LINGUIST List 7.582

Fri Apr 19 1996

Disc: Grammatical Gender

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. ACITW, Re: 7.564: Grammatical Gender
  2. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 7.573, Disc: Grammatical Gender
  3. Sean M. Witty, Grammatical Gender & Sex

Message 1: Re: 7.564: Grammatical Gender

Date: Thu, 18 Apr 1996 17:44:08 EDT
From: ACITW <>
Subject: Re: 7.564: Grammatical Gender
Re: The Russian _di'tja_, child, certainly is neuter, but I have found
that word to be very rare save in the plural, _Dje'ti_. The singular
I always use and hear is "rebjonok," which is masculine. And of
course, there is almost always no gender in the plural in Russian.
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Message 2: Re: 7.573, Disc: Grammatical Gender

Date: Wed, 17 Apr 1996 18:06:49 EDT
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.573, Disc: Grammatical Gender
Hartmut's example of Person (fem.), like my own of Individuum
(neuter), are not exceptions to anything I have said, since
they do not denote a subclass of human beings. Any human
being can be a Person or an Individuum, but not everybody
is an Ingenieur, for example. Compounds of Kind do not count
for obvious reasons. Opfer (neuter) does seem more like
a counterexample, although I still think that there is
a generalization which predicts that could not be a noun
referring to a profession, or an ethnic group, or
a rank, or many other things that would be neuter in
German--barring certain special cases like diminutives etc.
I am not sure who suggetsed that gender is arbitrary, but
that is plainly untrue. Otherwise there would be many
feminine nouns referring to males and masc. referring
to females and neuter ones referring to people, but there
are not. The same is true in any number of languages, and
so the feminists are I am afraid quite right.
Alexis MR
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Message 3: Grammatical Gender & Sex

Date: Wed, 17 Apr 1996 22:50:46 PDT
From: Sean M. Witty <>
Subject: Grammatical Gender & Sex
1. Prescription versus Description.

I have not heard one argument in favor of Prescription that I did think 
had sound and rational foundations. In fact, in agreement with several 
people who have responded, I believe that there is no one more 
qualified than a linguist to make Prescriptive recommendations. 
However, this does not mean that we should do so. We can also predict, 
better than anyone else, the impacts of over-prescription, and we can 
project how long it would take for these measures to bear fruit 
(English took about 500 years, a printing press, Plague, Fire, and a 
French Invasion to shake loose from Gender - and it's still a problem). 
 Who is to say that today's PC prescription will still hold water 100 
years from now? 
Of course, you all have the right to do what you believe to be "the 
right thing". If you choose to be an Activist, fine, be one; just do 
me, and others like me, the service of claiming your Activist status 
over that of a Linguist.

2. The Nature of Gender (There's a concession here)

I sat down with my son the other day, while he was watching "Winnie
the Pooh and Tigger too" I took the opporitunity to review what I
believe Gender to be and how it is determined in all the languages I
have studied. The following is the result of my "Linguistic

The Definition of Gender: "A set of two or more categories, as
masculine, feminine, and neuter, into which words are divided
according to sex, animation, psychological associations, or other
characteristics and that govern agreement with or the selection of
modifiers, referents, or grammatical forms."
	- Webster's II, New Riverside, p.524

"Such a system involves the overt morphological coding of a
classification of NPs, although it need not be on the basis of sex.
These morphological distinctions are carried by anaphoric elements;
anaphoric elements of the same class can be interpreted as coreferent,
while those of different classes cannot."
	- Functional Syntax & Universal Grammar, Foley & Van Valin jr., 

Personally, I think this definition is accurate, but weighted down
with too much technical terminology. Let's try and reason this out:

* Objects are either Animate or Inanimate, but not both. There are
some questions surrounding whether or not this includes animals, dead
persons, or people whose sex is unknown. For the purposes of this
text, I will use that which I am most comfortable with, understanding
that there is NOT total agreement on this issue: ANY LIVING NOUN IS

* Animate Objects have Sex that agrees with Gender, Inanimate Objects
do not. In Gender based languages, however, Inanimate Objects carry
Gender. Therefore, since these objects have no Sex to agree with,
there must be another property that governs Gender.

* All languages have Sex, but not all Languages (i.e. Korean, Chinese,
and Vietnamese) have Gender. Genderless languages use a single
Pronoun (some have none) for 3P while Gender-based ones tend to have a
3P for each Gender. Further, a Genderless language does not consider
Sex when inflecting for Case. Instead, the same inflection is used,
buttressed by a serious of Phonetic Rules to provide harmony. For
example, Korean uses Vowel Assimilation, when attaching a morpheme
with a (+Back, -Hi) nucleus to a morpheme without a (+Back,
+Low)nucleus, and Consonant Insertion when attaching a morpheme to a
noun that ends with a vowel. Thus:

	"Ku-yoja-NUN man-AT-saw-yo." 	"(I) meet her (the woman)."
	"Ku-nampyun-UN is-SAWT-saw-yo." 	"(I) am he (the husband)."

Likewise, Gender is used in European languages to provide this
harmony, thus (although, not being a native, I don't why this sounds

				das Buch	eines Buch
				der Bruder	einer Bruder
				die Frau	eine Frau

So, as we can see, there is an Animation Consideration, a Sexual
Consideration, and a Phonetic Consideration. All of which govern the
assignment of Gender. Thus:

RUSSIAN (3 x 3PS Pronouns)
Animate Nouns are governed by Sex. 		"Papa - on."
Inanimate Nouns are governed by Phonetics.	"Sobaka - ona."

Proper Nouns are governed by Sex.		"Sie ist Maria."
						"He is Apollonius."
All other Nouns are governed by Phonetics.	"Es ist das Weibchen."
						"He is se Wyfman."

ITALIAN (2 x 3PS Pronouns)
Animate Objects are governed by Sex.		"Lui 'e Mario."
Inanimate objects are governed by Phonetics.	"Lei 'e una Firma."

MODERN ENGLISH (3 x 3PS Pronouns)
Animate Objects are governed by Sex.	"Sean Young likes her book."
Inanimate Objects are Neuter.			"It is a good book."

KOREAN (No 3PS Pronouns)
Animate Objects have Sex.
Inanimate Objects have no Sex.

Of course, this is a general outline of the big picture, parts of
which are beyond my limited capabilities. At least you can get the

3. German.

a). Diminutives & Neuter Gender
	While it is true that 'das Maedchen', 'das Fraulein', 'das
Junge', and 'das Weib' might all be considered Diminutive AND are all
Neuter Nouns, this does mean that Diminutiveness is a quality of
Neuter Animation OR that Neuterness is a quality of Dimintiveness.
For if the latter were true, then all Diminutives must be Neuter, 'der
Junge' certainly is not, and all Neuter Animate Nouns must be
Diminutive, 'das Pferd', 'das Ross', and 'das Weibchen' clearly are
not. For a plausible foundation for 'das Ingenieur', which I think is
cute but ugly, look at 'das Weibchen' (the female), 'das Maedchen'
(the maiden), and 'das Fraulein' (the single woman) to establish
Neuter Animation. Then look at 'das Pferd' (the horse), 'das Ross'
(also the horse), and 'das Junge' (the young ones) to establish
Indefinite Sex.

b). A male 'Hebamme'
	I believe that a midwife would be referred to in the Feminine
in German, despite the individuals Sex (ala 'das Maedchen'). While I
have not confirmed this, I have not thought to ask my local informants
and did not encounter an instance where it came up when I lived in
Germany, I think that this is the case, at least grammatically. So
I'll pose the question, what does one call a male 'Hebamme'?
	Secondly, Waruno did not catch my error in my original
response to his posting in #7-419[5]. I asked the question as to why
'Hebamme' could not have Neuter Gender and Indefinite Sex. What I
meant to say was, why can't it have Feminine Gender and Indefinite
Sex. My apologies :)

c). Sekretaer/Sekretaerin
	Unfortunately, I'm going to have to take Waruno's word on
this. However, this is only for the same reasons as state above
concerning 'Hebamme'. While I did encounter many secretaries while in
Germany, I did not meet any high ranking politicians who bore that
title, let alone female ones.

d). Tippse & Politesse
	Is it possible that these words will eventually replace their
Feminine dichotomic counterparts (one becoming a clerk/typist and the
other a traffic cop)? I wouldn't be surprised if that did happen
(although none of us will live to see it) or if they took on
Indefinite Sex.

4. English.

a). Ships as she.
	Actually, I just wanted to state my agreement with Waruno on
this. Ships are referred to in the Feminine because of their
importance to sailors, who were predominately men in the past. Those
of us who are "trekkies", will note that Captain Kirk made reference
to being married to the Enterprise on several occasions. It just goes
to prove that some things in Language are due simply to the dumb luck
of History.

b). Midwife/Midhusband
	According to "The Elements of Old English", "mid" means 'with'
and "wyf" is Neuter and means 'wife'. Obviously, this is a Neuter
Noun, according to the final element rule (you are familiar with
 Therefore, a midwife is someone of Indefinite Sex who is with the
wife (during pregnancy, usually was a woman). There is a midhusband,
someone of Indefinite Sex who is with the husband (during pregnancy,
usually a woman). She would be the Sekretaerin in the waiting room :)
Of course, there aren't many of these midhusbands around anymore, all
of the husbands are in the delivery room filling in for midwives :) At
least, that's where I was ...

c). Sheep/Ram/Ewe
	Well, I'm glad to see that some of us call these beasts 'it'.
unfortunately, I don't. Actually, I do, but the occasion has little
to do with Human/Non-Human but more to do with which one I feel like
using at the particular moment of utterance. Fatigue sometimes plays
a factor, as does location, but I dare not say that any of these are
attributes of Grammatical Gender.

5. My Chart

First, I'd like to thank all the native speakers of English who sent
me messages stating that their particular usage for 3PS
Animate-Indefinite was the correct one. You have proven my point that
was stated in that message, NATIVE SPEAKERS DO NOT AGREE ON WHICH ONE
TO USE. Waruno went so far as to reorganize my chart to fit his
liking. The point behind organizing the chart the way that I did, was
to make an illustrated comparison, and that is really lost when the
chart is dismantled. If I had been making a comparison to Swahili,
you can bet that English would have been presented as having 17
Genders. It was not an attempt to postulatize. As for the Russian
part, the chart was verified by a Linguist from Russia, and several
others who profess/study/speak Russian. All of whom missed the
Combined Gender, which admittedly is Animate-Indefinite Gender. There
isn't much to say about these nouns, except that, like Italian, they
use the Masculine 3P Pronouns unless they are referring to a woman.
Perhaps I should have brought out the Gender material before the
chart? -Hmmmmm.

6. Non-Linguistic Issues

a). Should-be's
	As was professed above (Hebamme), I wasn't stating a
'should-be' but using deductive reasoning for an obscure situation
that my experiences couldn't account for. I don't engage in guess
work, but, admittedly, have trained myself to take educated guesses
and use them occasionally. This isn't an instance of such an
occasion, because the fact that 'die Hebamme' is always represented by
'sie', whether Male or Female, is what I have been taught. Since I
have no experience telling me otherwise, from my perspective, it's
true until I discover it to be false.
	My second point here is that the information was stated in the
context that Prescription was good. So, if you favor Prescription,
see #1 for my opinions, tell me why 'der Ingenieur' and 'die Hebamme'
cannot be prescribed to have Universal Sex. Be careful, you might
compromise yourself...

b). Mumbo - Jumbo
	I am a free thinking entity, therefore I'm not familiar with
the Mumbo-Jumbo that Waruno is referring to. I
don't spout dogma, nor do I have an agenda. I don't like to quote
other Linguists, although on occasion I do, and prefer to reason
things out for myself. So I'm not trying to kid anyone when I say
that both a half full glass of water and a half empty glass of water,
are half a glass of water. It's not bad luck, just my way of seeing
things :) Further, it is my fault and no one else's.

c). Absolution
	I never claimed to be a Psychiatrist ;)

d). The Nobel Premium
	I guess I was eliminated because I attached the wrong Sex to
both AMR and Waruno Mahdi. Can I at least get $100,000 of the prize
money anyway?

e). Abusive Parents
	Just on the side, an adolescent girl can take her abusive
father to court and sue him for divorce. I guess you'll have your way
in the end...

Sean M. Witty
Philadelphia, PA
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