Why do most languages have Grammatical Gender on inanimate objects?

According to linguist John McWhorter, “English is the only language in all of Europe that has no gender marking of the le crayon/ la plume type” (From: Doing our own thing (2003)". )

I realize that languages are not perfect, and many times there is no real reason behind usage. Nonetheless, the one thing I just can’t understand is why every European language besides English has inanimate objects as female or masculine? I can get it, technically speaking, that when the first train was built, a Frenchman called it le tren, since it is somewhat phallic. But overall, why did early man begin this gender assignment of what are in reality (dare I say) neuter-gendered inanimate objects, such as “keys” or “door”? And why has no language in Europe ever dropped this arbitrary (and if I dare say, to English speakers learning these other languages, inexplicable) gender assignment?

This must be the biggest thing in other European languages that strikes modern English speakers as odd. Is there any explanation as to why the ancients started this?

Most languages in Europe are related and belong to the Indo-European family of languages. Presumably they inherited this from proto-Indo-European, and English is odd because it lost grammatical gender during the Middle English period (1066-1500) – Old English (Anglo Saxon) does have grammatical gender.

There are other major languages which do not have grammatical gender, e.g. Chinese and Japanese, so English is not unique – only odd in the Indo-European context.

It all started with proto-Indo-European.

ETA: Giles got to it first. And better.

There’s at least one other Indo-European language that has lost grammatical gender: Afrikaans. Of course, although that’s spoken by the descendants of Europeans, it’s not a European language.

So if they came back, they’d bring Proto-Indo-European?

What most people don’t know is that early languages were far more linguistically complicated than modern languages, especially English, which has stripped out more endings than any other western language.

They had huge numbers of cases (Finnish still has 15), and divided the world into linguistic categories that no longer make sense to us. Word endings changed constantly and for multiple reasons.

One of these was sex. Probably not gender but sex. The world was divided not just into male and female of various animal species but male and female attributes that corresponded with their belief system. Originally these would be strictly applied and adhered to and therefore easily understood by all. Over time speakers would separate, dialects would form, new languages split off, new objects and situations appear that called for coining new words. These words would need to retain the older endings, like gender, but would be applied haphazardly because they no longer had ties to the original strictures.

Languages are controlled by speakers, not grammarians. They tend to simplify and lose unneeded complexities. At the same time, they also have inertia so that people don’t have to relearn everything about the language during their lifetime. These two forces compete against one another in each language. Most Indo-European languages have kept the gender endings. They’ve dropped other cases. Why exactly they’ve evolved this way and English hasn’t is the province for a specialist, although the imposition of Latinate languages on top of Germanic speaking culture starting in 1066 surely is a major reason for creating what is almost the equivalent of a creole, which is always simpler than the originating languages.

Yes, a lot about Modern English is explained if you think of it as derived from a creolisation of Old English and Anglo Norman French (with a little Medieval Latin thrown into the mix). However, this theory is somewhat controversial.

Unhelpful fact: twain, as in the fixed phrase “never the twain shall meet”, is a barely retained masculine form, alongside two, which is from the feminine or neuter form.

Don’t confuse the grammatical term “gender” with the usual meaning of that word. Grammatical gender just means that nouns get divided into different types and treated differently based on membership of these types. These types can correspond to “masculine” and “feminine”, but they need not do so, and can in fact be completely arbitrary. Swedish would be an example of a European language that does have gender, but where neither gender is either masculine or feminine.

My understanding is that Swedish and Dutch formerly had masculine, feminine and neuter genders, and that over time the masculine and feminine were combined into a common gender, leading to a 2-way division between common and neuter.

So it would seem - of 8 noun cases only two remain in English, we have only two tenses left, we’ve lost dual number and optative mood (and subjunctive mood is on the way out).

But this observation gives rise to the question of how language could continue indefinitely to lose grammatical complexity, without having reached a stage of ultimate simplicity, or how elaborate structures such as noun cases (for example) could come about in the first place, if languages always trend towards simplicity. This is analogous to the observation of erosion giving rise to the question of why the whole world is not now flat.

There is a very interesting book called “The Unfolding of Language” that addresses this apparent paradox - it convincingly shows how complexity is gained at the same rate as it is lost (but the loss of complexity is far more apparent to the speakers in any given era than the gains).

In fact “gender” originally mean such a grammatical category. It only secondarily came to mean “sex” (roughtly; please don’t complain that gender, unlike sex, is a social construct).

Is the controversy just about whether English meets the technical definition of a creole or something like that?
Because it seems hard to argue that Modern English isn’t derived from some kind of mix of Old English and Anglo Norman French (with a little Medieval Latin thrown into the mix). Does anyone really dispute that?

I can’t speak for Dutch, but for Swedish this is true, though the history is a bit more complicated, involving a fourth gender first splitting off from masculine and feminine (at least, I think it was both), before the three genders merged.

What’s the second? Genitive (possessive)?

It’s my understanding that with loss of noun cases comes an increased importance of word order. If noun forms distinguish, for example, subjects from direct objects (as in Latin), word order becomes unimportant in distinguishing “the man chased the bear” from “the bear chased the man”. I suppose that’s an example of trading one sort of complexity for another.

Yes. I’m not a linguist, but the controversy is about whether Middle English is a creole language. The origins of Middle English are very well documented.

English has extensive borrowings from Norman French, and undoubtedly has been influenced by it in other ways. But that doesn’t make it a creole.

Well… As I understand it, the Latin word genus (from which gender derives) had a basic meaning alongh the lines of “type” or “category”, but “sex” did exist as a more specific submeaning. I think the several meanings of this term have been with us for a long time.

Finnish has no genders at all, so that falsifies the linguist’s quote in the OP.

I think that’s generally true of Finno-Ugric languages, including Estonian and Hungarian as well. However, Basque (the other major European language outside the Indo-European family) does seem to have grammatical gender, though it’s not the usual Indo-European masculine/feminine distinction.

It historically is, however, just as American English is. Moreover, it fits well the general pattern of IE languages evolving towards the use of syntax to mark parts grammatical relationships rather than noun declension and verb conjugation. Danish, from which we get the word “are” is another example, being in some respects morphologically simpler even than English. The danish version of the word “are” is used for all the persons and numbers of the present tense “to be”–“am”, “is”, “are”. (Quoth Wikipedia).

Other telltale signs demonstrate the overarching relationship among the IE languages with respect to gender. For example, the various words for hand, in both Germanic and Romance languages, look like it “ought” to be either masculine or neuter: la main (French.), la mano (Spanish), die Hand/(Ger.), and hond (Old Norse) all betray characteristics that more usually belong to masculine or neuter nouns, mainly the single syllable composition ending in a consonant cluster, or in the case of Spanish, the *-o ending, which otherwise is almost always masculine. The German and Norse examples further show this in that their plurals, Haende and hendi are formed with umlaut; again, usually seen only in masculine or neuter nouns.

Apart from the analysis of IE languages and the custom of mapping grammatical gender to biological sex, it should be noted that the word gender is a cognate to genus and generic as used in taxonomy, and simply means a class or category of words. In other language families gender of nouns may not be mapped to biological sex at all, and there can be more than three. At least one African language has six genders.

It is arguable that IE is in general evolving away from grammatical gender. English is an obvious example, but most other Germanic languages show simplification of the grammatical gender structure. In Dutch, there remains the neuter (definite article het, but the masculine and feminine have merged into a so-called "common gender. Similar developments can be observed in some of the Scandinavian languages. In German itself, which remains the most morphologically intricate Germanic language, the early stages of a simplification process are underway, as the genitive case is merging with dative in certain constructions, and the plural genders long ago merged, causing the plural number to behave in many respects like a fourth gender.