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
To elaborate on my colleague's answers:
1) English used to have gender and when it did, all nouns were classified as
masculine, feminine, neuter. This classification controlled grammatical features such
as pronoun replacement (he/she/it) and adjectival agreement.
Today although we may personify objects and animals as if they were people (e.g. I
name all my cars), it's generally optional. Therefore English no longer has
Also endings like -er/-ess generally only apply to objects which have a sex like
people or animals. English does not apply them to pens and pencils.
2) As Prof Fidelholtz noted, other classification systems exist. Many Sub-Saharan
languages have complex systems which distinguish between animate (alive) vs non-
animate where animates are further broken down into shape types and one (Fula)
has an ending just for cows.
3) The evolution of grammatical gender is a little murky although most believe that
Indo-European began with the common animate/inanimate distinction to which
feminine gender was added later.
An interesting case of a gender system possibly in progress are Chinese/Vietnamese
classifiers. When objects are counted, they must be counted as one of "something"
and these "somethings" could evolve into a more integrated classification system.
I also suspect classification can be random depending on ending. In most Indo-
European languages, gender can be partially predicted based on the word ending or
final sound and it's very common for nouns to get reclassified based on a
reinterpretation of a pattern based on an ending. There are also cases like "fraulein"
'girl' which is semantically feminine, but classified as grammatically neuter because
of the ending -lein. The ending here is the key, not the semantics.