. This behavior is seen in the form of agreeing adjectives and replacing pronouns. See Romanian nouns.
- Russian *
- Serbo-Croatian *
- Slovene *
- Swedish As in Dutch, the masculine and the feminine have merged into a common gender in standard Swedish. But many dialects, mainly in Dalecarlia, Ostrobothnia (Finland) and northern Sweden, have preserved three genders in spoken language.
- Ukrainian *
Note. In Slavic languages marked with an asterisk (*), traditionally only masculine, feminine and neuter genders are recognized, with animacy as a separate category for the masculine; the actual situation is similar to Czech and other Slavic languages, so they may be analyzed as four-gender languages as well.
More than three grammatical genders
- Czech and Slovak: Masculine animate, Masculine inanimate, Feminine, Neuter (traditionally, only masculine, feminine and neuter genders are recognized, with animacy as a separate category for the masculine).
- Polish: Masculine animate, Masculine inanimate, Masculine personal, Feminine, Neuter (traditionally, only masculine, feminine and neuter genders are recognized, with animacy as a separate category for the masculine).
- Dyirbal: Masculine, feminine, vegetal and other. (Some linguists do not regard the noun class system of this language as grammatical gender.)
- Ganda: ten classes called simply Class I to Class X and containing all sorts of arbitrary groupings but often characterised as people, long objects, animals, miscellaneous objects, large objects and liquids, small objects, languages, pejoratives, infinitives, mass nouns
- Swahili: 18 noun classes
- Zande: Masculine, feminine, animate, and inanimate.
- Russian: Masculine, Feminine, Neuter, Common (dual concord model), Reciprocal (one concord model).
Influence on culture
According to research by Lera Boroditsky, grammatical genders are among the aspects of languages that shape how people think (a hypothesis called "linguistic relativity"). In one study by Boroditsky, in which native speakers of German and Spanish were asked to describe everyday objects in English, she found that they were more likely to use attributes conventionally associated with the genders of the objects in their native languages. For instance, German-speakers more often described a bridge (in German: die Brücke, feminine) with words like "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," whereas Spanish-speakers (for whom el puente is masculine) used terms like "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." Also according to Boroditsky, the gender in which concepts are anthropomorphized in art is dependent, in 85% of all cases, on the grammatical gender of the concept in the artist's language. Therefore, death is generally portrayed as male in German art (der Tod, masculine), but as female in Russian art (Смерть, feminine).
Further examples of the presence and absence of grammatical gender
- Gender-neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
- Gender-neutrality in languages without grammatical gender
- Gender-neutral pronoun
Similar linguistic notions
- Generic antecedents
- Gender-neutral language in English
- Gender-specific job title
- Gender-specific pronoun
- ^ Hockett, Charles F. (1958) A Course in Modern Linguistics, Macmillan, p. 231.
- ^ SIL: Glossary of Linguistic Terms: What is grammatical gender?
- ^ a b "English Language". English Language. Microsoft. 1993–2007. http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761564210_2/English_Language.html. Retrieved 2007-05-09. "The distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender."
- ^ van Berkum, J.J.A. (1996) The psycholinguistics of grammatical gender: Studies in language comprehension and production. Doctoral Dissertation, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Nijmegen, Netherlands: Nijmegen University Press (ISBN 90-373-0321-8), Chapter 2, "The linguistics of gender" (PDF).
- ^ Translations of "I love you" in many languages, at Omniglot.
- ^ "The Unscholarly Scholarship of Anthony Buzzard". http://www.forananswer.org/Top_Uni/Scholars_Buzzard.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-13.
- ^ Grammatical gender in the Russian language
- ^ a b Ibrahim, Muhammad Hasan (1973). Grammatical gender: Its Origin and Development. Mouton.
- ^ Isbell and Pavia, Rabbits for Dummies, 2d edition p. 23. 2009. ISBN 978-0-470-43064-4
- ^ The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, p. 356. 2003. ISBN 0-226-10403-6.
- ^ How did genders and cases develop in Indo-European?
- ^ The Original Nominal System of Proto-Indoeuropean – Case and Gender
- ^ "The Unfolding of Language" by Guy Deutscher (William Heinemann 2005) pages 265–266 ISBN 0-434-01155-X
- ^ a b See p. 61 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad, Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns. In Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2 (2009), pp. 40–67.
- ^ http://web.archive.org/web/20070904225112/http://www.latrobe.edu.au/rclt/StaffPages/aikhenvald+downloads/ClassifiersELL2published.pdf
- ^ Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics, 1996. p.437
- ^ Boroditsky, Lera (6.12.2009). "How does our language shape the way we think?". Edge. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/boroditsky09/boroditsky09_index.html. Retrieved 29 October 2010.
- Craig, Colette G. (1986). Noun classes and categorization: Proceedings of a symposium on categorization and noun classification, Eugene, Oregon, October 1983. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins.
- Corbett, Greville G. (1991) Gender, Cambridge University Press. (A comprehensive study; looks at 200 languages.) Excerpts at Google books
- Corbett, Greville (1994) "Gender and gender systems". In R. Asher (ed.) The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, Oxford: Pergamon Press, pp. 1347–1353.
- Greenberg, J. H. (1978) "How does a language acquire gender markers?" In J. H. Greenberg et al. (eds.) Universals of Human Language, Vol. 4, pp. 47 – 82.
- Hockett, Charles F. (1958) A Course in Modern Linguistics, Macmillan.
- Iturrioz, J. L. (1986) "Structure, meaning and function: a functional analysis of gender and other classificatory techniques". Función 1. 1–3.
- Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct, William Morrow and Company.
- Roscoe, W. (ed.) (1988) Living the Spirit: A Gay American Indian Anthology. New York: St. Martin's Griffin
- An overview of the grammar of Old English
- Susanne Wagner (2004-07-22) (PDF). Gender in English pronouns: Myth and reality. Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg. http://www.freidok.uni-freiburg.de/volltexte/1412/pdf/Diss_Freidok.pdf.
- "The morphology of gender in Hebrew and Arabic numerals", by Uri Horesh (PDF)
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