languages with gender; I just don't get it.

I still have a smattering of French and German from my schooldays, but the thing that’s always puzzled me is why do these languages have genders for everything? - Now I’m sure that English, with it’s lack of gender, seems just as odd to the French and Germans, but what is the purpose of it? - is there any advantage at all to describing a table as feminine? - it’s just a table, after all.

I know this comes across like one of those ‘why isn’t everbody else normal, just like me?’ questions, but it’s not; I realise that my perspective carries bias - I’m trying to put it right.

Yeah, but what a table. Hoo-eee!

I was expecting something about it having legs.

But if French didn’t use gender you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a peach and a fish! (La peche and le peche)

It could be used as a way to alter the meaning of a word radically, allowing you to get away with fewer total words - but it’s not used that way in French (the peach/fish thing is sort of a quirk).

Well, I don’t think there is a real purpose in having different genders. The languages developed like this and it would be hard if not impossible to change this (I say this being a native German speaker). I now live in Finland, where they don’t have articles at all, and I find this sometimes makes it difficult to express certain things.

And by the way, in Germany a table is masculine. As we have three genders in German, I agree, this does not make much sense, a table should be neutral (despite its legs). Furthermore we have some words that go with two or even all three genders, e.g. yogurt (Jogurt goes with die, der and das, always meaning the same same thing…)

le peche is not ‘a fish’ but rather ‘fishing’. Your point is still valid though.

“Beard” is feminine in French (la barbe). I’ve always wondered about that one…

English used to have gender; we just stopped using it (just as we stopped using declensions). Most European languages had some sort of gender element, probably because they all evolved from Proto-Indo-European, which had gender.

So the real question is why English stopped using gender when most other languages continued to use it. This was partly because people in different parts of England had different languages. The roots were very similar, but the gender and declensions lead to confusion. So they were dropped.

Languages are not logical products. In the Irish language, the word for a girl is “cailin” (pronounced “colleen”). It is a masculine noun.

It is clear that gender is basic to the structure of many languages. I wonder is the gender thing world wide, or is it Indo-European? For example, do Chinese words have gender?

Among European languages, English is unusual in having no genders. However, old English did have genders, which have been lost with the development of the language.

BTW, Nils mentions that Finnish has no articles. The Irish language has no indefinite article - as indicated above, “cailin” means “a girl”. Note that Latin, like ancient Greek, had no equivalents of “the” or “a” - yet it was the language of civilisation in Europe for nearly two millennia.

In Spanish, genders help you tell the difference between His Holiness and a spud:

El Papa (masculine): the Pope

La papa (feminine): the potato

On a related note, when a new word comes up, who decides if it’s feminine or masculine? For example, say a new slang term or a term for a new technology enters the vernacular? If I wanted to say “I have a jones for coffee,” or “Look it up on the internet” in Spanish, is the gender of these new words determined by a committee of the language’s top academics? Or does someone somewhere just flip una moneda (feminine, “a coin”)?

I commented to my mom on how almost all new French words were given the masculin gender. She replied “Typical!”

What about non-European languages? Is a book gendered in Japan? Is a car gendered in Lesotho? Was Moctezuma’s hand gendered?

IIRC, my linguistics teacher said that languages tend to go through phases of picking up or dropping inflections (verb endings, etc) over time. English is obviously still losing them - the increasing rarity and archaic sound of “whom” being a good example. Apparently there are some languages that are still increasing in inflections, I’m not sure what though.

I believe that there is no gender at all in spoken Chinese – that is, not only are nouns ungendered, but they do not even have gendered pronouns to refer to humans or animals. I think there is a distinction in written Chinese, though.


Well, actually we do have genders, we just tend to use the neutral one to refer to inanimate objects and the masculine and feminine to refer to living creatures.

It may be worth noting here that gendered nouns need not be linked in any way to sex. It is more accurate to think of them simply as classifications of nouns. The tendency of Romantic languages to split things into masculine/feminine/neuter confuses things, but a masculine noun does not necessarily indicate that the object is in any way masculine in the sense of being manly. Some languages have even more than the familiar three genders, for instance there might be a seperate gender for nouns that indicate man-made rather than naturally occurring objects.

AFAIK Old English gender followed German gender almost totally with respect to cognates, although the cognates don’t always mean the exact same thing. For instance, IIRC the English cognate to German Tisch (table) is dish, which doesn’t mean the exactly the same thing but is obviously related in a way.

Check out The Story of English: as I remember, in the section about the transition from Old to Middle English, as the Anglo-Saxon tribes speaking different languages/dialects started to have greater contact (for purposes of trade, war, and the like), the languages were similar enough that they could ALMOST understand each other most of the time, but not quite. The differences were primarily in the gender/case endings of words. (If you’ve ever studied a language with cases, like German, Latin, or a Slavic language, you know the pain involved.)

For example, if German has four cases (which I’m not positive about), three genders, and singular/plural, that means words can have twenty-four possible REGULAR ens, not counting the irregular ones. So if you cut out either gender or case, you simply your life enormously. I hope I’m making sense; if not, check out the book. Or check it out anyway; it’s really interesting, at least to a language geek like me, and very readable.

Actually, I think all modern Romance languages have no neuter gender. Everything is masculine or feminine, even inanimate objects. But it is true that grammatical gender is just a classification of nouns. The word gender is related to the word genus, i.e., just a classification. In fact, isn’t it true that linguists often use the word genera instead of genders?

The case of German plurals is interesting. German used to have distinct genders and declensions in the plural, just as it still does in the singular. But at some point the plural genders all merged into one, and are declined and conjugated like a fourth gender.

So far, nobody’s really said anything to shed any light on the OP’s question, which is something I’ve always wondered about too. Where did this whole practice of assigning gender to nouns (other than people and animals that were obviously male or female) get started, and why? In the Old Days, did people really think of inanimate objects (and even abstract concepts) as being masculine or feminine?

I already covered this. People began assigning genders to nouns as a way to classify them. It need not have anything to do with sex, it’s just a way of organizing things.

But how? I’ve never caught a pattern in the assignment of masculine or feminine in French or Spanish.

Could be I’m just missing it as it’s been quite a while. But it’s a puzzler to me.

The OP was: why do languages have gender at all?

Indo-European languages have gender; English still has it only in the third-person singular pronouns he, she, it; otherwise completely lost. Persian is another Indo-European language that has lost gender completely, 100% — Persian has only one pronoun û meaning ‘he, she, it’ all in one.

In Modern Greek most new loanwords come into the language as neuter, usually by tacking on the neuter ending -i. For example, Arabic ‘araq ‘liquor’ (m.) > Greek raki (n.); Turkish ocak ‘hearth’ > Greek tzaki. They lose the initial vowel (aphesis) but tack on a final vowel to give it a neuter ending.

Afro-Asiatic languages (including Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Somali) have gender, but only masculine and feminine, no neuter. Verbs are gendered too, as well as adjectives; the gender of the verb has to agree with the subject. The second-person verbs and pronouns have gender.

Dravidian languages have masculine, feminine, and neuter, but this is not applied as thoroughly as in Indo-European; there’s no gender agreement for adjectives, and gender agreement for verbs and pronouns only happens in the third person.

Uralic, Altaic (including Korean and Japanese), Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, and Austronesian have no gender.

Bantu languages don’t do the masc.-fem. type of gender, but they have something that functionally works the same: noun classes. Adjectival and verb agreement is determined by the class a noun belongs to. The classes are broken down according to animate/inanimate and other such distinctions. And they have several more than just two or three; more like seven or eight!

Back to the OP: how did gender arise? This article from the sci.lang FAQ gives an interesting answer: