LINGUIST List 6.822

Sat Jun 17 1995

Disc: Genderless Languages

Editor for this issue: John H. Remmers <>


  1. "Larry Trask", Genderless languages: Basque
  2. "STEVE SEEGMILLER", RE: 6.777, Gender Pronouns (was Ling in Science Fiction)
  3. , Re: Re: 6.726, Ling in Science Fiction (Sex & Gender)
  4. Albert Ortmann, Re: 6.726, genderless languages

Message 1: Genderless languages: Basque

Date: Tue, 06 Jun 1995 09:29:28 Genderless languages: Basque
From: "Larry Trask" <>
Subject: Genderless languages: Basque

Basque may fairly be described as a language lacking grammatical
gender. There is no trace of anything resembling gender distinctions
or gender agreement such as is found in Indo-European or Bantu, and
there is no sex-marking in pronouns. There are just two rather
marginal phenomena that might be interpreted as traces of gender, if
you're so inclined.

First, animate NPs form their local cases slightly differently from
inanimate NPs (though all non-local cases are formed identically).

Second, when you address someone with the intimate second-person
singular pronoun, and the agreement marker in the verb happens to be
a suffix, there are distinct markers for male and female addressees.
This doesn't happen when the marker is a prefix, or in the unmarked
second-person singular, or indeed anywhere else in the language.
Anyway, there aren't many people you can address with the intimate
form: not even your spouse or your parents.

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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Message 2: RE: 6.777, Gender Pronouns (was Ling in Science Fiction)

Date: 06 Jun 1995 00:43:00 EST
Subject: RE: 6.777, Gender Pronouns (was Ling in Science Fiction)

Turkish and many (most?) of the Turkic languages lack gender in the
pronominal system. In fact, in many of the Turkic languages, the third-
person pronouns are actually demonstrative pronouns or are derived from
them. There are, of course, gender-specific lexical items for things
like 'woman' etc.

Steve Seegmiller
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Message 3: Re: Re: 6.726, Ling in Science Fiction (Sex & Gender)

Date: Thu, 08 Jun 1995 11:43:34 Re: Re: 6.726, Ling in Science Fiction (Sex & Gender)
From: <>
Subject: Re: Re: 6.726, Ling in Science Fiction (Sex & Gender)

To my claim that Hungarian lacks gender distinction
"" wrote:

> This not so; Hung. merely lacks masculine-feminine. It most
> distinguishes persons and things, and animals are made one or the
> First of all, there are "ki" (who) and "mi" (what), bare "az"
(that) is used
> not of persons but only things and ideas, and there is a
(partitiv?) construct
> for a counted subject that is persons:
> Ha'rman joettek.
> Threely came-they.
> Three (persons) came.
> Ha'rom joett.
> Three (things) came.
> (An explicitly counted noun-phrase is always in the singular.)

However, I would still claim that Hungarian lacks gender distinction:

1. The who-what dichotomy does not imply gender because Hung. "ki"
('who') and "mi" ('what') do not represent human vs. non-human +
inanimate distinction. While the interrogative "ki" is indeed a pro-
form for nouns denoting humans, "mi" (equivalent of Eng. "what") is
not its counterpart in being a pro-form for nouns denoting non-humans
and inanimate things exclusively.

E.g. - What do you see? - I see two persons.
(cf. - Who do you see? - *I see two tables.

Consider also the following, where "what" is not a pro-form for nouns
denoting non-humans and inanimate things:

What are you doing?
What does it mean?
What do you think?

2. Furthermore, the Hung. personal pronoun system does not
distinguish between animate and inanimate. There is only one pronoun
for 3rd pers. sg., namely "o" (with umlaut). It is true that this
pronoun is almost exclusively used for animate things (mainly humans)
but it has NO counterpart for non-humans and inanimate things. This
seems to be a little "deficiency" of the language (just like all
languages expose some kind of "deficiency" in certain areas when
compared to others). The pronoun "az" (mentioned by
"") is not a personal pronoun but a
demonstrative (meaning 'that') often used as a pro-form for nouns
expressing non-human and inanimate things to make up for the lack of
an appropriate personal pronoun. That "az" is a true demonstrative
can be seen from the following: Whereas Hung. "o" (with umlaut) can
always be used in the sense of "he" or "she", Hung. "az" would be
very clumsy in many cases where English uses "it". In such cases the
pro-form "az" is dropped as it would be most of the time anyway
because the usage of personal pronouns is hardly ever obligatory in
Hung., since the verb conjugation displays the person both of the
subject and the object.

E.g. "I saw a dog. It was very friendly." is never "Lattam egy
kutyat. Az nagyon baratsagos volt." in Hung., but always "Lattam egy
kutyat. Nagyon baratsagos volt."

My explanation for this phenomenon is that a demonstrative
functioning as a pro-form is not appropriate in this position because
it would imply that another dog, i.e. "this" (Hung. "ez"), was

3. I don't think the modal-essive suffix -n is restricted to usage in
connection with persons:
E.g. both are correct with a slight difference in meaning: "A
kiscicak harman vannak." (approx. 'The kittens are three.') and
"Harom kiscica van." ('There are three kittens.')

Gabor Gyori
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Message 4: Re: 6.726, genderless languages

Date: Wed, 07 Jun 1995 13:32:46 Re: 6.726, genderless languages
From: Albert Ortmann <>
Subject: Re: 6.726, genderless languages

>Gabor Gyori writes:
> This phenomenon is not just science fiction. Hungarian has no gender
> specific pronouns, simply because it has no gender distinction at
> all. Does anyone know about similar languages? (As far as I know this
> goes for all Uralic and maybe also for the Turkic languages.)

Many of the world's languges do not have the category of gender, neither
in pronouns nor in agreement morphology. For an informal survey, cf. e.g.
section 1.1 of Greville Corbett: "Gender" (1991).

My impression is that typical SOV languages tend to lack gender
altogether. In addition to the Uralic and Turkic languages that Gabor Gyori
mentions, Basque is also an example, and Georgian is another.
But also Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and other East Asian languages
should be mentioned (depending on how one treats classifiers, which also
subdivide nouns, originally with respect to some conceptual properties
of their referents, but sometimes also arbitrarily. However, this kind of
classification is not involved in any agreement relations, the latter
being regarded as the decisive criterion for the category of gender in a

I think the basic question is not so much whether sex is differentiated
morphologically, but rather if in general in the language there is an
agreement feature which is *inherent* (as opposed to number, which usually
is instantiated) to the noun or not.

Here are some speculations on the correlation of having no gender with
other properties:

Most of the genderless languages are SOV and their morphology is
"agglutinative", in traditional typological terms.
The realisation of gender tends to be tied closely to the realisation of
morphological case in the world's languages. Very often, the two categories
are fused (often also including number). This has probably to do with the
crucial role that case plays in NP-internal agreement (or concord).
In the type of agglutinative SOV languages, hwoever, case is usually
realised only once, i.e. mostly in phrase final position. This is due to
its (often recent) grammaticalisation out of postpositions.
Now if (i) case and gender should be realised simultaneously, (ii) gender
(unlike case, which is relevant for linking from "outside" the DP!) is only
conceivable in agreement constellations, i.e. involves a covariation of
several items and (iii) case is, due to its non-inflectional status in
these languages, realised only once, it follows that gender cannot be
relevant for these languages. If it were, it would have to occur, e.g., on
adjectives as well, but then it would be realised there independently of
This might explain why these languages, which show rich morphology in
other respects, typically lack gender.
Some other reason must be given for the East Asian languages, of course.

Another fact that seems to fit into the pattern is that Hungarian (and
Georgian as well) does not mark plurality on the noun if a numeral
precedes, i.e. another category of nouns can be realised only once in a DP.

Do these ideas seem reasonable?
Does anybody know of theoretical or empirical work pointing in this
Are there any serious counterexamples, i.e. SOV languages with the noun or
a case particle in DP-final position which do have gender?

Albert Ortmann

Albert Ortmann
Heinrich-Heine-Universitaet Duesseldorf
Seminar fuer Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft
SFB-Projekt "Kongruenz"
Universitaetsstr. 1
D-40225 Duesseldorf

Tel.: 0211-311-5123
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