In order to properly systematise a language, it’s important to group together words that have some aspects in common. That way, you simply need to learn a limited amount of grammar rules that apply to these classes, instead of learning every single word and how it behaves. And, in linguistics, gender is simply another way of creating these noun classes. In fact, in some cases, the terms “grammatical gender” and “noun class” are used as synonyms.
It is, however, a rather fascinating way of grouping together words. While many nouns do have rather obvious ties to real-life, natural genders (“girl”, boy”), most do not (“table”, “door”). Which makes assigning grammatical genders to words a peculiar, and somewhat arbitrary, task.
And yet, gender is a surprisingly common way of classifying nouns, present in around one quarter of world’s languages.
Many Languages Have Grammatical Genders
For native English-speakers, it can be surprising to encounter gendered words in other languages but this is, actually, a rather common phenomenon. Although there are disagreements over how many languages exist on the planet, it is estimated that around a quarter in existence make use of grammatical genders. It’s a very common way of classifying nouns in parts of the world – most Indo-European languages make use of grammatical genders, as do others, common in the Middle East and Africa. German, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, and Hebrew, among others, all have varying numbers of grammatical genders. Interestingly, there are also regions with very few gendered languages – mostly in Asia and among the native languages in North America.
Even Old-English, the predecessor of the modern day version, had a complex system of grammatical gender. While contemporary English has done away with most of it, some remnants still stick around. The most obvious are, of course, the personal pronouns (“he”, “she”, “it”) but there are even a few words still in use that have distinct male-female forms. Consider “steward – stewardess”, “waiter-waitress”, “god-goddess”, and you’ll see how grammatical gender still influences how we speak.
Different Genders in Languages
Another interesting aspect of grammatical gender, as it was used in Old English, is the different ways nouns were grouped together. Sure, there is the obvious male-female distinction, but you can also see the animate-inanimate differences: “he” and “she” vs “it”. As it turns out, next to masculine and feminine nouns, one way of classifying nouns is to distinguish between animate and inanimate objects. Another common division includes adding a third – neuter – gender. While most Romance languages today only have the male-female distinction, there are many other languages that have introduced the additional neuter gender. German, Dutch, and the Slavic languages are just a few examples.
Interestingly, although Scandinavian languages are very closely related to each other, they use somewhat different gender systems. Norwegian distinguishes between the masculine, feminine, and neuter words, while in Swedish and Danish the masculine and feminine have merged into one common gender that is used to refer to people.
With these languages, the gender classes are still rather limited, including only two or three categories, but there a lot more extreme examples of classifying nouns. Some languages indigenous to Australia had different noun genders for weapons or food, for example. Additionally, in the Congo region in Africa, you can find the Fula language that boasts around twenty genders (the numbers varies from dialect to dialect). Interestingly, natural sex is not a part of the classification – human males and females are grouped together under one gender. It does, however, feature a separate noun class for long things, globular objects, and a completely separate one for words like “cow”, “fire”, “sun”, and “hunger”.
How Did Grammatical Genders Develop?
This is an important question for anyone who has tried learning a language with gender differences when their native language had none. It’s confusing and somewhat infuriating to discover the differences between masculine and feminine nouns and how they behave when complex grammar comes into play.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. Since languages developed before written records started and are in constant evolution, it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause-and-effect timeline. There are a few theories, however.
For example, it is possible that it all started with the animate-inanimate distinction, as a way of grouping together words that share some “idea” or quality. Since nouns in a single class share the way they are changed by words related to them – adjectives, determiners, and such – this helps to classify and analyse the world surrounding us. After that, humans and animals got grouped in the animate class. Plants, trees, and other things that do not visibly move got thrown in the inanimate bunch.
From there, it’s easy to see how the masculine and feminine distinctions might have got a start in the animate class – differences between lions and lionesses, cows and bulls, ewes and rams, men and women are all quite clear. Once these classes became widely spread, it probably became necessary to distinguish between all nouns like that. And so, allocating a gender to things that seemingly have none – as la llave or der Kuchen – started.
Differences Between Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter Words
Another interesting aspect of grammatical gender in languages is that there seems to be no consensus on what makes a word (or object the word is referring to) either masculine, feminine, or neuter. In German, you get the curious examples of the word for “girl” being neuter – das Mädchen – and the word for “manliness” being feminine – die Männlichkeit.
Neither can even closely related languages that have gendered nouns agree amongst each other which words should belong to which gender. For example, while there are a lot of similarities in word genders in Romance languages (thanks to their common ancestry in Latin), there are also plenty of exceptions: el color, la labor in Spanish and la couleur, le labeur in French, “milk” is masculine in both Italian and Portuguese – il latte and o leite – and feminine in Spanish – la leche.
Additionally, not even native speakers can often agree on what gender particular words belong in. According to one study, native French speakers were unable to agree on appropriate genders for select words. When a group of 56 of them were asked to assign gender to some nouns, they agreed on one out of fifty feminine words. While masculine words went somewhat better, the group still only managed to agree on seventeen out of 93.
To make matters even more confusing, there are also regional differences in word genders. In different parts of the German-speaking world, the word for “yoghurt” can take all three possible genders – der Joghurt, die Joghurt, das Joghurt. There are also heated debates on whether to call the delicious jar of chocolatey goodness das Nutella or die Nutella.
This arbitrary classification of words into different genders actually has rather far-reaching consequences. Read more about how grammatical gender affects language and thought in our next blog post.
Conclusion – Gender is a Common Way of Classifying Nouns But with Little Agreement Between Languages
While around a quarter of the world’s languages have grammatical genders, there is surprisingly little agreement in how to classify particular nouns. Even among languages that are very closely related to each other, differences in word genders are common, and the divergence only grows between less connected languages.
While masculine and feminine are only one way of creating noun classes, it seems to be one of the most popular options, with some languages adding the neuter gender. Of course, more extreme examples exist of languages with more than a dozen genders. In most European languages, two or three genders do the trick, however.
These days, the differences between masculine and feminine words may seem arbitrary, but there must have been a good reason for such systems to develop. One theory is that categorising nouns in such a way helps people to keep track of the subject in a long and complex sentence since the adjectives and determiners would take on the typical gender inflections. Or words could simply have been grouped together based on some other characteristic that was obvious to our forefathers but has since died out.