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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: 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 grammatical gender. 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.
Reply From: Elizabeth J Pyatt      click here to access email
Date: 02-Dec-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    Herbert Frederic Stahlke     (30-Nov-2013)
  4. Re: Possible Gendering of Nouns in Old English    Susan D Fischer     (30-Nov-2013)

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