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Grammatical gender

Grammatical genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words. Every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be very few which belong to several classes at once (Definition from Hockett, 1958, p.231). All nouns belong to a specific gender c, which affects the inflection of the word and, usually, adjectives that modify it.

Table of contents

Noun classes

Most Indo-European languages excepting English have a gender system with two or three classes. There are African languages (especially the Bantu languages) which have a higher number of classes. One doesn't use the term gender in that context, the term noun class is used and these classes are usually numbered. In a more general sense gender corresponds to noun classes, a term used in a different linguistic tradition.

Indo-European languages

In Indo-European languages, genders typically include feminine, masculine and neuter. Latin has these three, but in many of its modern descendants, such as French and Spanish, the neuter gender has all but disappeared, though a few words, especially pronouns with no clear gender such as "cela" in French, have been assigned by some grammarians to a neuter gender. In other languages, feminine and masculine have merged into a common gender, for example, in Dutch and Danish. Other languages may group genders differently: Czech further divides the masculine gender into animate and inanimate groups; the Nostratic language, a theoretical language that gave rise to the Indo-European languages and other language families, is believed by its proponents to have had human, animal, and object as grammatical genders.

In common nouns, grammatical gender is usually only peripherally related to actual gender. For example, in Spanish, the word hijo (son) is masculine and hija (daughter) is feminine, as one might expect. This is called natural gender, or sometimes logical gender. Other times, there are elaborate (and mostly incomplete) rules to define a gender of a word. For example, in German, nouns ending in -ung (corresponding to -ing in English) are feminine, and car brand names are masculine. Words with the -lein and -chen ending (meaning smaller, younger) are neuter, thus quite unexpectedly the gender of Mädchen (little girl) is neuter. This is still arbitrary, and differs between cultures. The ancient Romans believed the Sun to be masculine and the Moon to be feminine (as in French, Spanish, Italian), but the Germans (and Germanic languages) express the opposite belief. The learner of a language thus must regard the gender as part of the noun, and memorize accordingly to use the language correctly.

In Indo-European languages that assign genders to all nouns, the genders often correspond roughly to declensions that govern the way the nouns are inflected. In Latin, for example, almost of the -a stem nouns of the first declension are feminine; the main exceptions are a handful of nouns that identify typically male roles like nauta, "sailor," or agricola, "farmer." Likewise, almost all of the -o stem nouns of the second declension that end in -us in the nominative case are masculine; those ending in -um are neuter. Names of places and trees are feminine though, like ulmus, "elm," or Ægyptus, "Egypt." Most other Indo-European languages that have retained declensional systems have similar rules.

Languages without gender marking on nouns

Even if a language has no concept of gender in nouns, personal pronouns often have different forms based on the natural gender of the reference, but this is not the same concept. Gendered pronouns variably considerably across languages: there are languages that have different pronouns in the third person only to differentiate between humans and inanimate objects, like Hungarian and Finnish. Others have a wide range of personal pronouns to describe how they relate to the speaker. ( Inuktitut language?).

Personal names

Personal names often have characteristic culture-specific forms that identify the gender of the bearer. For example, in an English-speaking culture, John (masculine) and Joan or Jane (feminine) are gendered variants on the Hebrew name of John the Evangelist. Again, this is natural gender, and not necessarily grammatical gender.

Gender in other contexts

The word gender has come to be used in place of sex in political or legal discussions of rights and practices regarding men and women and the relationships between them.

Also not to be confused with grammatical gender are the variety of gender-describing common names some tribal languages have for intersexuals.

References

  • Charles F. Hockett, A Course in Modern Linguistics, Macmillan, 1958
  • Greville G. Corbett, Gender, Cambridge University Press, 1991 - A comprehensive study; looks at 200 languages.



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