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Subject: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English
Question: 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
questions.

Reply: Hi, Lorae,

As Dr. Fischer said, English used to have gender, and because of
the (among other things, linguistic) turmoil caused by the Norman
(French) conquest of England in 1066, later lost those
distinctions. In fact, a very long time ago, some 5 or 6 thousand
years, the predecessor of almost all the languages now spoken in
Europe (except Finnish and Hungarian {related to each other} and
Basque {unknown to be provably related to *any* other language})
apparently had a two-way gender system for nouns: animate (which
has developed into what in many descendant languages is referred
to as 'masculine') and inanimate (which developed later into two
other genders: the original one was and is called in Latin and
some other languages 'neuter'; the 'subject' plural of the neuter
ended in -a; so, for example, 'temple' was, in the singular as a
subject, 'templum' in Latin, and in the plural it would be
'templa'. I've never quite understood how it happened, but the
experts on Indo-European (as the predecessor language is called)
are agreed that this original 'neuter plural subjective' ending
somehow began to be used as the 'feminine singular subjective'
ending on some nouns [this must have occurred quite early on in
the development of this family of languages, as in (written)
historical times and earlier, a huge portion of the languages in
this family had or have a feminine gender in -a, which apparently
did not exist a few thousand years ago. BTW, your given name ends
just like the Latin feminine plural. After some time, these new
feminine nouns developed their own set of case endings [different
cases are used in some languages--Latin, German and Greek, for
example, but not Modern French or English to indicate different
syntactic uses--for example, subject, possessive, direct object,
indirect object, object of a preposition, etc.]. English, Spanish
and French still have vestiges of the objective case (him and
whom in English, lo in Spanish and some vestiges, I believe, also
in French); German has a full-blown 4-case system; Latin had 6
cases, etc. Now, cases are a morphological (suffixal in the
languages we are discussing) reflex of syntactic categories.
Genders, however, as you can tell by their names, are often
assigned semantic content (meaning): in French, for example, they
are 'masculine' and 'feminine'. But as you can see from my
thumbnail sketch of the history of the 'feminine' gender, there
is often no real correlation between, say, feminine gender and
the feminine sex, since the assignment appears after some
centuries often to be random or arbitrary, and as I said, why
some inanimate plurals turned into feminine nouns has always been
beyond my understanding, true as it apparently is.

When we look at some other language families in the world, we
find many ways of dividing up nouns. The distinction between
'animate' and 'inanimate' is a very common division (Algonquian
languages from Canada & the US have that division; in all those
languages, *some* (a few) nouns which for us are inanimate
nevertheless are of the animate gender--some trees, some
apparently ritual or 'respected' objects, such as a boat pole
(but not a flagpole, which is the same base word, but of
inanimate gender); curiously (to us), *no* noun in Mi'kmaq--an
Algonquian language--is semantically animate but grammatically
inanimate). Other languages use a somewhat different system,
often called 'classifiers'. This is akin to the English use of
words like 'piece' in 'a piece of paper', except that is is in
some languages much more widespread: every noun must have a
classifier, although some nouns may use more than one classifier
in different contexts. So, if a system has classifiers for 'long
cylindrical object' and another for 'wooden object', a pole could
use either, depending on the context. In the Bantu languages of
Africa, for example, Swahili, such classifiers occur as prefixes
on nouns--one for the singular and a (possibly) different one for
the plural. Nouns can normally not occur without one of these
prefixes.

There are also many different kinds of case systems. Thus, each
noun in Finnish can have as many as 16 different suffixes
('cases'), depending on its specific syntactic use. These perhaps
developed from a preposition-like system (in Finnish they would
have been, then, post-positions), and this may be something like
what happened in Indo-European, but the process has gotten way
too opaque by this time in the I-E languages to have much hope of
ever proving that. However, if you count how many 'prepositions'
there are in English or French, you could see why such an idea
might occur to a historical linguist about the Finnish system.
(Disclaimer: I doubt whether many Finnish linguists would
entertain such an explanation, and there are precious few very
old documents in Finnish (even for, say, French there are not
many over 1500 years old, unless you count the large number of
documents in Latin, and even those only go back a very few
hundred years before Christ).)

Well, you can see that there are lots of aspects to your
question, and many interesting ones. Let me reiterate Susan's
suggestion of reading a good introductory textbook in
linguistics, and you'll find many such interesting byways along
the route. Have fun!

Jim

James L. Fidelholtz
Graduate Program in Language Sciences
Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO
Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
 
Date: 30-Nov-2013
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (01-Dec-2013)
  2. Re: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (30-Nov-2013)
  3. Re: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (02-Dec-2013)
  4. Re: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English    Susan D Fischer     (30-Nov-2013)

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