LINGUIST List 4.381

Tue 18 May 1993

Sum: Gender Systems

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  1. Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy, Sum: Gender systems

Message 1: Sum: Gender systems

Date: 18 May 1993 14:15:18+1200 Sum: Gender systems
From: Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy <>
Subject: Sum: Gender systems

Some time ago I posted a query about gender systems. Specifically I
was interested in finding out about gender systems which are
relatively *large* (4 or more genders) and also *covert* rather than
overt. I offered no precise criteria for the covert/overt
distinction but suggested that one should err on the inclusive side,
so that e.g. Latin would count as covert. The reason for the
inquiry is that I suspect that covert gender systems (appropriately
defined) are subject to some sort of 'economy' constraint,
reminiscent of though not identical to 'paradigm economy' as
propounded in my _Allomorphy in Inflexion_ (1987), whereas covert
systems are not. In the terms of Corbett _Gender_ (1991), this
would mean that, given a certain number of target genders, the
number of controller genders which they can be organized into is
subject to certain constraints if the gender of controllers is
covert, but escapes these constraints if the gender of controllers
is overt. I got replies from Bob Beard, Ellen Contini-Morava, Larry
Hutchinson, John Koontz and Bob Port.
 Bob Beard predicted that my findings would support his
distinction between natural gender (a lexical category), grammatical
gender (an inflectional category) and 'agreement' (another
inflectional category, distinct from grammatical gender). On that I
cannot say yes or no as yet.
 Ellen and Bob Port pointed out that gender in Swahili is not so
uniformly alliterative as introductory textbooks sometimes claim.
This is important in the sense that, if (part of) the Swahili gender
is system is (or is becoming) covert in the relevant sense, I must
predict that the freedom with which individual nouns can 'choose'
different singular-plural pairings of target genders (Bantuists'
'classes') should become restricted. This has yet to be
investigated in detail.
 John mentioned the Dhegiha group of Mississippi Valley Siouan
languages. These have animate and inanimate genders, each
subdivided into four covert 'genders' relating to movement and
posture. But these do not seem to be genders in the required sense,
since they are not lexically fixed; for example, the verb
accompanying a noun meaning 'tent' can be conjugated according to
the 'erect' or the 'supine' pattern, depending on whether the tent
is erected or not.
 Larry mentioned that the Sierra Leone language Temne has 28
genders, but I have no more details.
 All in all, the inquiry produced no clear counterevidence to my
tentative hypothesis, so I will press on. A progress report will be
presented at the Typology and Parameters Workshop at the
international Conference on Historical Linguistics at UCLA in

Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy
Department of Linguistics, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800,
Christchurch, New Zealand
Phone +64-3-364 2211; home phone +64-3-355 5108
Fax +64-3-364
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