If a language distinguishes between masculine and feminine gender, for instance, then each noun belongs to one of those two genders; in order to correctly decline any noun and any modifier or other type of word affecting that noun, one must identify whether the noun is feminine or masculine. The term "grammatical gender" is mostly used for Indo-European languages, many of which follow the pattern just described. Modern English, however, is normally described as lacking grammatical gender.
The linguistic notion of grammatical gender is distinguished from the biological and social notion of natural gender, although they interact closely in many languages. Both grammatical and natural gender can have linguistic effects in a given language.
Although some authors use the term "noun class" as a synonym or an extension of "grammatical gender", for others they are separate concepts. One can in fact say that grammatical gender is a type of noun class.
For example, in their nominative singular forms Polish nouns are typically feminine if they have the ending -a, neuter when they end with -o, -e, or -ę, and masculine if they have no gender suffix (null morpheme). Thus, encyklopedia "encyclopaedia" is feminine, krzesło "chair" is neuter, and ręcznik "towel" is masculine. When the adjective duży "big" is combined with these nouns in phrases, it changes form according to their grammatical gender:
|Masculine||ręcznik||duży ręcznik||big towel|
|Feminine||encyklopedia||duża encyklopedia||big encyclopaedia|
|Neuter||krzesło||duże krzesło||big chair|
As can be seen, the neuter gender does not include all nouns that correspond to genderless realities. Some of these may be designated by nouns that are grammatically masculine or feminine. Also, some nouns that refer to males or females may have a different grammatical gender. In general, the boundaries of noun classes are rather arbitrary, although there are rules of thumb in many languages. In this context, the terms "masculine", "feminine" and "neuter" should be understood merely as convenient labels. They are suggestive class descriptors, but not every member of a class is well described by its label.
Gender marking is not substantial in modern English. However, distinctions in personal pronouns have been inherited from Old English, in which nouns had grammatical gender, giving speakers of Modern English a notion of how grammatical gender works, although these gendered pronouns are now ordinarily selected based on the physical sex (or lack thereof) of the items to which they refer rather than any strictly linguistic classification:
A full system of grammatical gender involves two phenomena:Inflection: Many words have different forms for different genders, and certain morphological markers are characteristic of each gender.Agreement: Every noun is associated with one gender class. In a phrase or clause, words that refer to a given noun inflect to match the gender of that noun.
Spanish is also an example of a language with only two genders, masculine and feminine; it has no neuter noun class. Nouns that designate entities with no natural gender, such as objects or abstractions, are distributed among the masculine and the feminine. In a few other languages, notably Germanic languages like Swedish, the former masculine and feminine genders have become indistinguishable with time, merging into a new class called the common gender, which however remains distinct from the neuter gender.Common gender: includes most words that refer to males or females, but is distinct from the neuter gender.
Other languages still, like English, are regarded as not having grammatical gender, since they do not make gender distinctions through inflection, and do not generally require gender agreement between related words.
Some authors have extended the concept of "grammatical gender" to the expression of other types of natural, individual characteristics through inflection, such as animacy. See the section on gender across languages, below.
Grammatical gender (with masculine and/or feminine categories) is commonly found in Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European, Northeast Caucasian, and several Australian aboriginal languages. It is mostly absent in the Altaic, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, and Uralic language families. The Niger-Congo languages typically have an extensive system of noun classes, which some authors regard as a type of grammatical gender, but others describe as something completely different.
The switch from one gender to the other is typically achieved by inflecting appropriate words, the object suffix of the verb uħibbu-ka/ki in the Arabic example (gender is not marked in the first person, in Arabic), and the suffix in the past participle (or adjective) obrig-ado/a in the Portuguese example (literally this means "much obliged", with "I am" understood; thus it agrees with the gender of the speaker).
In Spanish, most masculine nouns and their modifiers end with the suffix -o or with a consonant, while the suffix -a is characteristic of feminine nouns and their modifiers (though there are many exceptions). Thus, niño means “boy”, and niña means “girl”. This paradigm can be exploited for making new words: from the masculine nouns abogado "lawyer", diputado "member of parliament" and doctor "doctor", it was straightforward to make the feminine equivalents abogada, diputada, and doctora.
Sometimes, gender is expressed in more subtle ways. On the whole, gender marking has been lost in Welsh, both on the noun, and, often, on the adjective. However, it has the peculiar feature of initial mutation, where the first consonant of a word changes into another in certain syntactical conditions. Gender is one of the factors that can cause mutation, especially the so-called soft mutation. For instance, the word merch, which means girl or daughter, changes into ferch after the definite article. This only occurs with feminine nouns; for example, mab "son" remains unchanged after the definite article. Adjectives are affected by gender in a similar way.
|Gender||Default||After definite article||With adjective|
|Masculine||mab||son||y mab||the son||y mab mawr||the big son|
|Feminine||merch||girl||y ferch||the girl||y ferch fawr||the big girl|
Personal pronouns often have different forms based on gender. Even though it has lost grammatical gender, English still distinguishes between "he" (generally applied to a male person), "she" (female person), and "it" (object, abstraction, or animal). But this also does not guarantee the existence of grammatical gender. There is a spoken form, "they", which although not part of the standard literary language, is cosmopolitan in the English-speaking world and is used when the gender of a person being referred to is not known (e.g. "This person doesn't know where they are going").
Gendered pronouns and their corresponding inflections vary considerably across languages. In languages that never had grammatical gender, there is normally just one word for "he" and "she", like dia in Indonesian, hän in Finnish and ő in Hungarian. These languages have different pronouns and inflections in the third person only to differentiate between people and inanimate objects (and even this distinction is commonly waived in spoken Finnish).
In languages with only a masculine and a feminine gender, the default dummy pronoun is usually the masculine third person singular. For example, the French sentence for "It's raining" is Il pleut, literally "He rains". There are some exceptions: the corresponding sentence in Welsh is Mae hi'n bwrw glaw, literally "She's raining". In languages with a neuter gender, the neuter gender is usually used: German: Es regnet, literally "It rains". In fact, the English word 'it' comes from the Old English neuter gender.
In the French sentences Il est un grand acteur "He is a great actor" and Elle est une grande actrice "She is a great actress", almost every word changes to match the gender of the subject. The noun acteur inflects by changing the masculine suffix -eur into the feminine suffix -rice, the subject pronoun il "he" changes to elle "she", and the feminine suffix -e is added to the article (un → une) and to the adjective (grand → grande).
The following "highly contrived" Old English sentence serves as an example of gender agreement.
|Old English||Seo brade lind wæs tilu and ic hire lufod.|
|Literal translation||That broad shield was good and I her loved.|
|Modern English||That broad shield was good and I loved it.|
The word hire "her" refers to lind "shield". Since this noun was grammatically feminine, the adjectives brade "broad" and tilu "good", as well as the pronouns seo "the/that" and hire "her", which referred to lind, must also appear in their feminine forms. Old English had three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, but gender inflections were greatly simplified by sound changes, and then completely lost (as well as number inflections, to a lesser extent).
In modern English, by contrast, the noun "shield" takes the neuter pronoun "it", since it designates a genderless object. In a sense, the neuter gender has grown to encompass most nouns, including many that were masculine or feminine in Old English. If one were to replace the phrase "broad shield" with "brave man" or "kind woman", the only change to the rest of the sentence would be in the pronoun at the end, which would become "him" or "her", respectively.
The grammatical gender of a word does not always coincide with real gender of its referent. An often cited example is the German word Mädchen, which means "girl", but is treated grammatically as neuter. This is because it was constructed as the diminutive of Magd (archaic nowadays), and the diminutive suffix -chen conventionally places nouns in the "neuter" noun class. A few more examples:
Normally, such exceptions are a small minority. However, in some local dialects of German, all nouns for female persons have shifted to the neuter gender (presumably further influenced by the standard word Weib), but the feminine gender remains for some words denoting objects.
In the plural, the masculine is often used to refer to a mixed group of people. Thus, in French the feminine pronoun elles always designates an all-female group of people, but the masculine pronoun ils may refer to a group of males, to a mixed group, or to a group of people of unknown genders. In English, this issue does not arise with pronouns, since there is only one plural third person pronoun, "they". However, a group of actors and actresses would still be described as a group of "actors".
In all these cases, one says that the feminine gender is semantically marked, while the masculine gender is unmarked.
Often, the masculine/feminine classification is only followed carefully for human beings. For animals, the relation between real and grammatical gender tends to be more arbitrary. In Spanish, for instance, a cheetah is always un guepardo (masculine) and a zebra is always una cebra (feminine), regardless of their biological sex. If it becomes necessary to specify the sex of the animal, an adjective is added, as in un guepardo hembra (a female cheetah), or una cebra macho (a male zebra). Different names for the male and the female of a species are more frequent for common pets or farm animals, eg. English horse and mare, Spanish vaca "cow" and toro "bull".
In English, individual speakers may prefer one gender or another for animals of unknown sex, depending on species — for instance, a tendency to refer more often to dogs as "he" and to cats as "she". However, if the gender is unknown, when speaking of an animal, "it" is used.
Several words ending in -aje in Spanish are masculine: viaje (travel), paisaje (landscape), coraje (courage). But their Portuguese translations are feminine: viagem, paisagem, coragem. Reversely, the Spanish word "nariz" (nose) is feminine, whereas the Portuguese word for "nose" is spelt identically, but it is masculine.
Also, in Polish the word księżyc "moon" is masculine, but its Russian counterpart луна is feminine. The Russian word for "sun", солнце, is neuter. Also, in Russian the word собака "dog" is feminine, but its Ukrainian counterpart (with the same spelling and almost identical pronunciation) is masculine.
There is nothing inherent about the moon or a potato which makes them objectively "male" or "female". In these cases, gender is quite independent of meaning, and a property of the nouns themselves, rather than of their referents.
Sometimes the gender switches: Russian тополь (poplar) is now masculine, but less than 200 years ago (in writings of Lermontov) it was feminine. The modern loanword виски (from whisky/whiskey) was originally feminine (in a translation of Jack London stories, 1915), then masculine (in a song of Alexander Vertinsky, 1920s or 1930s), and today it has become neuter (the masculine variant is typically considered archaic, and the feminine one is completely forgotten). In Polish kometa (comet) is nowadays feminine, but less then 200 years ago (in writing of Mickiewicz) it was masculine.
Sometimes, semantics prevails over the formal assignment of grammatical gender (agreement in sensu). In Latin, for example, nauta "sailor" is masculine, and nurus "daughter-in-law" is feminine, even though the endings -a and -us are normally associated with the feminine and the masculine, respectively. In Polish, the nouns mężczyzna "man" and książę "prince" are masculine, even though words with the ending -a are normally feminine and words that end with -ę are usually neuter. See also Synesis. Interestingly, in Sicilian dialect the noun indicating the male sexual organ is feminine (a minchia), while the female sexual organ is masculine (u sticchiu).
In Spanish, grammatical gender is determined by noun morphology. Since nouns that refer to male persons usually end in -o or a consonant and nouns that refer to female persons usually end in -a, most other nouns that end in -o or a consonant are also treated as masculine, and most nouns that end in -a are treated as feminine, whatever their meaning. (Nouns that end in some other vowel are assigned a gender either according to etymology, by analogy, or by some other convention.) Morphology may in fact override meaning, in some cases. The noun miembro "member" is always masculine, even when it refers to a woman, but persona "person" is always feminine, even when it refers to a man.
In German also, diminutives with the endings -chen and -lein (cognates of English -kin and -ling meaning little, young) are always neuter, which is why Mädchen "girl" and Fräulein "young woman" are neuter. Another ending, the nominalizing suffix -ling, can be used to make countable nouns from uncountable nouns (Teig "dough" → Teigling "piece of dough"), or personal nouns from abstract nouns (Lehre "teaching", Strafe "punishment" → Lehrling "apprentice", Sträfling "convict") or adjectives (feige "cowardly" → Feigling "coward"), always producing masculine nouns.
In Irish, nouns ending in -óir/-eoir and -ín are always masculine; those ending -óg/-eog or -lann are always feminine.
On the other hand, the correlation between grammatical gender and morphology is usually not perfect: problema "problem" is masculine in Spanish (this is for etymological reasons, as it was derived from a Greek noun of the neuter gender), and radio "radio station" is feminine (because it is a shortening of estación de radio, a phrase whose head is the feminine noun estación).
In some languages, gender markers have been so eroded by time that they are no longer recognizable, even to native speakers. Most German nouns give no morphological or semantic clue as to their gender. It must simply be memorized. The conventional aspect of grammatical gender is also clear when one considers that there is nothing objective about a table which makes it feminine as French table, masculine as German Tisch, or neuter as Norwegian bord. The learner of such languages should regard gender as an integral part of each noun. A frequent recommendation is to memorize a modifier along with the noun as a unit, usually a definite article, i.e. memorizing la table — where la is the French feminine singular definite article — der Tisch – where der is the German masculine singular nominative definite article — and bordet — where the suffix -et indicates the definite neuter singular in Norwegian.
Whether a distant ancestor of French, German, Norwegian, and English had a semantic value for genders is of course a different matter. Some authors have speculated that archaic Proto-Indo-European had two noun classes with the semantic values of animate and inanimate.
There are a few traces of gender marking in Modern English:
But these are insignificant features compared to a typical language with grammatical gender:
It is also noteworthy that, with few exceptions, the gender of an English pronoun coincides with the real gender of its referent, rather than with the grammatical gender of its antecedent, frequently different from the former in languages with true grammatical gender. The choice between "he", "she" and "it" invariably comes down to whether they designate a human male, a human female, or something else.
Many Indo-European languages, though not English, provide archetypical examples of grammatical gender.
Many linguists think the earliest stages of Proto-Indo-European had two genders, animate and inanimate, as did Hittite, but the inanimate gender later split into neuter and feminine, originating the classical three-way classification into masculine, feminine, and neuter which most of its descendants inherited. Many Indo-European languages kept these three genders. Such is the case with most Slavic languages, classical Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, and German, for instance. Other Indo-European languages reduced the number of genders to two, either by losing the neuter (like most Romance languages and the Celtic languages), or by having the feminine and the masculine merge with one another into a common gender (as has happened, or is in the process of happening, to several Germanic languages ). Some, like English and Afrikaans, have all but lost grammatical gender. On the other hand, a few Slavic languages have arguably added new genders to the classical three. In those ancient and modern Indo-European languages that preserve a system of noun declension (including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Slavic, and some Germanic languages), there is a high but not absolute correlation between grammatical gender and declensional class. Many linguists also believe this to be true of the middle and late stages of Proto-Indo-European.
Exceptionally for a Romance language, Romanian has preserved the three genders of Latin, although the neuter has been reduced to a combination of the other two, in the sense that neuter nouns have masculine endings in the singular, but feminine endings in the plural. As a consequence, adjectives, pronouns, and pronominal adjectives only have two forms, both in the singular and in the plural. The same happens in Italian, to a lesser extent.
Italian third-person singular pronouns have also a "neuter" form to refer to inanimate subjects (egli and ella vs. esso and essa). In fact, even in those languages where the original three genders have been mostly lost or reduced, there is sometimes a trace of them in a few words.
In Venetian, only the demonstratives have a neuter form referring to abstactions, so a distinction is made between varda questo "look at this thing" (neuter), varda 'sto qua "look at this one" (masculine eg. man, book, mobile) and varda 'sta qua "look at this one (feminine eg. woman, pen, hand); along the same line a distinction is made between l'è queło / queła "it's that thing/fact" (neuter), l'è qûeło là "it's that one" (masc.) and l'è qûeła là "it's that one" (fem.) where the "û" sound can be dropped only in the masculine and in the feminine which however take "là".
Some languages have gender-like noun classifications unrelated to gender identity. Particularly common are languages with animate and inanimate categories. The term "grammatical genders" is also used by extension in this case, although many authors prefer "noun classes" when none of the inflections in a language relate to sexuality. Note however that the word "gender" derives from Latin genus (also the root of genre) originally meant "kind", so it does not necessarily have a sexual meaning. For further information, see Animacy.
Some Slavic languages, including Russian and Czech, make grammatical distinctions between animate and inanimate nouns (in Czech only in the masculine gender; in Russian only in masculine singular, but in the plural in all genders). Another example is Polish, which can be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.
|It's a good teacher|
/ a good dog / good cheese.
|I see a good teacher|
/ a good dog / good cheese.
|I see good teachers|
/ good dogs / good cheeses.
dober učitelj / dober pes.
|It's a good teacher|
/ a good dog / good cheese.
dobrega učitelja / dobrega psa.
|I see a good teacher|
/ a good dog / good cheese.
See Polish language: Grammar, for further information.
The Dyirbal language is well known for its system of four noun classes, which tend to be divided along the following semantic lines:
The class usually labeled "feminine", for instance, includes the word for fire and nouns relating to fire, as well as all dangerous creatures and phenomena. This inspired the title of the George Lakoff book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (ISBN 0-226-46804-6).
The Ngangikurrunggurr language has noun classes reserved for canines, and hunting weapons, and the Anindilyakwa language has a noun class for things that reflect light. The Diyari language distinguishes only between female and other objects. Perhaps the most noun classes in any Australian language are found in Yanyuwa, which has 16 noun classes.
Some members of the Northwest Caucasian family, and almost all of the Northeast Caucasian languages, manifest noun class. In the Northeast Caucasian family, only Lezgian, Udi, and Aghul do not have noun classes. Some languages have only two classes, while the Bats language has eight. The most widespread system, however, has four classes, for male, female, animate beings and certain objects, and finally a class for the remaining nouns. The Andi language has a noun class reserved for insects.
Among Northwest Caucasian languages, Abkhaz shows a masculine-feminine-neuter distinction. Ubykh shows some inflections along the same lines, but only in some instances, and in some of these instances inflection for noun class is not even obligatory.
In all Caucasian languages that manifest class, it is not marked on the noun itself but on the dependent verbs, adjectives, pronouns and prepositions.
There are about 80 inanimate nouns which are in the animate class, including nouns denoting heavenly objects (moon, rainbow), metal objects (hammer, ring), edible plants (sweet potato, pea), and non-metallic objects (whistle, ball). Many of the exceptions have a round shape, and some can be explained by the role they play in Zande mythology.
Some natural languages have intricate systems of gender-specific vocabulary, which are not the same as grammatical gender.
In many such languages, what is commonly termed "animacy" may in fact be more accurately described as a distinction between human and non-human, rational and irrational, "socially active" and "socially passive" etc..