Why do most languages have Grammatical Gender on inanimate objects?

I don’t know what the OP counts as “European,” but Hungarian has no grammatical gender.

Hungarian is not an Indo-European language, IIRC.

ETA: It’s Ugric. Is Finno-Ugric still a legitimate category or has it been deprecated?

Ethnologue refers to the Uralic family, which includes the Samoyedic and Finno-Ugric languages according to the Wikipedia article on Uralic languages. However, Ethnologue does not use the terms “Samoyedic” or “Finno-Ugric” when it divides up the Uralic languages, so at least it seems to deprecate those terms.

As for why one would have grammatical gender in the first place, it can help to make some sentences clearer, such as connecting pronouns with their proper antecedents. For example, if I’m speaking a language where “cat” and “dog” have different genders, and I’m describing a fight between two strays that woke me up, I can say “He bit her”, and it’s clear which animal is doing the biting. Obviously this doesn’t clear up all ambiguities, but it certainly clears up some, so it’s still useful.

It is a common fallacy to think that grammatical meaning and gender are related. They are not. This goes for both animate and inanimate nouns. Animate things can be neuter; Inanimate things can be masculine or feminine. To think that because ‘horse’ is neuter in Dutch and German (het paard, das Pferd), this somehow reflects how Dutch and German people view or used to view horses I think is a huge mistakes. Similarly, in both these languages, the word for ‘girl’ is also neuter. Does this tell us something about how Germans and Dutchmen view girls? No, it’s just because ‘girl’ in these languages is a diminutive word - a suffix is added to change the meaning from ‘X’ into ‘small X’. All words ending in this suffix (-chen for German, -je for Dutch, grosso modo) are neuter (take ‘das’ or ‘het’). This is even more so the case for other languages. In Slavic languages, for close to 100 per cent of all nouns you can find out the gender by looking at the word ending, there’s very few exceptions. The same is true for Romance languages. Consider, for instance, all the words ending in -cion, in Spanish, or in -tion in French - they’re all feminine. Action, traction, you name it - and also ‘inaction’. For Germanic languages it is not that simple but there’s still at least some patterns.

What this boils down to is that there’s different sets of words that follow different patterns for different cases (i.e. have different declensions). Maybe the origin for these sets of words can be found in some perceptions of gender, way back in the day, but this is hardly the case anymore these days. Nowadays, masculine and feminine is just some arbitrary label attached to words from different declensions - that’s all.

Yes. There remain 4 distinct noun forms in the written language: hand, hand’s, hands, hands’. Unfortunate that three of them are pronounced identically for most nouns!

Loss of morphological distinctions may be compensated by syntax in the way you’ve suggested, but it can’t be a one-way trend over time, for the reasons discussed above. Otherwise we would all be speaking maximally isolating languages with grammar consisting entirely of word-order.


It’s a really well-written, fun and enjoyable book - I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language.

My understanding is that the simplification of English started earlier than that, with the mixture of various Germanic-speaking groups who emigrated to Britain after the collapse of Roman rule. English developed in part as a pidgen between these languages and dialects. Because the languages were similar in their word roots, but differed in the endings indicating gender, tense, etc, these tended to be dropped or homogenized.

English was heavily influenced by Norman French, but I think this was more in borrowing words than in changes in grammar.

Here’s the Wikipedia entry on grammatical gender:


Grammatical genders are just a particular case of noun classes:


Let me also recommend The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher. It’s the best explanation of how and why languages change you’re ever going to get unless you decide to get a degree in linguistics. It’s hard to know how to answer people who ask, “Why do other languages have these properties that my language doesn’t? What’s wrong with those people? Can’t they be as logical as we are?” All languages have peculiarities that only a minority of all languages have, and they thus look strange to most people. It’s far from clear that languages generally change in ways that could be described as simplification. Languages are complex systems that interact on many levels. Most changes, while they may be simplifications in one sense, make the language more complicated in other ways.

I remember hearing Joseph Campbell go on about how the French have a feminine Moon and the Germans have a masculine Moon, and how this showed how fundamentally different the cultures are, and there you have it: centuries of warfare. Pretentious ass. (And Bill Moyers sitting there obsequiously with this look on his face that said “That sounds fascinating; I wish I were intelligent enough to understand it.”)

In at least one group from Lindlar that was visiting on an exchange program that I mey they rarely used gender in the nominative when I heard them speaking in German, instead opting for a neutral “de” (approximately: duh) a lot of the time. Though it could have been an effect of them speaking English more than usual I’ll admit. Can’t remember what they did to other cases, my German was never great so it was tough following the conversations, but gender at least seemed to be retained in dative.

Anecdote is not data etc etc…

Well, yes, that’s why I qualified it with “I don’t know what the OP counts as European.”

The actual wording of the OP: “the only language in all of Europe” would seem to include Hungarian, regardless of its history.

Ah, okay. I misread your post, then.

But the neuter gender is a gender too.

The question would be “why do most European languages make so little use of the neuter gender?”

No, that wouldn’t be it, because most actually do use the neuter gender. The Romanic languages have simplified from Latin in the sense that they dropped the neuter gender, but the Germanic and the Slavic languages have retained it.

Spanish and Catalan both do have neuter gender, it’s only that, as I said, it’s very rarely used.

So, again, the question at least in that case would be why has the neuter dissapeared or almost.

In languages that have grammatical gender, is the number of words in each gender about equal, or are there languages where there are a lot more words of one gender than the other (or others, for languages with more than two genders)?

Wikipedia says it’s because, as Classical Latin evolved into Vulgar Latin, the s’s and m’s at the ends of words stopped being pronounced. When that happened, masculine and neuter words sounded the same, and the neuter gender got absorbed into the masculine in Vulgar Latin.

The Germanic and Slavic languages didn’t evolve from Vulgar Latin the way the Romance languages did, so of course this wouldn’t apply to them.

I’m going to have to call “cite” on the idea that ME was a creole. I took a class on the history of English last semester, and I saw no evidence of this. Burden of proof is on you.

As to the OP: Why do most languages have Grammatical Gender on inanimate objects? Most languages don’t. (Most Indo-European languages do.)

Could people please look up and see that I wrote that English was “almost the equivalent” of a creole? Not exactly the same thing.

Giles wrote that it helps to think of the changes in English as creoleization. It does. That may not be a technical explanation but the analogy is a good one.

I’ll defer to the technical experts on the formalities of whether English qualifies, but the argument is nothing new.


Yeah, creolization is a nice metaphor, but it’s not accurate. Language contact that does not result in a full-on creole can still lead to simplification. Bringing creoles into this conversation confuses the issue.

A more recent take on the subject by McWhorter:

Sorry to continue the hijack.

I’m reasonably certain that I regularly make use of several tenses. Is it really useful to insist that the only tenses that count are those that are formed strictly with verb endings as opposed to turning the verb into a verb phrase?