In linguistics, grammatical gender is a specific form of noun-class system in which the division of noun classes forms an agreement system with another aspect of the language, such as adjectives, articles, pronouns, or verbs. This system is used in approximately one quarter of the world's languages. In these languages, most or all nouns inherently carry one value of the grammatical category called gender; the values present in a given language (of which there are usually two or three) are called the genders of that language. According to one definition: "Genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behaviour of associated words."
- Consequences of gender
- Noun inflection
- Gender assignment
- Strict semantic criteria
- Mostly semantic criteria
- Correlation between gender and the form of a noun
- Apparent absence of criteria
- Nouns with more than one gender
- Genderless nouns
- Names occupations and nationalities
- Noun classes
- Noun classifiers
- Gender of pronouns
- Indefinite and dummy pronouns
- Grammatical vs natural gender
- Mixed and indeterminate gender
- Gender correspondence between languages
- Gender in words borrowed from one language by another
- Useful roles of grammatical gender
- Influence on culture
- By language
- Indo European
- Slavic languages
- Constructed languages
- Auxiliary languages
- Artistic languages
Common gender divisions include masculine and feminine; masculine, feminine and neuter; or animate and inanimate. In a few languages, the gender assignment of nouns is solely determined by their meaning or attributes, like biological sex, humanness, animacy. However, in most languages, this semantic division is only partially valid, and many nouns may belong to a gender category that contrasts with their meaning (e.g. the word for "manliness" could be of feminine gender). In this case, the gender assignment can also be influenced by the morphology or phonology of the noun, or in some cases can be apparently arbitrary.
Grammatical gender manifests itself when words related to a noun like determiners, pronouns or adjectives change their form (inflect) according to the gender of noun they refer to (agreement). The parts of speech affected by gender agreement, the circumstances in which it occurs, and the way words are marked for gender vary between languages. Gender inflection may interact with other grammatical categories like number or case. In some languages the declension pattern followed by the noun itself will be different for different genders.
Grammatical gender is found in many Indo-European languages (including Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, and German—but not Persian, for example), Afroasiatic languages (which includes the Semitic and Berber languages, etc.), and in other language families such as Dravidian and Northeast Caucasian, as well as several Australian Aboriginal languages such as Dyirbal, and Kalaw Lagaw Ya. Most Niger–Congo languages also have extensive systems of noun classes, which can be grouped into several grammatical genders. Conversely, grammatical gender is usually absent from the Altaic, Austronesian, Sino-Tibetan, Uralic and most Native American language families. Modern English is not considered to have grammatical gender, although Old English had it, and some remnants of a gender system exist, such as the distinct personal pronouns he, she, and it. However, aside from a handful of nouns such as "god" and "goddess", "duke" and "duchess", "tiger" and "tigress", and "waiter" and "waitress", gender is found almost exclusively in pronouns and titles.
In languages with grammatical gender, each noun is assigned to one of the classes called genders, which form a closed set. Most such languages usually have from two to four different genders, but some are attested with up to 20.
The division into genders usually correlates to some degree, at least for a certain set of nouns (such as those denoting humans), with some property or properties of the things that particular nouns denote. Such properties include animacy or inanimacy, "humanness" or non-humanness, and biological sex.
Few or no nouns can occur in more than one class. Depending on the language and the word, this assignment might bear some relationship with the meaning of the noun (e.g. "woman" is usually feminine), or may be arbitrary.
Gender is considered an inherent quality of nouns, and it affects the forms of other related words, a process called agreement. Nouns may be considered the "triggers" of the process, whereas other words will be the "target" of these changes.
These related words can be, depending on the language: determiners, pronouns, numerals, quantifiers, possessives, adjectives, past and passive participles, verbs, adverbs, complementizers, and adpositions. Gender class may be marked on the noun itself, but will also always be marked on other constituents in a noun phrase or sentence. If the noun is explicitly marked, both trigger and target may feature similar alternations.
Common systems of gender division include:
Other types of division or subdivision may be found in particular languages. These may sometimes be referred to as classes rather than genders; for some examples, see Noun class. In some of the Slavic languages, for example, within the masculine and sometimes feminine and neuter genders, there is a further division between animate and inanimate nouns – and in Polish, also sometimes between nouns denoting humans and non-humans. (For details, see below.) A human–non-human (or "rational–non-rational") distinction is also found in Dravidian languages.
Consequences of gender
The grammatical gender of a noun manifests itself in two principal ways: in the modifications that the noun itself undergoes, and in modifications of other related words (agreement). These are described in the following sections.
The gender of a noun may affect the modifications that the noun itself undergoes, particularly the way in which the noun inflects for number and case. For example, a language like Latin, German or Russian has a number of different declension patterns, and which pattern a particular noun follows may be highly correlated with its gender. For some instances of this, see Latin declension. A concrete example is provided by the German word See, which has two possible genders: when it is masculine (meaning "lake") its genitive singular form is Sees, but when it is feminine (meaning "sea"), the genitive is See, because feminine nouns do not take the genitive -s.
Gender is sometimes reflected in other ways. In Welsh, gender marking is mostly lost on nouns; however, Welsh has initial mutation, where the first consonant of a word changes into another in certain conditions. Gender is one of the factors that can cause one form of mutation (soft mutation). For instance, the word merch "girl" changes into ferch after the definite article. This only occurs with feminine singular nouns: mab "son" remains unchanged. Adjectives are affected by gender in a similar way.
Additionally, in many languages, gender is often closely correlated with the basic unmodified form (lemma) of the noun, and sometimes a noun can be modified to produce (for example) masculine and feminine words of similar meaning. See § Correlation between gender and the form of a noun, below.
Agreement, or concord, is a grammatical process in which certain words change their form so that values of certain grammatical categories match those of related words. Gender is one of the categories which frequently require agreement. In this case, nouns may be considered the "triggers" of the process, because they have an inherent gender, whereas related words that change their form to match the gender of the noun can be considered the "target" of these changes.
These related words can be, depending on the language: determiners, pronouns, numerals, quantifiers, possessives, adjectives, past and passive participles, verbs, adverbs, complementizers, and adpositions. Gender class may be marked on the noun itself, but can also be marked on other constituents in a noun phrase or sentence. If the noun is explicitly marked, both trigger and target may feature similar alternations.
As an example, we consider Spanish, a language with two noun genders: masculine and feminine. Among other lexical items, the definite article changes its form according to the gender of the noun. In the singular, the article is: el (masculine), and la (feminine). Thus, nouns referring to male beings carry the masculine article, and female beings the feminine article (agreement).
However, every noun must belong to one of the two categories—even nouns referring to sexless entities must be either masculine or feminine. Generally, a word that ends in "-a" is feminine and in "-o" masculine. However, not all words end in "a" or "o".
In the Spanish sentences Él es un buen actor "He is a good actor" and Ella es una buena actriz "She is a good actress", almost every word undergoes gender-related changes. The noun actor changes by replacing the masculine suffix -or with the feminine suffix -riz, the personal pronoun él "he" changes to ella "she", and the feminine suffix -a is added to the article (un → una) and to the adjective (buen → buena).
When a verb is used as a noun, it is almost always masculine.
On the other hand, the result of executing a verb is almost always feminine.
The following (highly contrived) Old English sentence provides similar examples of gender agreement.
The word hire "her" refers to lind "shield". Because 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 (like many other types of inflection in English) were later greatly simplified by sound changes, and then completely lost.
In modern English, by contrast, the noun shield takes the neuter pronoun it, because it designates a sexless 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" above with brave man or brave 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.
There are three main ways by which natural languages categorize nouns into genders: according to logical or symbolic similarities in their meaning (semantic), by grouping them with other nouns that have similar form (morphological), and through apparently arbitrary convention (lexical, possibly rooted in the language's history). In most languages that have grammatical gender, a combination of these three types of criteria is found, although one type may be more prevalent.
Strict semantic criteria
In some languages, the gender of a noun is directly determined by its physical attributes (sex, animacy, etc.), and there are few or no exceptions to this rule. There are relatively few such languages. The Dravidian languages use this system as described below.
Another example is the Dizi language, which has two asymmetrical genders. The feminine includes all living beings of female sex (e.g. woman, girl, cow...), and diminutives; the masculine encompasses all other nouns (e.g. man, boy, pot, broom...). In this language, feminine nouns are always marked with -e or -in.
Another African language, Defaka, has three genders: one for all male humans, one for all female humans, and a third for all the remaining nouns. Gender is only marked in personal pronouns. Standard English pronouns (see below) are very similar in this respect, although the English gendered pronouns (he, she) are used for domestic animals if the sex of the animal is known, and sometimes for certain objects such as ships, e.g. "What happened to the Titanic? She (or it) sank."
Mostly semantic criteria
In some other languages, the gender of nouns can again mostly be determined by physical (semantic) attributes, although there remain some nouns whose gender is not assigned in this way (Corbett calls this "semantic residue"). The world view (e.g. mythology) of the speakers may influence the division of categories.
An example is the Zande language, which has four genders: male human, female human, animal, and inanimate. However, there are about 80 nouns representing inanimate entities which are nonetheless animate in gender: heavenly objects (moon, rainbow), metal objects (hammer, ring), edible plants (sweet potato, pea), and non-metallic objects (whistle, ball). Many have a round shape or can be explained by the role they play in mythology.
The Ket language has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and most gender assignment is based on semantics, but there are many inanimate nouns outside the neuter class. Masculine nouns include male animates, most fish, trees, the moon, large wooden objects, most living beings and some religious items. Feminine nouns include female animates, three types of fish, some plants, the sun and other heavenly objects, some body parts and skin diseases, the soul, and some religious items. Words for part of a whole, as well as most other nouns that do not fall into any of the aforementioned classes, are neuter. The gender assignment of non-sex-differentiable things is complex. In general, those of no importance to the Kets are feminine, whereas objects of importance (e.g. fish, wood) are masculine. Mythology is again a significant factor.
The Alamblak language has two genders, masculine and feminine. However, the masculine also includes things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow (e.g. fish, snakes, arrows and slender trees), whereas the feminine gender has things which are short, squat or wide (e.g. turtles, houses, shields and squat trees).
The distinction between the gender of a noun and the gender of the object it refers to is clear when nouns of different genders can be used for the same object, e.g. French vélo (m.) = bicyclette (f.).
Correlation between gender and the form of a noun
In many other languages, nouns are assigned to gender largely without any semantic basis – that is, not based on any feature (such as animacy or sex) of the person or thing that a noun represents. However, in many languages there may be a correlation, to a greater or lesser degree, between gender and the form of a noun (such as the letter or syllable with which it ends).
For example, in Portuguese and Spanish, nouns that end in -o or a consonant are mostly masculine, whereas those that end in -a are mostly feminine, regardless of their meaning. (Nouns that end in some other vowel are assigned a gender either according to etymology, by analogy, or by some other convention.) These rules may override semantics in some cases: for example, the noun membro/miembro ("member") is always masculine, even when it refers to a girl or a woman, and pessoa/persona ("person") is always feminine, even when it refers to a boy or a man. (In other cases, though, meaning takes precedence: the noun comunista "communist" is masculine when it refers or could refer to a man, even though it ends with -a.) In fact, nouns in Spanish and Portuguese (as in the other Romance languages such as Italian and French) generally follow the gender of the Latin words from which they are derived. When nouns deviate from the rules for gender, there is usually an etymological explanation: problema ("problem") is masculine in Spanish because it was derived from a Greek noun of the neuter gender, whereas radio ("radio station") is feminine, because it is a shortening of estación de radio, a phrase whose head is the feminine noun estación. (Most Spanish nouns in -ión are feminine; they derive from Latin feminines in -o.)
Suffixes often carry a specific gender. For example, in German, diminutives with the suffixes -chen and -lein (meaning "little, young") are always neuter, even if they refer to people, as with Mädchen ("girl") and Fräulein ("young woman") (see below). Similarly, the suffix -ling, which makes 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 produces masculine nouns. And the German suffixes -heit and -keit (comparable with -hood and -ness in English) produce feminine nouns.
In Irish, nouns ending in -óir/-eoir and -ín are always masculine, whereas those ending -óg/-eog or -lann are always feminine.
In Arabic, nouns whose singular form ends in a tāʾ marbūṭa (traditionally a [t], becoming [h] in pausa) are of feminine gender, the only significant exceptions being the word خليفة khalīfah ("caliph") and certain masculine personal names (e.g. أسامة ʾUsāmah). However, many masculine nouns take a tāʾ marbūṭa in their plural; for example أستاذ ustādh ("male professor") has the plural أساتذة asātidha, which might be confused for a feminine singular noun. Gender may also be predictable from the type of derivation: for instance, the verbal nouns of Stem II (e.g. التفعيل al-tafʿīl, from فعّل، يفعّل faʿʿala, yufaʿʿil) are always masculine.
In French, nouns ending in -e tend to be feminine, whereas others tend to be masculine, but there are many exceptions to this (e.g. cadre, arbre, signe, meuble, nuage are masculine as façon, chanson, voix, main, eau are feminine). Certain suffixes are quite reliable indicators, such as -age, which when added to a verb (e.g. garer "to park" -> garage; nettoyer "to clean" -> nettoyage "cleaning") indicates a masculine noun; however, when -age is part of the root of the word, it can be feminine, as in plage ("beach") or image. On the other hand, nouns ending in -tion, -sion and -aison are all feminine.
Nouns can sometimes vary their form to enable the derivation of differently gendered cognate nouns; for example, to produce nouns with a similar meaning but referring to someone of a different sex. Thus, in Spanish, 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.
In the same way, personal names are frequently constructed with affixes that identify the sex of the bearer. Common feminine suffixes used in English names are -a, of Latin or Romance origin (cf. Robert and Roberta); and -e, of French origin (cf. Justin and Justine).
Although gender inflection may be used to construct nouns and names for people of opposite sexes in languages that have grammatical gender, this alone does not constitute grammatical gender. Distinct words and names for men and women are also common in languages which do not have a grammatical gender system for nouns in general. English, for example, has feminine suffixes such as -ess (as in actress, poetess, etc.), and also distinguishes male and female personal names, as in the above examples.
Apparent absence of criteria
In some languages, any gender markers have been so eroded over time (possibly through deflexion) that they are no longer recognizable. Many German nouns, for example, do not indicate their gender through either meaning or form. In such cases a noun's gender must simply be memorized, and gender can be regarded as an integral part of each noun when considered as an entry in the speaker's lexicon. (This is reflected in dictionaries, which typically indicate the gender of noun headwords where applicable.)
Second-language learners are often encouraged to memorize a modifier, usually a definite article, in conjunction with each noun – for example, a learner of French may learn the word for "chair" as la chaise (meaning "the chair"); this carries the information that the noun is chaise, and that it is feminine (because la is the feminine singular form of the definite article).
When learning a second language such as spanish speakers are encouraged to memorize articles (either the "el" or the "la" in front of the word. Generally they correspond with "-O" being masculine and "-A" being feminine. However it is worth noting that there are exceptions to this rule. Examples of some words that are considered exceptions would be el panda (the panda), el dia (the day), la mano (the hand), el cura (the priest), ect.
Nouns with more than one gender
It is relatively uncommon for a noun to have more than one possible gender. When this happens, it may be associated with a difference in the sex of the referent (as with nouns such as comunista in Spanish, which may be either masculine or feminine, depending on whether it refers to a male or a female), or with some other difference in the meaning of the word. For example, the German word See meaning "lake" is masculine, whereas the identical word meaning "sea" is feminine. In this sense it is used to disambiguate homonyms, especially when the different meanings are totally unrelated. For example, the Bulgarian word пръст (prəst) means "finger" when masculine and "soil" when feminine. In even rarer cases the gender may be ambiguous, e.g. in Bulgarian the word пу̀стош, (pustosh, "wilderness") may be either masculine (definite form пу̀стоша, pustoshə) or feminine (definite form пустошта̀, pustoshta) without any change in meaning and no preference in usage.
Sometimes a noun's gender can change between plural and singular, as with the French words amour ("love"), délice ("delight") and orgue ("organ" as musical instrument), all of which are masculine in the singular but feminine in the plural. These anomalies may have a historical explanation (amour used to be feminine in the singular too) or result from slightly different notions (orgue in the singular is usually a barrel organ, whereas the plural orgues usually refers to the collection of columns in a church organ). Further examples are the Italian words uovo ("egg") and braccio ("arm"). These are masculine in the singular, but form the irregular plurals uova and braccia, which have the endings of the feminine singular, but have feminine plural agreement. (This is related to the forms of the second declension Latin neuter nouns from which they derive: ovum and bracchium, with nominative plurals ova and bracchia.)
In Norwegian, many nouns could be either feminine or masculine according to the dialect, level of formality or whim of the speaker/writer. Even the two written forms of the language have many nouns whose gender is optional. Choosing the masculine gender will often seem more formal than using the feminine. This might be because before the creation of Norwegian Nynorsk and Norwegian Bokmål in the late 19th century, Norwegians wrote Danish, which has lost the feminine gender, thus making use of the masculine gender (corresponding exactly to Danish common gender in conjugation in Norwegian Bokmål) more old-fashioned and formal sounding to modern Norwegians. Let's take "sun" as an example noun. You might conjugate it masculine: "En sol, solen, soler, solene" or feminine "Ei sol, sola, soler, solene" in Norwegian Bokmål. The same goes for a lot of common words like "bok" (book), "dukke" (doll), "bøtte" (bucket) and so forth. Interestingly, many of the words where it is possible to choose gender are inanimate objects that one might suspect would be conjugated with the neuter gender, but for those nouns where a choice is possible, it is always between masculine and feminine. On the other hand, nouns conjugated with the neuter gender could never be conjugated as feminine or masculine in Norwegian. There is also a slight tendency towards using the masculine indefinite article even when choosing the feminine conjugation of a noun in many eastern Norwegian dialects. For instance, girl: "En jente - jenta - jenter - jentene".
In some languages the gender is distinguished only in singular number but not in plural. In terms of linguistic markedness, these languages neutralize the gender opposition in the plural, itself a marked category. So adjectives and pronouns have three forms in singular (e.g. Bulgarian червен, червена, червено or German roter, rote, rotes) but only one in plural (Bulgarian червени, German rote) [all examples mean "red"]. As a consequence Pluralia tantum nouns (lacking a singular form) cannot be assigned a gender. Example with Bulgarian: клещи (kleshti, "pincers"), гащи (gashti, "pants"), очила (ochila, "spectacles"), хриле (hrile, "gills"). The characteristic ending -а of очила suggests a neuter noun, but there is no way to cross-check it and there are indeed a few masculine nouns using the same ending in their plural (крака and рога are plurals of masculine крак "leg" and рог "horn"). However, the endings -и and -е do not make any such indications because they are ambiguous themselves: although -и is the regular ending for masculine and feminine nouns, both are in fact used to form plurals of nouns of all three genders (e.g. заводи, жени, насекоми from masculine завод "factory", feminine жена "woman" and neuter насекомо "insect" or крале, ръце, колене from masculine крал "king", feminine ръка "hand" and neuter коляно "knee").
Other languages, e.g. Serbo-Croatian, allow doubly marked forms both for number and gender. In these languages, each noun has a definite gender no matter the number.
Names, occupations, and nationalities
In some languages, some names have two forms, a male and a female one. This can be true of occupations and nationalities. For example, Andrew and Andrea in English, or Κωνσταντίνος and Κωνσταντίνα in Greek. Or actor and actress in English, but doctor for both, and ηθοποιός (actor) for both male and female in Greek and γιατρός (doctor) again for both, but with informal female variants γιατρίνα and γιάτραινα too. Finally, in the case of a nationality, in Greek there are five forms: male and female for people (and sometimes for other living beings), and masculine, feminine, and neuter for nouns. For example, English = Άγγλος, Αγγλίδα, αγγλικός, αγγλική, αγγλικό. To complicate matters, the Greek language often offers additional less formal versions of these. The corresponding for English are the following: Εγγλέζος, Εγγλέζα, εγγλέζικος, εγγλέζικη, εγγλέζικο. The formal forms come from the name Αγγλία (England), while the less formal are variants of the formal.
A noun may belong to a given class because of characteristic features of its referent, such as sex, animacy, shape, although in some instances a noun can be placed in a particular class based purely on its grammatical behavior. Some authors use the term "grammatical gender" as a synonym of "noun class", but others use different definitions for each.
Many authors prefer "noun classes" when none of the inflections in a language relate to sex, such as when an animate–inanimate distinction is made. Note however that the word "gender" derives from Latin genus (also the root of genre) which originally meant "kind", so it does not necessarily have a sexual meaning.
A classifier, or measure word, is a word or morpheme used in some languages together with a noun, principally to enable numbers and certain other determiners to be applied to the noun. They are not regularly used in English or other European languages, although they parallel the use of words such as piece(s) and head in phrases like "three pieces of paper" or "thirty head of cattle". They are a prominent feature of East Asian languages, where it is common for all nouns to require a classifier when being quantified – for example, the equivalent of "three people" is often "three classifier people". A more general type of classifier (classifier handshapes) can be found in sign languages.
Classifiers can be considered similar to genders or noun classes, in that a language which uses classifiers normally has a number of different ones, used with different sets of nouns. These sets depend largely on properties of the things that the nouns denote (for example, a particular classifier may be used for long thin objects, another for flat objects, another for people, another for abstracts, etc.), although sometimes a noun is associated with a particular classifier more by convention than for any obvious reason. However it is also possible for a given noun to be usable with any of several classifiers; for example, the Mandarin Chinese classifier 个 gè is frequently used as an alternative to various more specific classifiers.
Gender of pronouns
As noted above, pronouns may agree in gender with the noun or noun phrase to which they refer (their antecedent). Sometimes, however, there is no antecedent – the referent of the pronoun is deduced indirectly from the context. In such cases, the pronoun is likely to agree with the natural gender of the referent. Examples of this can be in most European languages, including English (the personal pronouns he, she and it are used depending on whether the referent is male, female, or inanimate or non-human; this is in spite of the fact that English does not generally have grammatical gender). A parallel example is provided by the object suffixes of verbs in Arabic, which correspond to object pronouns, and which also inflect for gender in the second person (though not in the first):
Not all languages have gendered pronouns. In languages that never had grammatical gender, there is normally just one word for "he" and "she", like dia in Indonesian, ő in Hungarian and o in Turkish. These languages might only have different pronouns and inflections in the third person to differentiate between people and inanimate objects, but even this distinction is often absent. (In written Finnish, for example, hän is used for "he" and "she" and se for "it", but in the colloquial language se is usually used for "he" and "she" as well.)
For more on these different types of pronoun, see Gender-specific pronoun and Gender-neutral pronoun. Issues may arise in languages with gender-specific pronouns in cases when the gender of the referent is unknown or not specified; this is discussed under Gender-neutral language, and in relation to English at Singular they.
In some cases the gender of a pronoun is not marked in the form of the pronoun itself, but is marked on other words by way of agreement. Thus the French word for "I" is je, regardless of who is speaking; but this word becomes feminine or masculine depending on the sex of the speaker, as may be reflected through adjective agreement: je suis forte ("I am strong", spoken by a female); je suis fort (the same spoken by a male).
In null-subject languages (and in some elliptical expressions in other languages), such agreement may take place even though the pronoun does not in fact appear. For example, in Portuguese:
The two sentences above mean literally "much obliged"; the adjective agrees with the natural gender of the speaker, that is, with the gender of the first person pronoun which does not appear explicitly here.
Indefinite and dummy pronouns
A dummy pronoun is a type of pronoun used when a particular verb argument (such as the subject) is nonexistent, but when a reference to the argument is nevertheless syntactically required. They occur mostly in non-pro-drop languages, such as English (because in pro-drop languages the position of the argument can be left empty). Examples in English are the uses of it in "It's raining" and "It's nice to relax."
When a language has gendered pronouns, the use of a particular word as a dummy pronoun may involve the selection of a particular gender, even though there is no noun to agree with. In languages with a neuter gender, a neuter pronoun is usually used, as in German es regnet ("it rains, it's raining"), where es is the neuter third person singular pronoun. (English behaves similarly, because the word it comes from the Old English neuter gender.) In languages with only masculine and feminine genders, the dummy pronoun may be the masculine third person singular, as in the French for "it's raining": il pleut (where il means "he", or "it" when referring to masculine nouns); although some languages use the feminine, as in the equivalent Welsh sentence: mae hi'n bwrw glaw (where the dummy pronoun is hi, which means "she", or "it" when referring to feminine nouns).
A similar, apparently arbitrary gender assignment may need to be made in the case of indefinite pronouns, where the referent is generally unknown. In this case the question is usually not which pronoun to use, but which gender to assign a given pronoun to (for such purposes as adjective agreement). For example, the French pronouns quelqu'un ("someone"), personne ("no-one") and quelque chose ("something") are all treated as masculine – this is in spite of the fact that the last two correspond to feminine nouns (personne meaning "person", and chose meaning "thing").
For other situations in which such a "default" gender assignment may be required, see § Mixed and indeterminate gender below.
Grammatical vs. natural gender
The natural gender of a noun, pronoun or noun phrase is a gender to which it would be expected to belong based on relevant attributes of its referent. This usually means masculine or feminine, depending on the referent's sex (or gender in the sociological sense). For example, in Spanish, mujer ("woman") is feminine whereas hombre ("man") is masculine; these attributions occur solely due to the semantically inherent gender character of each noun.
The grammatical gender of a noun does not always coincide with its natural gender. An example of this is the German word Mädchen ("girl"); this is derived from Magd "maidservant" with the diminutive suffix -chen, and this suffix always makes the noun grammatically neuter. Hence the grammatical gender of Mädchen is neuter, although its natural gender is feminine (because it refers to a female person).
Other examples include:
Normally, such exceptions are a small minority.
When a noun with conflicting natural and grammatical gender is the antecedent of a pronoun, it may not be clear which gender of pronoun to choose. There is a certain tendency to keep the grammatical gender when a close back-reference is made, but to switch to natural gender when the reference is further away. For example, in German, the sentences "The girl has come home from school. She is now doing her homework" can be translated in two ways:
Though the second sentence may appear grammatically incorrect (constructio ad sensum), it is common in speech. With one or more intervening sentences, the second form becomes even more likely. However, a switch to the natural gender is never possible with articles and attributive pronouns or adjectives. Thus it can never be correct to say *eine Mädchen ("a girl" – with female indefinite article) or *diese kleine Mädchen ("this little girl" – with female demonstrative pronoun and adjective).
This phenomenon is quite popular in Slavic languages: for example Polish kreatura (deprecative "creature") is feminine but can be used to refer both man (masculine gender), woman (feminine gender), child (neuter gender) or even animate nouns (e.g. a dog being masculine). Similarly with other deprecatory nouns as pierdoła, ciapa, łamaga, łajza, niezdara ("wuss, klutz"); niemowa ("mute") can used deprecatively as described previously, and then can be used for verbs marked for the male and female genders.
In the case of languages which have masculine and feminine genders, the relation between biological sex and grammatical gender tends to be less exact in the case of animals than in the case of people. In Spanish, for instance, a cheetah is always un guepardo (masculine) and a zebra is always una cebra (feminine), regardless of their biological sex. To specify the sex of an animal, an adjective may be 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, e.g. English cow and bull, Spanish vaca "cow" and toro "bull".
As regards the pronouns used to refer to animals, these generally agree in gender with the nouns denoting those animals, rather than the animals' sex (natural gender). In a language like English, which does not assign grammatical gender to nouns, the pronoun used for referring to objects (it) is often used for animals also. However, if the sex of the animal is known, and particularly in the case of companion animals, the gendered pronouns (he and she) may be used as they would be for a human.
In Polish, a few general words such as zwierzę ("animal") or bydlę ("animal, one head of cattle") are neuter, but most species names are masculine or feminine. When the sex of an animal is known, it will normally be referred to using gendered pronouns consistent with its sex; otherwise the pronouns will correspond to the gender of the noun denoting its species.
Mixed and indeterminate gender
There are certain situations where the assignment of gender to a noun, pronoun or noun phrase may not be straightforward. This includes in particular:
In languages with masculine and feminine gender, the masculine is usually employed by default to refer to persons of unknown gender, and to groups of people of mixed gender. Thus, in French the feminine plural pronoun elles always designates an all-female group of people (or stands for a group of nouns all of feminine gender), but the masculine equivalent ils may refer to a group of males or masculine nouns, to a mixed group, or to a group of people of unknown genders. In such cases, one says that the feminine gender is semantically marked, whereas the masculine gender is unmarked.
In English, the problem of gender determination does not arise in the plural, because gender in that language is reflected only in pronouns, and the plural pronoun they does not have gendered forms. In the singular, however, the issue frequently arises when a person of unspecified or unknown gender is being referred to. In this case it has been traditional to use the masculine (he), but other solutions are now often preferred – see Gender-neutral language and Singular they.
In languages with a neuter gender, such as Slavic and Germanic languages, the neuter is often used for indeterminate gender reference, particularly when the things referred to are not people. In some cases this may even apply when referring to people, particularly children. For example, in English, one may use it to refer to a child, particularly when speaking generically rather than about a particular child of known sex.
In Icelandic (which preserves a masculine–feminine–neuter distinction in both singular and plural), the neuter is used for indeterminate or mixed gender reference even when talking about people. For example, the greeting velkominn ("welcome") is altered depending on who is being spoken to:
Nevertheless, even in Icelandic, the feminine is considered somewhat more marked than the masculine.
In Swedish (which has an overall common–neuter gender system), masculinity may be argued to be a marked feature, because in the weak adjectival declension there is a distinct ending (-e) for naturally masculine nouns (as in min lillebror, "my little brother"). In spite of this, the third-person singular masculine pronoun han would normally be the default for a person of unknown gender, although in practice the indefinite pronoun man and the reflexive sig or its possessive forms sin/sitt/sina usually make this unnecessary.
In Polish, where a gender-like distinction is made in the plural between "masculine personal" and all other cases (see below), a group is treated as masculine personal if it contains at least one male person.
In languages which preserve a three-way gender division in the plural, the rules for determining the gender (and sometimes number) of a coordinated noun phrase ("... and ...") may be quite complex. Czech is an example of such a language, with a division (in the plural) between masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter. The rules for gender and number of coordinated phrases in that language are summarized at Czech declension § Gender and number of compound phrases.
Gender correspondence between languages
Nouns which have the same meanings in different languages need not have the same gender. This is particularly so in the case of things with no natural gender, such as sexless objects. There is nothing objective about a table, for example, which would cause it to be associated with any particular gender, and different languages' words for "table" are found to have various genders: feminine, as with the French table; masculine, as with German Tisch; or neuter, as with Norwegian bord. (Even within a given language, nouns that denote the same concept may differ in gender – for example, of two German words for "car", Wagen is masculine whereas Auto is neuter.)
Cognate nouns in closely related languages are likely to have the same gender, because they tend to inherit the gender of the original word in the parent language. For instance, in the Romance languages, the words for "sun" are masculine, being derived from the Latin masculine noun sol, whereas the words for "moon" are feminine, being derived from the Latin feminine luna. (This contrasts with the genders found in German, where Sonne "sun" is feminine, and Mond "moon" is masculine.) However, there are exceptions to this principle. For instance, arte ("art") is feminine in Italian, like the Latin word ars from which it stems, but in French, the corresponding word art is masculine. Likewise, the word for "boat" is neuter in German (das Boot), but common gender in Swedish (en båt).
Some more examples of the above phenomena are given below. (These come mostly from the Slavic languages, where gender largely correlates with the noun ending.)
Gender in words borrowed from one language by another
Ibrahim identifies several processes by which a language assigns a gender to a newly borrowed word; these processes follow patterns by which even children, through their subconscious recognition of patterns, can often correctly predict a noun's gender.
- If the noun is animate, natural gender tends to dictate grammatical gender.
- The borrowed word tends to take the gender of the native word it replaces.
- If the borrowed word happens to have a suffix that the borrowing language uses as a gender marker, the suffix tends to dictate gender.
- If the borrowed word rhymes with one or more native words, the latter tend to dictate gender.
- The default assignment is the borrowing language's unmarked gender.
- Rarely, the word retains the gender it had in the donor language. This tends to happen more frequently in more formal language such as scientific terms, where some knowledge of the donor language can be expected.
Sometimes the gender of a word switches with time. For example, the Russian modern loanword виски (viski) "whisky" was originally feminine, then masculine, and today it has become neuter.
Useful roles of grammatical gender
Ibrahim identified three possible useful roles of grammatical gender:
- In a language with explicit inflections for gender, it is easy to express the natural gender of animate beings.
- Grammatical gender "can be a valuable tool of disambiguation", rendering clarity about antecedents.
- In literature, gender can be used to "animate and personify inanimate nouns".
Among these, role 2 is probably the most important in everyday usage. Languages with gender distinction generally have fewer cases of ambiguity concerning, for example, pronominal reference. In the English phrase "a flowerbed in the garden which I maintain" only context tells us whether the relative clause (which I maintain) refers to the whole garden or just the flowerbed. In German, gender distinction prevents such ambiguity. The word for "(flower) bed" (Beet) is neuter, whereas that for "garden" (Garten) is masculine. Hence, if a neuter relative pronoun is used, the relative clause refers to "bed", and if a masculine pronoun is used, the relative clause refers to "garden". Because of this, languages with gender distinction can often use pronouns where in English a noun would have to be repeated in order to avoid confusion. It does not, however, help in cases where the words are of the same grammatical gender. (There are often several synonymous nouns of different grammatical gender to pick from to avoid this, however.)
Moreover, grammatical gender may serve to distinguish homophones. It is a quite common phenomenon in language development for two phonemes to merge, thereby making etymologically distinct words sound alike. In languages with gender distinction, however, these word pairs may still be distinguishable by their gender. For example, French pot ("pot") and peau ("skin") are homophones /po/, but disagree in gender: le pot vs. la peau.
Influence on culture
According to research by Lera Boroditsky, grammatical genders are among the aspects of languages that shape how people think (a hypothesis called "linguistic relativity"). In one study by Boroditsky, in which native speakers of German and Spanish were asked to describe everyday objects in English, she found that they were more likely to use attributes conventionally associated with the genders of the objects in their native languages.
For instance, German speakers more often described Brücke (f.) "bridge" with words like 'beautiful', 'elegant', 'fragile', 'peaceful', 'pretty', and 'slender', whereas Spanish speakers, which use puente (m.) used terms like 'big', 'dangerous', 'long', 'strong', 'sturdy', and 'towering'.
Also according to Boroditsky, the gender in which concepts are anthropomorphized in art is dependent, in 85% of all cases, on the grammatical gender of the concept in the artist's language. Therefore, in German art Tod (m.) "death" is generally portrayed as a man, but in Russian art смерть (f.) "death" is generally portrayed as a woman.
A problem with such arguments is that, as argued by Adèle Mercier, in French and many other languages the same class of objects can be referred to by words of different grammatical gender.
Grammatical gender is a common phenomenon in the world's languages. A typological survey of 174 languages revealed that over one fourth of them had grammatical gender. Gender systems rarely overlap with numerical classifier systems. Gender and noun class systems are usually found in fusional or agglutinating languages, whereas classifiers are more typical of isolating languages. Thus, these are main characteristics of gendered languages:
Many Indo-European languages, but not English, provide archetypical examples of grammatical gender.
Research indicates that the earliest stages of Proto-Indo-European had two genders (animate and inanimate), as did Hittite, the earliest attested Indo-European language. According to the theory, the animate gender, which (unlike the inanimate) had an independent accusative form, later split into masculine and feminine, thus originating the three-way classification into masculine, feminine and neuter.
Many Indo-European languages retained the three genders, including most Slavic languages, Latin, Sanskrit, Ancient and Modern Greek, and German. In them, there is a high but not absolute correlation between grammatical gender and declensional class. Many linguists believe that to be true of the middle and late stages of Proto-Indo-European.
However, many languages reduced the number of genders to two. Some lost the neuter, leaving masculine and feminine like most Romance languages (see Vulgar Latin § Loss of neuter; a few traces of the neuter remain, such as the distinct Spanish pronoun ello) and Hindustani and the Celtic languages. Others merged feminine and the masculine into a common gender but retained the neuter, as in Swedish and Danish (and, to some extent, Dutch; see Gender in Dutch grammar). Finally, some languages, such as English and Afrikaans, have nearly completely lost grammatical gender (retaining only some traces, such as the English pronouns he, she and it), and Bengali, Persian, Armenian, Assamese, Odia, Khowar, and Kalasha have lost it entirely.
On the other hand, some Slavic languages can be argued to have added new genders to the classical three (see below).
Although grammatical gender was a fully productive inflectional category in Old English, Modern English has a much less pervasive gender system, primarily based on natural gender and reflected essentially in pronouns only.
There are a few traces of gender marking in Modern English:
However, these are relatively insignificant features compared with a typical language with full grammatical gender. English nouns are not generally considered to belong to gender classes in the way that French, German or Russian nouns are. There is no gender agreement in English between nouns and their modifiers (articles, other determiners, or adjectives, with the occasional exception such as blond/blonde, a spelling convention borrowed from French). Gender agreement applies in effect only to pronouns, and the choice of pronoun is determined based on semantics (perceived qualities of the thing being referred to) rather than on any conventional assignment of particular nouns to particular genders.
It should also be noted that only a relatively small number of English nouns have distinct male and female forms; many of them are loanwords from non-Germanic languages (the suffixes -ress and -rix in words such as actress and aviatrix, for instance, derive from Latin -rix, in the first case via the French -rice). English has no live productive gender markers. An example of such a marker might be the suffix -ette (of French provenance), but this is seldom used today, surviving mostly in either historical contexts or with disparaging or humorous intent.
The gender of an English pronoun, then, typically coincides with the sex (natural gender) of its referent, rather than with the grammatical gender of its antecedent. The choice of she, he and it comes down to whether the pronoun is intended to designate a female, a male or something else. There are certain exceptions, however:
Problems arise when selecting a personal pronoun to refer to someone of unspecified or unknown gender (see also § Mixed and indeterminate gender above). Traditionally, the masculine has been used as the "default" gender in English. The use of the plural pronoun they with singular reference is common in practice. The neuter it may be used for a baby but not normally for an older child or adult. (Other genderless pronouns exist, such as the impersonal pronoun one, but they are not generally substitutable for a personal pronoun.) For more information see Gender-neutral language and Singular they.
The Slavic languages mostly continue the Proto-Indo-European system of three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. Gender correlates largely with noun endings (masculine nouns typically end in a consonant, feminines in -a and neuters in -o) but there are many exceptions, particularly in the case of nouns whose stems end in a soft consonant. However, some of the languages, including Russian, Czech, Slovak and Polish, also make certain additional grammatical distinctions between animate and inanimate nouns. In the case of Russian and Polish, in the plural, they differentiate between human and non-human nouns.
In Russian, the different treatment of animate nouns involves their accusative case (and that of adjectives qualifying them) being formed identically to the genitive rather than to the nominative. In the singular that applies to masculine nouns only, but in the plural, it applies in all genders. See Russian declension.
A similar system applies in Czech, but the situation is somewhat different in the plural (only masculine nouns are affected, and the distinctive feature is a distinct inflective ending for masculine animate nouns in the nominative plural and for adjectives and verbs agreeing with those nouns). See Czech declension.
Polish might be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter. The animate–inanimate opposition for the masculine gender applies in the singular, and the personal–impersonal opposition, which classes animals along with inanimate objects, applies in the plural. (A few nouns denoting inanimate things are treated grammatically as animate and vice versa.) The manifestations of the differences are as follows:
A few nouns have both personal and impersonal forms, depending on meaning (for example, klient may behave as an impersonal noun when it refers to a client in the computing sense). For more information on the above inflection patterns, see Polish morphology. For certain rules concerning the treatment of mixed-gender groups, see § Mixed and indeterminate gender above.
In the Dravidian languages, nouns are classified primarily on the basis of their semantic properties. The highest-level classification of nouns is often described as being between "rational" and "nonrational". Nouns representing humans and deities are considered rational, and other nouns (those representing animals and objects) are treated as nonrational. Within the rational class there are further subdivisions into masculine, feminine and collective nouns. For further information, see Tamil grammar.
Many constructed languages have natural gender systems similar to that of English. Animate nouns can have distinct forms reflecting natural gender, and personal pronouns are selected according to natural gender. There is no gender agreement on modifiers.
See also Gender-neutrality in languages with grammatical gender: International auxiliary languages and Gender-specific pronoun: Constructed languages.