LINGUIST List 14.3007

Tue Nov 4 2003

Sum: Grammatical Gender

Editor for this issue: Steve Moran <>


  1. Western Veterinary Clinic, Gender association

Message 1: Gender association

Date: Mon, 3 Nov 2003 14:12:03 -0000
From: Western Veterinary Clinic <>
Subject: Gender association

Hello again!

I am very grateful to all who responded to my cry for help on the
subject of gender (Linguist 14.2947). Your replies were most
interesting, and I would like to share some of them with you,
especially since a few of you confessed to being equally baffled by
the subject in question. However, before I start, I would like to
aplogise in advance for the huge difference in learning and knowledge
that exists between me and some of the erudite and respected linguists
who have taken the time and trouble to respond to my query. This
daunting chasm was made painfully evident to me by part of Nancy
Stern's response, wherein she kindly explained that "(.....)
grammatical gender of inanimate nouns is akin to Swahili noun
classes(...)" I have to confess, this sent me into paroxysms of
hysterical laughter. Swahili noun classes??! I am humbled.

This is part of what Dr Joseph Foster, Assoc. Professor of
Anthropology & Director of Undergraduate Studies, Dept. of
Anthropology, U. of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA, had to say:

"The details of gender have a little to do with sex in some languages
but there is no natural or required linkage.

Gender is simply a division of nouns into two or more groups such that
the choice of a noun from one or another group has an effect on the
form of something else in the sentence. So English divides nouns into
three groups, called genders.

 Class I man, boy, actor, priest..... the personal pronoun is he
and the relative pronoun who

 Class II woman, girl, actress, priestess.... personal pronoun she,
relative pronoun who.

Since all nouns in English that refer clearly to males go in Class I,
it makes sense to call that Masculine Gender. Ditto for females for
Class II, ergo Feminine Gender.

 Class III tree, shrub, rock, stone, teacup..... personal pronoun
it, relative pronoun which.

So English has three genders, Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter

So, in English, anything that is inanimate - and sexless - is assigned
'neuter' gender. (We'll ignore dolls, effigies, animals, ships,
countries, etc. for the moment, for the sake of simplicity...) It
would seem then, that, in English, there exists a strong correlation
between 'natural gender' (or 'sex') and 'grammatical gender'. Nice
and simple. So much for English.

But what about all the other languages, like French, Italian, German,
Arabic, Irish, Maltese, Russian..... (the list is endless), which
assign F. or M. to inanimate nouns? (Why can't they too be like
English?!) Enter Gerd Jendraschek, (Equipe de Recherche en Syntaxe et
S�mantique), Maison de la Recherche, Universit� de Toulouse-Le Mirail,
who has this to say:

"First of all, grammatical gender (genus) is grammaticalized natural
gender (sexus). Gender is indeed very ancient, so it originated in
societies with only few artefacts (very different from modern
industrial societies). Other things we might, today, consider as
inanimate belong to nature, and those societies had a much closer
relationship to nature, so it should not come as a surprise that they
made analogies to living beings.

The sun and the moon are good examples. They appear as a couple, so
that in many languages with grammatical gender one of them is the
"male", the other the "female" partner.

When artefacts became more important, analogy was at work. New items
had to be integrated into the existing system. This can even be
observed today.

When words are borrowed from a language without gender (e.g. English)
into a language with gender (e.g. German, French, Italian), they have
to get a gender. This is a very tricky problem, as different
strategies are available.
- the gender of semantically close words in the target language;

- morphological and phonological criteria (in Italian -o masculinum,
-a femininum);

- phonological closeness to words in the target language; and probably
much more."

Ah! You can just picture it, can't you: it's an ancient and primitive
world, and all the different races/language speakers across the globe
are looking up at the stars and the sun and the moon, and making up
their separate and independent minds about what analogy to draw, with
respect to what gender to assign to inanimate objects.... It does
make a lot of sense, I must admit. At the very least, Gerd's theory
would go some way to explaining why 'moon', for example, ended up
being masculine in Arabic, but oh so exquisitely feminine in

But this still leaves another question: what of all those other
languages (German and Russian seem to be major culprits) which assign
totally 'unnatural' genders to what would seem to be 'naturally'
feminine or masculine words? e.g. the word for 'maiden' in German is
Neuter! This practice leaves me feeling completely baffled and not a
little distressed. On this particular subject, here's part of
(polyglot) Karen's response:

"Some IndoEuropean languages, have mismatched grammatical and natural
genders: German assigns "neuter" gender to "young girl", Russian and
other Slavic languages assign "neuter" or "feminine" to "child" (even
when the child is clearly male), as when it's used in apposition to
the name, and many languages apply gender randomly to animals: for
example, in Russian, "dog" is feminine, so that even when the context
clearly indicates that the dog in question is male, feminine
adjectival and verbal endings will be used, while "hound" is
masculine, so even if context shows the hound to be female, the verbs
are masculine."

Karen goes on to offer a theory for the seemingly random, illogical,
and 'unnatural' assignment of gender in German, Russian and other
Slavic languages. She says:

"In languages with all three genders, the gender of inanimates is
determined by the morphological form of the word, not any innate
feeling that, for instance, tables are somehow male while chairs are
female and windows neuter."

Karen's theory fits in quite well with what Gerd had to say on how
words are borrowed and assimilated into different languages and how
they are slotted into a particular pattern/gender/group, by virtue of
their phonological, morphological, semantic, syntactic,
and/or similarities - by 'analogy', in short.

Chris Johns, another person who kindly responded to my query, pointed
out that

"English used to have gender, which was eroded by phonetic
developments in the language (along with the case system and most
verbal morphology). I suspect that gender was originally nothing more
than noun classes, which were given the names masculine feminine and
neuter when people started to look at languages analytically and
discovered that the words for male humans belonged to one particular
class, and the word for female humans to another".

Mike Maxwell, Linguistic Data Consortium, cited an article in a recent
issue (Summer issue of this year?), on the development of the French
masculine/ feminine gender system out of the Latin masc/ fem/ neuter
system. Sadly, Mike acknowledges, the article only explains how a
number of inanimate nouns came to be classed as masc or fem. It
doesn't explain why 'naturally' male or female nouns (e.g. 'maiden' in
German, 'dog' in Russian) came to be classed as something other than
their 'biologically given' gender in the first place. Neither does it
explain why gender systems arose in the first place.

My regards go to Stefano Bertolo of Cycorp Inc., Austin, Texas, who
gave me courage by confessing to being equally baffled by my question.
He suggested I read the works of Lera Boroditsky,

"a cognitive scientist who has demonstrated the 'psychological
reality' of morphological gender. In papers such as the ones below she
has shown that lexical decision tasks show interference effects with
the presentation of gender." Stefano cites

Phillips, W. & Boroditsky, L. (2003). Can Quirks of Grammar Affect the
Way You Think? Grammatical Gender and Object Concepts. Proceedings of
the 25th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. Boston, MA.

Boroditsky, L. & Schmidt, L. (2000). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics.
Proceedings of the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science
Society, Philadelphia, PA.

My thanks to Charlie Rowe for suggesting that I post off my question
to ask-a-linguist. I intend following your advice in due course,

Most of you advised me to read Corbett, Greville
1991. _Gender_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Lakoff,
George 1987. _Women, fire and other dangerous things: What classifier
categories reveal about the mind_. Chicago: University of Chicago
Press. I have ordered both books and I trust they are winging their
way towards me as I write.

And last but not least, thank you, Greville Corbett, for suggesting I
read your book! I shall do so as soon as I get my hands on it.
However, in the meantime, if you read this message, .... any chance of
giving us all an 'in-a-nutshell' answer? You seem to be generally
regarded as 'the guru' on this subject, so let's hear it!

Best wishes and sincere thanks to you all.

Have fun,
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue