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
Yes, English used to be a gender language; it had three genders, masculine feminine and neuter, as German (a closely-related language) still has. In English this grammatical feature faded out broadly over the period AD 1000–1300. But no, "there she blows" or "she" for a ship are not hangovers from Old English gender; as it happens, in Old English "hwæl", 'whale', was a masculine noun and "scip", 'ship', was neuter. The reason for calling a ship "she" is that there is a cultural tendency for men to conceptualize the things they care about and lavish attention and fondling on as metaphorically female; a young man proud of a sports car which he polishes regularly will very likely call it "she" (though I can't explain the whale case).
So far as I know, the only linguistic term for languages with noun-classes like this is "gender languages". There are many such languages world-wide, though the classes are not always connected with sex as in European languages; often they are connected with shape, so that you will have one class of nouns for roughly spherical things, another for things which are flat sheets, and so forth. "Gender" originally meant simply "kind, type", so this usage was unambiguous. Just in the last 20 years or so a new fashion has grown up in English, puzzling to members of my generation, whereby "gender" is actually used as a synonym for "sex", so now it might seem odd to talk about a "gender language" whose genders do not relate in any way to sex. But clearly whoever initiated the new use of the word "gender" wasn't thinking about linguistics!