Some facts about gender

One of the most interesting phenomena found in languages is gender. In its linguistic sense, gender refers to the phenomenon where nouns are divided into a number of different classes which can be distinguished due to the fact that words associated with nouns, like pronouns, determiners, adjectives and verbs, often appear in different forms depending on the gender of the nouns they are associated with (this is called gender agreement). For example, in German the word for ‘the’ is der when it is attached to masculine nouns like Mann ‘man’, die when it is attached to feminine nouns like Frau ‘women’ and das when it is attached to neuter nouns like Kind ‘child’. The main reason gender is such an interesting phenomenon is probably that is not at all obvious why it exists. Language is generally thought of as a means of communication, but it is hard to see how gender systems aid communication. Even if there might be some benefits, any explanation has to account for the high prevalence of gender systems in languages worldwide: in the WALS‘s sample 112 out of 257 languages, about 44%, make some kind of distinction between two or more genders.

Something people aren’t always aware of is that English has gender as well. In fact, it has three genders, like German: masculine, feminine and neuter. Admittedly, there are two differences between the gender system of English and the gender systems of languages like French and German which make gender a less prominent phenomenon in English.

Firstly, in English, gender agreement only occurs with pronouns. The words he, she and it are used to refer to males, females and non-gendered things, respectively, and using the wrong pronoun for a given referent is considered grammatically incorrect.1 On the other hand, in French and German gender agreement also occurs with determiners and adjectives, and in written French, and in both spoken and written Russian gender agreement also occurs with verbs. Languages like English where gender agreement only occurs with pronouns are said to have pronominal gender systems. But promoninal gender systems are gender systems nonetheless. Remember above I said that only 44% of the languages in the WALS’s sample distinguish two or more genders: well, English and other languages are counted among that 44%, so a majority—56%—of the languages in the sample show no gender agreement, not even in pronouns. In fact, pronominal gender systems are quite rare, and it is likely that most of them are the result of not-quite-complete loss of an original, more extensive gender system. This is certainly the case for English. I think it’s quite possible that in the future, English will lose the last vestiges of its gender system as people switch to using they to refer to people without regard to gender in all circumstances, as they already tend to do when the gender of a person is unknown.

Secondly, English gender assignment corresponds almost exactly to the meaning of the referent. Perhaps the only exception is that ships are often referred to as she, but even this is optional. On the other hand, in French and German there are many things which do not have a gender but are classified as masculine or feminine. It’s not the case that speakers of these languages define gender in a different way from English speakers: French people do not actually think that curtains are male and tables are female, even though they say un rideau, not *une rideau and une table, not *un table. And in German, Gardine ‘curtain’ is feminine and Tisch ‘table’ is masculine, so it seems unlikely that the choice of genders for these objects is based on any inherent association of them with masculinity or femininity given that two neighbouring peoples sharing similar cultures have made the assignments in two completely different ways. The French and German masculine and feminine genders just contain a lot of other things besides males and females. In fact, in German, there is an example which goes the other way. Mädchen ‘girl’ should be feminine given the meaning2, but it is actually neuter: Germans say das Mädchen, rather than *die Mädchen.3

There is, however, an important difference between the assignment of Mädchen to the neuter gender and the assignment of Tisch and Gardine to the masculine and feminine genders respectively. The reason Mädchen is neuter is that it it is formed from the word Magd ‘maiden’ by adding the dimunitive suffix -chen, and there is a rule in German that says that every word formed by adding the suffix -chen is neuter. Many German suffixes are associated with a particular gender; for example, nouns in -heit, -keit and -schaft are always feminine, and nouns in -lein (which is another dimunitive suffix) are always neuter. The associations of these suffixes with particular genders constitute a rule which overrides the rule that every word that refers to males is masculine and every word that refers to females is feminine. So, in German gender assignment is determined by (at least) two rules, which are applied in sequence.

  1. If the noun is formed with the suffixes -heit, -keit or -schaft, assign it to the feminine gender, and if the noun is formed with the suffixes -chen or -lein, assign it to the neuter gender. (Note: there are other suffixes which should be mentioned in this rule, as well, but I’m not intending to precisely describe German gender assignment here, just to show you the general outline of how the system works.)
  2. If the noun refers to males, assign it to the masculine gender. If the noun refers to females, assign it to the feminine gender.

Note that the first rule is formal in nature (it refers to how the words are formed) while the second rule is semantic in nature (it refers to what the words mean). The existence of formal rules is responsible for another way in which English gender assignment is different from French and German assignment. In English, gender is a property of referents, not of the nouns themselves. But in French and German, gender is more a property of the nouns themselves. In these languages, it is possible for the same thing to be referred to by two different nouns of different genders. For example, in French, the word vélo is masculine and the word bicyclette is feminine; this is because bicyclette ends in the feminine dimunitive suffix -ette.

These rules are not sufficient to assign every German noun to a gender. Of course, this is not meant to be a complete list. But there is an interesting question here: can a list of rules based on formal and semantic factors account for the gender assignment of every noun in German? Or are there some words whose gender assignment is simply arbitrary?

If you have any knowledge of German, you might find it hard to believe that gender assignment is not mostly arbitrary. People who know French would probably also expect gender assignment in that language to also be mostly arbitrary. However, quite a few studies have been carried out which have shown that gender in French is mostly predictable via phonological rules: that is, rules that take into account the sound of the word. For example Tucker, Lambert & Rigault (1977) found that 94% of French nouns ending in the sound /ʒ/ (such as ménage ‘housekeeping’) are masculine. There are exceptions: orange ‘orange’ is feminine. But by using rules like this, Tucker, Lambert & Rigault were able to correctly determine the genders of 85% of the nouns in the Petit Larousse, a famous French dictionary. Since they did not take into account semantic (i.e. relating the meanings of words) and morphological (i.e. relating to the composition of words from prefixes, suffixes, etc.) factors, and the phonological rules they found could probably be made more accurate, it is quite likely that the vast majority of French nouns are predictably gendered. Given this surprising result, it is possible that a lot more of German assignment is predictable than you might think. Köpcke & Zubin (1984) were able to find a large amount of regularity using similar techniques, although the rules appear to be more complex than the rules in French. Of course, the more complex the assignment rules are, the less useful they are for prediction because it is difficult for learners to remember them all and apply them quickly. There is no bright line between gender being hard to predict and gender being completely unpredictable, since if you just have one rule for every word in the language saying “this word is masculine / feminine / neuter”, then that is still a set of rules. The conclusion I would draw from results like those of Tucker, Lambert & Rigault is that French and German gender is more predictable than you might think, even though it is often not fully predictable in practice.

Few gender systems have been studied as much as the French and German gender systems have, so it is possible that we might find languages that have significantly more unpredictable gender assignment rules. But it would be surprising, since predictable assignment rules are a lot more convenient for learners. I think it’s more likely that in all languages that distinguish different genders, gender assignment is to a large degree predictable.

Another interesting example of a language with apparently unpredictable gender assignment is Ojibwa. In Ojibwa there are two genders which are called the animate and inanimate genders. These genders have nothing to do with sex (the word gender comes from the French word genre, which just means type; it can refer to any kind of distinction between nouns that is reflected in agreement). Nouns that denote people, animals, trees or supernatural beings are always animate. Most other nouns are inanimate. But there is a fairly large group of nouns that seem like they should be in the inanimate gender, but are actually animate. These include ekoːn ‘snow’, enank ‘star’, esseːmaː ‘tobacco’, mentaːmin ‘maize’, meskomin ‘raspberry’ and ekkikk ‘kettle’ (Bloomfield 1957). Now, some of these might be explainable as resulting from differences in which things are considered to possess a gender. For example, it is very common, cross-linguistically and cross-culturally, for celestial bodies such as stars to be identified with supernatural beings, who have a gender. And given that trees are considered animate in Ojibwa, it’s possible that other plants like tobacco and maize might be considered animate as well. But other examples like ekoːn ‘snow’ being animate are harder to explain. There is no generally-accepted explanation for the composition of the Ojibwa animate gender, but Black-Rogers (1982) has an interesting one. According to Black-Rogers, the Ojibwa lack a clear distinction between natural and supernatural abilities. They believe that even fairly mundane activities like beadwork are only possible because of powers that have been granted to humans via supernatural means. Inanimate objects, in particular, may be sources of power. Different speakers may disagree as to which objects have power, and power may be considered to come from different sources at different times. Black-Rogers proposed that when an object is considered to be a source of power speakers start assigning it to the animate gender. She was able to explain many of the problematic animate nouns by this means. For those she wasn’t able to explain, she suggests that objects assigned to the animate gender tend to stay there, so there may be animate nouns which refer to objects that were formerly considered to be sources of power, but no longer are today. So Ojibwa gender assignment is to some extent arbitrary from a synchronic perspective, but in diachronic perspective it can be completely explained by semantic factors. Black-Rogers’s explanation may or may not be true, but I brought up the example to show you that highly unpredictable gender assignments can also be influenced mainly by semantic factors, rather than by formal factors as in the case of French and German.

Another interesting question about gender is whether there are any languages where gender assignment is determined entirely by formal factors, so that semantic factors are irrelevant. Now, it’s true that in many languages formal rules can almost entirely predict gender assignment. In Hausa, for example, there is a very simple rule: nouns ending in -aa are feminine, and all other nouns are masculine. There are some exceptions to the rule, but they are few in number. However, semantic factors are not irrelevant. If they were, then we would not expect nouns referring to males to be masculine and nouns referring to females to be feminine, because there is no reason why nouns referring to females should end in -aa but other nouns should not. In fact, the vast majority of nouns referring to females end in -aa and are feminine. Historically, the correlation between the feminine gender and the -aa suffix did not exist, or was less strong. What happened was that a suffix -nyàa was used to form nouns denoting females, and this resulted in -aa being associated with nouns denoting females, so that all such nouns ended up having the suffix -aa added to them.

Hausa gender, then, is not determined only by formal factors, and in fact it seems that there are no languages where gender is determined only by formal factors. In general, gender distinctions seem to always be fundamentally based on semantic rules of the form “all nouns with meanings of type A are assigned to gender X” (so the gender X contains all nouns of type A, but not necessarily only nouns of type A). These rules give each gender an initial set of nouns called its “semantic core”. Then semantic associations and formal rules are sufficient to assign the vast majority of remaining nouns to one of the genders, and they may shift nouns within the semantic core of one gender to a different gender as well.

So, I’ve talked a bit about about gender assignment and the interaction between formal and semantic factors here, but there are lots more interesting things to talk about with respect to gender in languages, such as: what kind of distinctions tend to be drawn? Male vs. female, animate vs. inanimate are very common—any others? What can borrowings tell us about gender assignment? What can we say about nouns which appear to have characteristics of multiple genders (like German Mädchen)? How do gender systems develop and change over time? How are gender systems acquired by language learners? If you’re interested, I recommend Gender (1991) by Greville Corbett. This post is based on the first few chapters of that book.

Footnotes

  1. ^ There is a known phenomenon where English speakers sometimes refer to things that would normally be referred to by it by he or she instead; for example a teenage boy told a surfer, referring to a wave: “Catch her at her height!” (Corbett 1991). But this occurs only in particular circumstances; it is clearly the usual pronoun used to refer to these things.
  2. ^ It is common, cross-linguistically and cross-culturally, for children to be non-gendered, and indeed Kind ‘child’ is neuter; however, Junge ‘boy’, and its older synonym Knabe are both masculine, so we would expect Mädchen to be feminine in parallel.
  3. ^ However, in colloquial German pronouns often agree with Mädchen as if it was feminine: Kennst du das Mädchen? Nein, ich kenne sie nicht, not … kenne es nicht.

References

Black-Rogers, Mary B. 1982. Algonquian Gender Revisited: Animate Nouns and Ojibwa ‘Power’ – an Impasse? Papers in Linguistics 15. 59-76.

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1957. Eastern Ojibwa: Grammatical Sketch, Texts and Word List. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Corbett, G. G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Köpcke, K. M. & Zubin, D. 1984. Sechs Prinzipien für die Genuszuweisung im Deutschen: Ein Beitrag zur natürlichen Klassifikation. Linguistische Berichte 93: 26-50.

Tucker, G. R., Lambert, W. E., & Rigault A. A. 1977. The French speaker’s skill with grammatical gender: An example of rule-governed behavior. The Hague: Mouton de Gruyter.

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