Publishing Partner: Cambridge University Press CUP Extra Publisher Login
amazon logo
More Info

Ask-A-Linguist Message Details

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

Reply: Some of the confusion inherent in dealing with gender in language stems from our modern uses of the word. It comes to us from Latin, via French, from the root of Latin "genus," which meant "tribe, race, kind, or type." It first appears in English in the 14th c., originally with its grammatical meaning of noun classification, typically as masculine, feminine, and neuter or common, although other classes are certainly found in a lot of languages. Not too long after the word first appears in English, it also takes on the sense of sex classification that seems to be its dominant sense in English now.

As Prof. Fidelholtz explained, even in Indo-European languages, where gender is generally defined in terms of sex, it did not start out that way. I am as puzzled as he is about how the transition from animacy to sex came about, but I suspect it had something to do with the significance of sex reference in the pronoun system. Nouns that were referred to by a pronoun of a particular gender were considered belonging to that gender. There is, unfortunately, a chicken/egg as to which came first, pronominal gender with sex reference or noun gender with whatever categories it had.

As the early Proto-Indo-European history Prof. Fidelholtz reviewed indicates, the classification was a matter of morphology (word forms), not of meaning. Some early grammarians tried to come up with semantic explanations for why particular words belonged to particular genders, but these tended to be more fanciful than factual. It's a fact of noun classification in most languages that membership in a noun class (gender) tends to be arbitrary and always has. That is related to the fact that genders tend to be morphological rather than semantic categories.

I too second Prof. Fischer's suggestion that you might enjoy reading an introductory text in linguistics.
Reply From: Herbert Frederic Stahlke      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    James L Fidelholtz     (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)

Back to Most Recent Questions