Hi! I'm a junior-high student and have been wondering about this
question for a while, asking many of my teachers and never
receiving a satisfactory answer. I thought a linguist may have the
answer to this question, so here goes:
As many know, some languages have nouns that must be said in
certain ways based on their ''gender''. For example, in French, the
words ''la'' (feminine) and ''le'' (masculine), both mean the same
thing, or the article ''the'' in English--yet they are used in
different circumstances based on the noun they are introducing.
In French, for example, the word ''robe'', meaning dress (as a
noun), is always introduced with a feminine article such as ''la'',
because the word ''robe'' is inherently feminine. For the word
''chapeau'', meaning hat, the word is always masculine and so must
be preceded by a masculine article, such as ''le''.
In English this is not really the case. Nouns do not have a
gender, unless they are gender specific (such as ''she'' rather
than ''he''); and even then, the gender of the noun does not change
the way we introduce it. However, I have noticed that in some
English words and phrases, nouns do seem to be more gender
specific than others. Many of the following examples were used in
earlier times and are not as commonly used today:
''There she blows'', an expression used to refer to a whale blowing
water, refers to the whale as female, even though in today's
world we mostly refer to whales as ''it'' (gender neutral).
Occasionally we also hear ships being referred to as ''her''- a
captain might say about his ship, ''I call her the Santa Maria''.
Other examples are some nouns in English having endings on them
when they signify different genders, even though they essentially
mean the same thing. ''Waiter'' and ''waitress'' is one example, so
is ''host'' and ''hostess''.
Although I realize the gendering of words in these English
examples is not exactly the same as how it is done in French, my
questions remain: First of all, what is the term for languages
that have nouns with specific genders, such as in French? There
must be an easier way to say it than my clumsy description above.
Secondly, was English previously a language that had those
gender-specific nouns, or are those example phrases above just
some of the many idiosyncrasies of this complex language?
I thank you in advance for any insight you have on these
English did indeed have grammatical gender, as did all Indo-European languages.
Grammatical (as opposed to semantic) gender disappeared after the Norman conquest,
leaving only pronouns like "he" and "she" (and "him" and "her", the only residue left of
the case-marking system). Endings like -ess for females in the professions are
probably a more recent development, and my guess is that -ess comes from French.
Calling ships or whales "she", like hurricanes used to be, could be related to
grammatical gender, but at this point is just convention. I hope you continue your
interest in language; you might enjoy reading an introductory textbook on linguistics.