Evolution of word gender in languages

gordon e-d

Member
english :England
Moderator note: See also this related thread about the gendering of abstract nouns.

One of the biggest problems for me in learning a language is the gender of nouns .
Could someone please tell my how it came to exist and why it persists in so many languages when English has managed to get rid of it (or perhaps never had it ) ?
I have searched the internet for information without result; could I be pointed in the direction of sites which may enlighten me?
 
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  • Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    One of the biggest problems for me in learning a language is the gender of nouns .
    Could someone please tell my how it came to exist and why it persists in so many languages when English has managed to get rid of it (or perhaps never had it ) ?
    I have searched the internet for information without result; could I be pointed in the direction of sites which may enlighten me?
    English had gender until developments in Middle English slowly eroded them away, English had three genders and a very complex case system that eventually merged with other case forms so it virtually became extinct, however you can still see it in the plural of nouns and the genitive.

    This has been talked about before so many a search in the forum for this topic will bring up some lengthy interesting discussions for you.
    Actually, I had assumed it had been talked about here before, but I've just searched myself and couldn't find any information to pass on to you.

    However, you may find this interesting:

    Evolution of Gender in Indo-European languages
    .

    I'm certainly going to go and read it right now.
    The story of how English lost its genders is a long one, basically, the short and very generalised story is that, when the various European languages came to be spoken in England (not English) and as they all merged and gradually evolved of its own accord, as a mix of Norse from the Viking settlers, French (from the brief period when French was spoken in all formal situations), the mix with the traditional languages already spoken in England and the influence of Latin from when the Romans were here, it went through a lot of changes and battles..

    A battle that is still ongoing is mixing the Romance language idea of putting a stress close to the end of a polysyballic word, and the Germanic idea of having the stress at the beginning of the word (Germanic Stress Rule, GSR), this is why we have a lot of differences in how we speak English, the only sort of consensus that has been found is that when two words have the same form, but are used as a verb / noun, the stress changes. The main part of this battle for what stress patterns to use was between 1600 and 1780 when "speakers in general were struggling with the relics of a complex history" (A History of the English Language, 2006).

    i.e. it is at the front (Germanic) for nouns and at not at the front (Romance) for verbs.
    Think about súbject (noun) and subjéct (verb).... réject (noun) and rejéct (verb) etc..

    So different battles of ideas meant that things gradually eroded away, like the case system, like seemingly random gender, with so much disagreement because it was a giant mix of a load of different languages I think it had to, though it lasted a considerable time without it, but that was mainly before the Norman Conquest when things really started to change in English.

    There was a period when English started to override its grammatical gender with semantic gender, this following example from my book is from the late tenth century (970 AD):

    Wæs sōna gearo wīf [neuter] ... swā hire [feminine] weoruda helm beboden haefde...
    'The woman [neuter] was immediately ready, as the protector of troops [=God] had commanded her.

    Basically what we are seeing here, is that they are paying attention to the gender of the word when the actual noun is used, but when referring back to this person using a pronoun, a more semantic (logical) pattern has started to emerge, referring to the person not by the grammatical gender, but by the semantic gender, as feminine. Basically pronouns started to adopt the gender of the person being referred to if they were human.

    So this is part of one of the many stepping stones that English went through as we started to see things from a different light, this was just over 1,000 years ago it started to happen.

    It's also a bit like when we lost our second person singular, though this happened a lot later, when thee / thy / thine was used with loved ones, but the formal 'you', was used, addressing the same person in the letters, in a different way as something distant had also been mentioned in the sentence (i.e. a mother in law) this is visible in the 1600's, while the latest sightings of gender in English were in Kent in the 1340s, and this was known as a region that was "behind the times" and was the last to conform to new developments in English..

    I hope that helps give an insight into how English changed a bit, a fascinating topic!
     
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    brtkrbzhnv

    Member
    Swedish – Stockholm
    Well, I don't know why it was invented or why it caught on, but the primary reason so many Eurasian languages have gender is an evolutionary–historical one: that Proto-Indo–European did. The Wikipedia article on grammatical gender is long and informative.
     

    gordon e-d

    Member
    english :England
    Thank you Alxmrphi for so much information. Your link to "Evolution of Gender in IE languages" is fascinating, worthy of serious reading.

    Well, I don't know why it was invented or why it caught on, but the primary reason so many Eurasian languages have gender is an evolutionary–historical one: that Proto-Indo–European did. The Wikipedia article on grammatical gender is long and informative.
    I previously looked at the Wikipedia article which has much information but did not answer my questions. However, I revisiting the article and found links in the associated notes which help.

    It seems that, as I suspected , the answers to my questions are going to be complex and like so much history, the origins irretrievably lost in the distant mists of time !
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Well, no one really "invented" genders, especially not for English, German, Spanish, etc.

    Gender (as well as cases, morphology, etc.) was handed down from Proto-Indo-European (which is unattested and only partially reconstructed), and perhaps handed down from something even before that, and on down the line - but we'll never know for sure.

    Basically, as far as I know, gender is something that has existed as far back as we know and can imagine.

    So asking "where does gender come from" is sort of like asking "where do toes come from" - I don't know; they're just there!

    (Actually, we probably have a better idea of where toes come from than where gender comes from, but that's another story. :D)
     

    Sepia

    Senior Member
    High German/Danish
    We still have the big question "why". Probably noone can tell for sure, so I suppose that my qualified guess can be as good as anyone's.

    Suppose it simply evolved out of a purely phonetic thing. Like when they began using words like articles they gradually had them fit the nouns in some way like rhyming. Even today we lots of words in the romance languages that end with an "a" and have the article (f) "la". As languages developed and became more complex this turned into an important part of a system.

    People still deterine gender more by a subjective feeling of the phonetics than by pure logic. In German practically everybody is comfortable with "die CD" (F) even though it is an abrevation of "Comact Disk" - and by this logic it ought to be "der" and not "die".

    Frequently new words need a lot of time before you can tell what the proper gender is. A word like "Rally" used in German ist a good example. some 40-50 years ago there was really no rule for it. It could be der/die/das Rally. Gradually it was cut down to two possible genders - then, I think, the Swiss did not quite aggree with the Germans or something, and today I don't think you'd hear but "die Rally".

    The weirdest thing, though, is Danish where some new words seem to change genders over the years.
     

    effeundici

    Senior Member
    Italian - Tuscany
    An interesting word with respect to word gender is the word sun / sonne / sole / soleil which is male in the southern and hot countries and feminine in the cold and northern countries, as far as I know.

    It would be interesting to know the relevant gender in Icelandic and Arabic (if genders exist in those languages,though).
     

    MarX

    Banned
    Indonesian, Indonesia
    We still have the big question "why". Probably noone can tell for sure, so I suppose that my qualified guess can be as good as anyone's.

    Suppose it simply evolved out of a purely phonetic thing. Like when they began using words like articles they gradually had them fit the nouns in some way like rhyming. Even today we lots of words in the romance languages that end with an "a" and have the article (f) "la". As languages developed and became more complex this turned into an important part of a system.

    People still deterine gender more by a subjective feeling of the phonetics than by pure logic. In German practically everybody is comfortable with "die CD" (F) even though it is an abrevation of "Comact Disk" - and by this logic it ought to be "der" and not "die".

    Frequently new words need a lot of time before you can tell what the proper gender is. A word like "Rally" used in German ist a good example. some 40-50 years ago there was really no rule for it. It could be der/die/das Rally. Gradually it was cut down to two possible genders - then, I think, the Swiss did not quite aggree with the Germans or something, and today I don't think you'd hear but "die Rally".
    I was just thinking about die Mail today. I've no idea why Germans end up saying that insted of das or der Mail. There doesn't seem to be any explanation for that.

    Perhaps just like Brian said: Genders were just there.
     

    Foygl

    Member
    Danish
    In general it is said that there are two kinds of gender systems (or class systems): one based on semantics, and the second based on morpho- and phonology. Few languages have a system completely based on semantics; most of them are a combination of semantics and morpho-/phonology, or only the latter. Tamil (and many of the other Dravidian languages) are some of the languages having a strict semantic system. In Tamil all nouns are classified by whether they are male/god or female/goddess, and most of the remaining nouns fall into their own group. The two first class of nouns are called rational nouns, while the last class is called irrational, and the rest of the morphology is base done these classes.
    Such semantic system could easily have evolved in a language, because the speakers have wanted to categorize their surroundings. The morpho-/phonological approach may be a bit trickier, but like Sepia suggested, the phonology could have played an important role in many of the Romance languages, and the words in some languages may have been categorized on this background.

    It's hard to talk about gender/class systems in general, because there are so many different ones: almost every language with a gender/class system has a way of categorizing, so one must talk about a specific language. If you, gordon e d, want to know a lot more about it, I think you should definitely read the book "Genders," by G. G. Corbett. Through the book he uses examples from more than 200 languages to show how genders work, how genders are categorized, etc.

    It would be interesting to know the relevant gender in Icelandic and Arabic (if genders exist in those languages,though).
    In Arabic it is شمس and in Icelandic it is sól, and they are both feminine.
     

    BP.

    Senior Member
    Urdu
    Interstingly, in Urdu we've borrowed the Arabic word shams (شمس) even when we had two other words for sun - aaftaab and suuraj, but for us the same word shams isn't feminine since the sun is thought of as a masculine object.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    The standard hypothesis has been that primitive cultures are (almost) all characterized by animistic world views. Therefore, applying homomorphic concepts like gender to all things seems obvious.

    The discrepancy of biological and syntactic gender which we observe in many modern languages (i.e. das Mädchen, the girl, is neuter rather than feminine in German) would then be the (incidental) outcome of a long development and may also be due to changes in the views of gender in different societies (e.g. children being perceived as genderless or belonging to a third gender).
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    (e.g. children being perceived as genderless or belonging to a third gender).
    This is the case in Icelandic : Barnið (neuter [child]). Do you know why children would be seen differently, irrespective of their older counterparts that have a logical gender?
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Alex, even in English we often refer to infants as "it," even when we know the sex of the infant. The difference is that eventually "it" becomes "he" or "she," perhaps once it starts actually acting noticeably masculine or feminine, while in another language perhaps the "it" simply stuck or is used for a longer period of time than "it" in English.
     

    Welshie

    Senior Member
    England, English
    The discrepancy of biological and syntactic gender which we observe in many modern languages (i.e. das Mädchen, the girl, is neuter rather than feminine in German) would then be the (incidental) outcome of a long development and may also be due to changes in the views of gender in different societies (e.g. children being perceived as genderless or belonging to a third gender).
    I thought Mädchen being neuter was simply due to the fact that the -chen suffix in German (diminuative) is necessarily neuter, the original word for "maid/girl" was Magd, according to wiktionary:

    Herkunft:
    Diminutiv (= Verniedlichungsform) von Magd → die Magd → das Mägdchen → das Mädchen

    So "maid" -> "little maid", but the suffix -chen meant the the gender had to change to neuter. I am not sure this has anything to do with children being sexless.

    "Alex, even in English we often refer to infants as "it," even when we know the sex of the infant."

    I have never heard of this. I think any parent would be offended if one referred to their child as "it". The first question people ask about new babies is "Is it (the baby) a boy or a girl?" And then they will use the appropriate pronoun. I would never refer to a child as "it" and I would advise against doing so.
     

    brian

    Senior Member
    AmE (New Orleans)
    Welshie said:
    "Alex, even in English we often refer to infants as "it," even when we know the sex of the infant."

    I have never heard of this. I think any parent would be offended if one referred to their child as "it".
    It could be a regional thing, but in any case, it's normal here. And this is what the Wikipedia article on It (pronoun) says:

    In English, words such as it and its genitive form its have been used to refer to babies and pets, although with the passage of time this usage has come to be considered too impersonal in the case of babies, with many usage critics arguing that it demeans a conscious being to the status of a mere thing.
     

    BP.

    Senior Member
    Urdu
    Originally Posted by Welshie
    I have never heard of this. I think any parent would be offended if one referred to their child as "it".
    Chidren, especially infant babies are often referred to by 'it', though I feel the practice is getting archaic.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    This is the case in Icelandic : Barnið (neuter [child]). Do you know why children would be seen differently, irrespective of their older counterparts that have a logical gender?
    You are imposing the concept of gender of your own culture onto the corresponding concept of a very different hypothetical culture out of which PIE has emerged and where people knew nothing about genetics and X and Y chromosomes. Why do there have to be only two genders? What would be more natural than the trinity of father, mother and child? Interestingly, when elementary school children in Germany learn the concept of grammatical gender and to give them a name, most of them intuitively suggest the name Kindlich (=childly) for neuter.

    I thought Mädchen being neuter was simply due to the fact that the -chen suffix in German (diminuative) is necessarily neuter.
    That is correct. My point was simply that grammatic gender may, for whatever reason, differ from biological gender.
     
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    MarX

    Banned
    Indonesian, Indonesia
    I thought Mädchen being neuter was simply due to the fact that the -chen suffix in German (diminuative) is necessarily neuter, the original word for "maid/girl" was Magd, according to wiktionary:

    Herkunft:
    Diminutiv (= Verniedlichungsform) von Magd → die Magd → das Mägdchen → das Mädchen

    So "maid" -> "little maid", but the suffix -chen meant the the gender had to change to neuter. I am not sure this has anything to do with children being sexless.
    You're right. There's a thread just about Mädchen.

    http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=1252457
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I have never heard of this. I think any parent would be offended if one referred to their child as "it". The first question people ask about new babies is "Is it (the baby) a boy or a girl?" And then they will use the appropriate pronoun. I would never refer to a child as "it" and I would advise against doing so.
    But when you ask "Is it a boy or girl?" you are still referring to the baby as "it"!
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But when you ask "Is it a boy or girl?" you are still referring to the baby as "it"!
    I don't think this is a good analogy. "It" is a part of the idiomatic phrase "is it X or Y?" here, which can refer to persons of known gender in other situations, as well as any other entities. In this phrase, "it" refers to the outcome of a process abstracted away from the concrete entities that are involved in it. For example, imagine you were curious about the outcome of last year's Wimbledon men's finals, but unable to watch it. You could then ask someone who had just watched the game: "Is it Nadal or Federer?" By analogy with your above example, we could then conclude that "it" can refer to men too. (Notice that "Is he...?" would not be appropriate this context.)

    (That's at least my analysis. Someone more knowledgeable about English syntax and semantics might disagree.)
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    The story of how English lost its genders is a long one, basically, the short and very generalised story is that, when the various European languages came to be spoken in England (not English) and as they all merged and gradually evolved of its own accord, as a mix of Norse from the Viking settlers, French (from the brief period when French was spoken in all formal situations), the mix with the traditional languages already spoken in England and the influence of Latin from when the Romans were here, it went through a lot of changes and battles..
    This is questionable. English grammar has undergone dramatic changes since the Old English period, but it's unclear to what extent this was a consequence of language contact and mixing. This issue has been discussed at length in earlier threads. To state the main objection to your theory very briefly, there are many examples of languages that underwent similar changes without the same factors involved, as well as languages that didn't change in an analogous manner despite very similar historical circumstances.

    There was a period when English started to override its grammatical gender with semantic gender, this following example from my book is from the late tenth century (970 AD):

    Wæs sōna gearo wīf [neuter] ... swā hire [feminine] weoruda helm beboden haefde...
    'The woman [neuter] was immediately ready, as the protector of troops [=God] had commanded her.

    Basically what we are seeing here, is that they are paying attention to the gender of the word when the actual noun is used, but when referring back to this person using a pronoun, a more semantic (logical) pattern has started to emerge, referring to the person not by the grammatical gender, but by the semantic gender, as feminine. Basically pronouns started to adopt the gender of the person being referred to if they were human.
    There's nothing peculiar about Old English here. The Indo-European three-gender system is still fully alive in Slavic languages, and yet, they use the exact same pattern. If, say, a noun referring to a man is grammatically feminine, the adjectives, possessive pronouns, etc. preceding it in a noun phrase will take feminine endings, but the subsequent pronouns that are coreferential with it may be masculine. This is certainly not indicative of an erosion of the gender system.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    There's nothing peculiar about Old English here. The Indo-European three-gender system is still fully alive in Slavic languages, and yet, they use the exact same pattern.
    I can only report what I read in my book (where I based my first opinion)

    "There was also a steadily increasing tendency for semantic gender to override grammatical, particularly in human nouns. From a late tenth-century text: (quote above)"
    Which certainly gives the impression it never used to be like that, incidentally, Icelandic doesn't conform to this rule that was apparently present in Indo-European.

    but it's unclear to what extent this was a consequence of language contact and mixing. This issue has been discussed at length in earlier threads. To state the main objection to your theory very briefly, there are many examples of languages that underwent similar changes without the same factors involved, as well as languages that didn't change in an analogous manner despite very similar historical circumstances.
    I think trying to compare the developments of two languages based on only one idea (language mixing) is absolutely and 100% fundamentally flawed. Given how many things are given to chance and the political, geographical and social aspects of what was going on at that time.

    You simply cannot say (not a direct quote) "in a different country with a different language with the same historical circumstances, this didn't happen"

    To even comprehend a comparison of two places, let alone languages, is an absolutely flawed idea. It would have to be a virtual parallel universe with slightly different things going on in order for a fair comparison to be made.

    Many historians agree, even from language historians in the year 200 all the way up to today can easily see the mixing of languages in English certainly had a deep and profound effect on the language. I don't imagine it's the sole answer, by a long shot... but you cannot just discount it based on a similar language going through 'similar historical circumstances'. I mean, there is just so much that happens in history, there aren't any two places on Earth with close enough historical circumstances to make a fair comparison, there's just too much chance and possible other, unforseen and unconsidered outside influences to brush it off because of considering another language.

    Just out of curiosity, what language(s) were you referring to and in respect of what grammatical changes?
    That seems like something I'd be interested in looking at, how two languages developed in similar ways and how they were similar / different in a historical context.
     
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    ahshav

    Senior Member
    English, Hebrew
    An interesting word with respect to word gender is the word sun / sonne / sole / soleil which is male in the southern and hot countries and feminine in the cold and northern countries, as far as I know.

    It would be interesting to know the relevant gender in Icelandic and Arabic (if genders exist in those languages,though).
    In Hebrew the word is שמש shemesh - a cognate of the Arabic shams. However, in Hebrew it is one of the rare words that has no gender assigned - both feminine and masculine can be used.
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    I think trying to compare the developments of two languages based on only one idea (language mixing) is absolutely and 100% fundamentally flawed. Given how many things are given to chance and the political, geographical and social aspects of what was going on at that time.
    What I had in mind are the theories that explain the historical changes of English in the analytical direction, including among other things the disappearance of its grammatical gender system, by postulating the influence of the language contact with Old Norse, Norman French, or both. The issue has been discussed extensively in the past here; see for example this or this thread for my thoughts on the matter. (I'm not implying that you share the opinions of the people I debated in those threads, of course.)

    You simply cannot say (not a direct quote) "in a different country with a different language with the same historical circumstances, this didn't happen"

    To even comprehend a comparison of two places, let alone languages, is an absolutely flawed idea. It would have to be a virtual parallel universe with slightly different things going on in order for a fair comparison to be made.
    Exactly so. This is why extreme caution should be exercised before making any judgments on such matters, even if they sound eminently plausible on first sight. We simply have no idea how (if at all) the disappearance of grammatical genders in English was influenced by the contact of English with foreign languages. It may or may not be among the causes, and my opinion is that the only way to test the causal link is to look at the set of IE languages whose speakers passed through similar historical circumstances, and the set of those that underwent analogous changes. As far as I know, the correlation between these sets happens to be weak to nonexistent. This doesn't strictly disprove the causal relationship in the case of English, of course, but it does make it seem less plausible.

    (I should also point out that I have no formal expertise on this topic, so my impressions could be mistaken.)

    Just out of curiosity, what language(s) were you referring to and in respect of what grammatical changes?
    That seems like something I'd be interested in looking at, how two languages developed in similar ways and how they were similar / different in a historical context.
    People often argue that in the Old and Middle English periods, the political, social, and economic forces operating in England made the outside linguistic influences on English particularly strong, thus explaining its dramatic shift towards a more analytic language. Yet, there is no such historical argument I've ever seen that wouldn't be applicable -- with the actors changed, of course -- to, say, various Slavic or Baltic languages, which however didn't undergo any similar changes. Furthermore, if you ask why the continental Scandinavian languages have changed in ways strikingly similar to English -- including, in some dialects, the disappearance of grammatical genders -- you can't find any historical forces analogous to those commonly invoked to explain the changes in English. At the end, such theories can be maintained only by special pleading.

    (It's possible that someone has come up with a better theory along these lines than anything I've seen before, which I would be curious to see. But I'm not holding my breath.)
     

    gordon e-d

    Member
    english :England
    I don't think this is a good analogy. "It" is a part of the idiomatic phrase "is it X or Y?" here, which can refer to persons of known gender in other situations, as well as any other entities. In this phrase, "it" refers to the outcome of a process abstracted away from the concrete entities that are involved in it. For example, imagine you were curious about the outcome of last year's Wimbledon men's finals, but unable to watch it. You could then ask someone who had just watched the game: "Is it Nadal or Federer?" By analogy with your above example, we could then conclude that "it" can refer to men too. (Notice that "Is he...?" would not be appropriate this context.)

    (That's at least my analysis. Someone more knowledgeable about English syntax and semantics might disagree.)
    I think in this case "it" is not referring directly to the men but to the winner.
    "Is the winner Nadal or Federer"
     

    gordon e-d

    Member
    english :England
    Living languages must be in a constant state of change. That may include degeneration of the use of gender. Instead of looking at the dim distant history of language, it seems to me that clues to past changes may be better gained by looking at present influences on language modification.
    Is there any research going on now, investigating changes of gender use within living memory which could reliably attributed to particular causes ?
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    People often argue that in the Old and Middle English periods, the political, social, and economic forces operating in England made the outside linguistic influences on English particularly strong, thus explaining its dramatic shift towards a more analytic language. Yet, there is no such historical argument I've ever seen that wouldn't be applicable -- with the actors changed, of course -- to, say, various Slavic or Baltic languages, which however didn't undergo any similar changes. Furthermore, if you ask why the continental Scandinavian languages have changed in ways strikingly similar to English -- including, in some dialects, the disappearance of grammatical genders -- you can't find any historical forces analogous to those commonly invoked to explain the changes in English. At the end, such theories can be maintained only by special pleading.
    The tendency to erode gender distinction is indeed found in many Germanic languages. The Northern West-Germanic languages Dutch and Low German (English genetically belongs to this group) display the same erosion process as Scandinavian languages, namely an almost complete merger of male and female while neuter remains separate leading to a common-neuter gender system.

    In late OE/early ME the male and female forms of the demonstrative/article se and sēo merged to þe while the neuter form þæt stayed on to become two separate words in Modern English: the and that. I would be interested to know if this is a sign of a similar development in OE to that of other West-Germanic languages, namely that the morphological distinction between male and female eroded earlier than the morphological characteristics of neuter.

    The start of the erosion of the gender system in late OE/early ME seems to be the weakening of vowels in non-stem syllables (merger of /a/, /o/ and /u/ to become Shwas), including suffix syllables which carry most of the gender information. This process happened in all major West-Germanic languages with the transition from Old English to Middle English, Old Dutch to Middle Dutch, Old Low German to Middle Low German and Old High German to Middle High German.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    The start of the erosion of the gender system in late OE/early ME seems to be the weakening of vowels in non-stem syllables (merger of /a/, /o/ and /u/ to become Shwas), including suffix syllables which carry most of the gender information.
    I have read something similar, with the erosion of gender in adjectives, that the sounds that defined gender (suffixes) were so similar it was easy to see where they kind of developed into one entity (I haven't got my source here right now, but I'll edit my post tonight to see if I can include an example).

    Basically it was saying, with the GSR (Germanic Stress Rule) adding stress to the front of words, the endings that carried the gender were very weak and hard to distinguish between, and has been put forwarded as a credible case to explain how adjectives lost their gender.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I don't think this is a good analogy. "It" is a part of the idiomatic phrase "is it X or Y?" here, which can refer to persons of known gender in other situations, as well as any other entities. In this phrase, "it" refers to the outcome of a process abstracted away from the concrete entities that are involved in it. For example, imagine you were curious about the outcome of last year's Wimbledon men's finals, but unable to watch it. You could then ask someone who had just watched the game: "Is it Nadal or Federer?" By analogy with your above example, we could then conclude that "it" can refer to men too. (Notice that "Is he...?" would not be appropriate this context.)

    (That's at least my analysis. Someone more knowledgeable about English syntax and semantics might disagree.)
    You are of course quite right and my point was not entirely serious. I do though recall a mother saying to someone: "Don't call it it!"
     

    gordon e-d

    Member
    english :England
    You are of course quite right and my point was not entirely serious. I do though recall a mother saying to someone: "Don't call it it!"
    We are getting frivolous compared with some of these postings ! !
    I remember from my childhood being reprehended in a similar way with the phrase " Don't say it , it is the cat's mother !
     

    J.F. de TROYES

    Senior Member
    francais-France
    An interesting word with respect to word gender is the word sun / sonne / sole / soleil which is male in the southern and hot countries and feminine in the cold and northern countries, as far as I know.

    It would be interesting to know the relevant gender in Icelandic and Arabic (if genders exist in those languages,though).
    What do you mean with northern and southern countries, those located in Europe ?
    The Arabic has two genders : the word shams sun is feminine , while qamar, moon , is masculine, and it the same in German, just a coincidence undoubtly.
    In languages with genders I think that the distribution between two or three genders was influenced by various factors that besides can be different from one to another languages, except when sex is concerned. And even in that case ther are sometimes exceptions.
     

    Erick404

    Senior Member
    Portuguese - Brazil
    I don't think this is a good analogy. "It" is a part of the idiomatic phrase "is it X or Y?" here, which can refer to persons of known gender in other situations, as well as any other entities. In this phrase, "it" refers to the outcome of a process abstracted away from the concrete entities that are involved in it. For example, imagine you were curious about the outcome of last year's Wimbledon men's finals, but unable to watch it. You could then ask someone who had just watched the game: "Is it Nadal or Federer?" By analogy with your above example, we could then conclude that "it" can refer to men too. (Notice that "Is he...?" would not be appropriate this context.)

    (That's at least my analysis. Someone more knowledgeable about English syntax and semantics might disagree.)
    I dont think that in this case the pronoun "it" refers to a person. It's rather a dummy pronoun; in other words, there isnt a real subject. In a null-subject language, there wouldnt be any pronoun in this sentence, regardless of the gender.
     

    szammel

    Member
    Arabic-Tunisia + Saudi-Arabic
    An interesting word with respect to word gender is the word sun / sonne / sole / soleil which is male in the southern and hot countries and feminine in the cold and northern countries, as far as I know.

    It would be interesting to know the relevant gender in Icelandic and Arabic (if genders exist in those languages,though).
    In Arabic is the word "shams" (Sun) feminine.
     

    szammel

    Member
    Arabic-Tunisia + Saudi-Arabic
    I was just thinking about die Mail today. I've no idea why Germans end up saying that insted of das or der Mail. There doesn't seem to be any explanation for that.

    Perhaps just like Brian said: Genders were just there.
    I think this is analog to "die Post" (Mail). (Mail means in German Email).
     

    boadicea7

    Member
    spanish
    Why and how do you think (or preferably know:)) that genders were come up with in languages.

    And I don't mean genders as applied to people (men and women) but rather applying genders to objects and nouns.

    As a latin-language speaker I find that speaking of things and ideas as being femenine or masculine is quite normal, but when speaking (and therefore thinking) in English I realise that genders can be rather useless and non sensical.
    I mean how can a table be femenine, a pencil masculine and a pen femenine?
    I think the gender neutral aspect of English makes more sense.

    I also am pretty sure that there's no such thing as a universal standard behind the human psyche or a collective imaginary that can explain why some peoples see certain things as being masculine or femenine because no word is femenine or masculine in all languages.
    So, was it a random thing? Or Has it got something to do with a culture's perception of sex, applying it not only to people but extending to every thing?

    And do you think that it would be better if all languages were gender neutral like English. What can be the advantage of having genders?
     

    miguel89

    Senior Member
    Spanish
    Hola:

    En el caso del indoeuropeo, es probable que en una etapa muy antigua se agrupara a las palabras según designasen entidades animadas o inanimadas. Posteriormente este sistema se habría trastornado, dando lugar en griego, latín, en las eslávicas y en las demás lenguas derivadas a una división en tres grupos (masculino, femenino y neutro).

    La causa de este cambio de criterio la desconozco, si bien es probable que en la distribución de las palabras entre los grupos desempeñara un papel determinante la analogía y la forma de las mismas palabras, como sigue ocurriendo en las lenguas actuales cada vez que una palabra cambia de género.

    Por consiguiente, si es que en efecto hubo un cambio de criterio, no sería de extrañar que provocase muchas arbitrariedades. Lo razonable hubiera sido que en esta etapa se hubiese reorganizado todo y que el masculino y el femenino se reservara para designar entidades sexuadas. Pero esto no es ni sería posible bajo ninguna circunstancia, por las mismas razones que impiden que tal reorganización ocurra hoy y que impiden cualquier variación a gran escala y a voluntad que aspire a ser duradera.

    La evolución del latín en las diversas lenguas romances sirve para ilustrar todo esto. Todas las palabras que tenían genero neutro se unieron en un mismo grupo con las de género masculino, y esto debido a cambios fonéticos sin atender a lo que sería más razonable.


    En cuanto a las ventajas y las desventajas de hacer esta distinción, yo creo que no hay ni unas ni otras. Cada lengua se acomoda a sí misma, por decirlo de alguna manera. Las lenguas que marcan el género lo usan muchas veces como un recurso para sortear ambigüedades y para crear nuevas palabras o para hacer derivaciones. No obstante esto los hablantes de inglés, pongamos por caso, no parecen muy acongojados ni se parten la cabeza por no poseerlos. Si pudieramos suprimir el género de golpe en italiano, por ejemplo, seguramente al hacerlo colapsaría el sistema. Pero en inglés no son necesarias, no sabríamos que hacer con ellas, las cosas estan dispuestas de modo que podamos prescindir de ellas.

    Mil disculpas por haber respondido en castellano, vengo muy oxidado con el inglés y la redacción me hubiera tomado el triple.

    Saludos
     

    wtrmute

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Brazilian)
    One of the biggest problems for me in learning a language is the gender of nouns .
    Could someone please tell my how it came to exist and why it persists in so many languages when English has managed to get rid of it (or perhaps never had it ) ?
    I have searched the internet for information without result; could I be pointed in the direction of sites which may enlighten me?
    Sorry, but you say it like gender's a bad thing...

    The use of genders is when you have referents. For example, English still has the remains of a gender system in its pronouns. So when I say:

    Alice told Bob he could borrow her car, but he had to go get it at the shop first.

    Notice that you can tell whose car it is and who should get what at the shop. Now, if we replace all pronouns by a generic, genderless pronoun, which we'll denote as N in subjective form (he/she/it), A for oblique form (him/her/it) and G for possessive form (his/her/its):

    Alice told Bob N could borrow G car, but N had to go get A at the shop first.

    Notice that now we don't know if Alice is borrowing Bob's car or vice versa, and who it is who has to pick up what at the shop (you could infer that it's the car that must be picked up, but it's equally valid that either of them would need to go). So gender does make a difference.

    The issue with gender for English-speakers is that the English gender system is mostly semantic, so men are masculine, women are feminine, and everything else is neuter. If when you study other languages, you keep in mind that gender is part of the noun, then you'll memorise it and not worry about it. For example, if you memorise that the word for girl in German is Mädchen, you'll never know which gender it is, and you'll probably guess feminine, since it's a woman. If, instead, you memorise it as das Mädchen, whenever you think of the word the correct gender will pop up and you'll be able to use the correct referents.

    I hope that was helpful...
     
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    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    What can be the advantage of having genders?
    I think to an extent, clarity, an example of what I mean might help:
    In Italian:

    Marco è andato al negozio e ha comprato una torta, un albero e un computer.

    (Mark went to the shop and bought a cake, a tree and a computer)

    If someone said in response to this statement "Fammela vedere." it indicates the cake (una torta) and not the other two (un albero, un computer), in English if you said "Let me see it." - it really wouldn't be obvious what you are talking about.

    I'll try another example in Icelandic:

    Katrín er hérne, hún færði epli, köku og geisðladisk.

    (Katrín is here, she brought an apple, a cake and a CD.)

    If someone said in response to this: "Gefðu það Snorra, gefðu hana Þór og gefðu hann Aðalbirni." it's easy to see what is being referred to, in English it'd sound like:
    "Give it to Snorri, give it to Þór and give it to Aðalbjörn." Here the gender of 'it' in Icelandic indicates what is being talked about in an easier way, the English would be so confusing so this is an advantage that gender-based languages have.

    So one aspect of gender is clarity when it comes to pronouns.
    The chapter I'm reading now in one of my linguistics books is one on redundancy, and it points out that redundancies aren't pointless, they certainly aren't essential to the language (as someone mentioned before that English gets along fine without grammatical gender, using natural gender instead) but the end point the book makes is that redundancies in language make it more difficult to be misheard / for mistakes to be made.

    The more different a word acts means the less likely it's going to get confused with another word, that's why we don't have words made up of all the possible letter combinations, like "lenk" - it's not a word, but it's a possible word. If we had a logical system where words sounded and were spelt like each other, with one letter (or combination) indicating a different aspect, shouting it at a marketplace might be difficult if the other person thinks you are saying a different word. If however these 2 words were different genders in a different language, this aspect of redundancy makes it much more difficult for the other person to mishear if you use your grammar to indicate the gender of the thing you want him to give you.

    I hope that sort of makes sense!
     

    Lars H

    Senior Member
    Hej

    And old thread, I know...

    One of the biggest problems for me in learning a language is the gender of nouns. Could someone please tell my how it came to exist?
    My (wild) guess is that if you deal with live stock of any kind, it will be efficient to use genders to distinguish between cocks/hens, bulls/cows and so on. And I believe that keeping live stock was very much a PIE activity.
    If you then add, as is mentioned previously in this thread, an animistic view of the world, that all things are alive and have a soul of their own, it is only logical to give rocks, trees and wireless broad bands, genders as well.

    The development in Swedish is in this aspect quite similiar to English. Most use of feminine/masculine genders has been replaced by utrum. But when it comes to the inhabitants of barns, henhouses and stables, the genders are still today as much alive as they have ever been.
     
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    Lars H

    Senior Member
    First, my apologies, I took for granted that "utrum" was an international expression, but it seems to be home made. But to be exact, "utrum" is not neuter.

    Traditionally, Swedish has four genders:
    Maskulinum: en man, mannen
    Femininum: en klocka, klockan
    Neutrum/Neuter: ett hus, huset
    Reale: en sten, stenen (soulless things, called "den/it")

    Nowadays we basicly have two genders (although masc./fem. is still used in some cases):
    Utrum comes from "either of" (either masc. or fem.) and has pretty much come to replace these two genders. And it is now rather difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish Utrum from Reale.
    Neutrum/Neuter is unaffected and no neuter words has been transformed to utrum as far as I know.
     

    XiaoRoel

    Senior Member
    galego, español
    Disculpadme por expresarme en español, pero las otras lenguas que escribo son más raras o minoritarias.
    La cuestión del género en ide. No es una cosa difícil de captar en líneas generales, pero sí algo confuso en sus sutilezas.
    Lo que sí es necesario es no mezclar épocas alejadísimas entre sí de lenguas con conexiones entre ellas muy remotas.
    No quiero entrar al tema de la definición de los términos "indoeuropeo común", "protoindoeuropeo", "familia, diaistema y lenguas en contacto".
    Refirámonos sólo al género en la morfología nominal (y pronominal) en las lenguas ie.
    En los más antiguos estadios que podemos ver sólo se distingue entre animado e inanimado, y esto sólo en los casos nominales (sujeto-objeto, o SUJ y OD) ya que el inanimado en los casos oblicuos no tiene diferencias con los animados. Esta diferenciación en los casos rectos proviene de una mentalidad lingüística que sólo concibe agentes animados, siendo las "cosas" naturalmente objetos. Por tanto, no es una diferenciación de género, sino funcional y tiene que ver con el papel de sujeto-objeto, o más bien, de agente-paciente.
    Este sistema morfológico que todavía no marca género se daba en lo que luego vino a ser en las lenguas históricas la conjugación atemática (las terceras del latín y del griego).
    Junto a esta declinación y por medio de una alternancia de sufijo morfemático *-e-/-o-, se crea otro paradigma que tendrá gran éxito en derivados sufijales. En cuanto a la marca de género, se sigue conservando la indefinición de la declinación atemática: los agentes (animados) diferencian el caso sujeto del caso objeto, los pacientes (inanimados) sólo tienen una forma de objeto directo.
    Ejemplificando en el latín: hay dos tipos de paradigma nominal: uno sin vocal temática y otro con vocaltemática alternante.
    Así nacen los modelos de nox (nokt-s), caso objeto noct-em (con el morfema de caso tematizado en -e-), y cor, caso objeto y, secundariamente objeto, que sería la declinación atemática y otro tipo que opone lupus (caso agente) con lupum (caso objeto) a templum, caso objeto y sujeto).
    En este estadio lingüistico con dos morfemas, uno sufijado con Vt. y el otro atemático en los que no hay diferenciación todavía de género.
    A este estadio va a suceder otro en el que las lenguas (dadas sus peculiares evoluciones sociales, ideológicas, económicas, etc.) van a sentir necesidad de distinguir según el sexo. Este proceso se puede observar en los primeros documentos hititas, aun sin ser sistemática la oposición masculino-femenino (con base sexual social).
    El mecanismo es la especialización de un sufijo *-yH2 (>-ya,-a) que, siguiendo el sistema del paradigma con vocal temática, también un primitivo sufijo -ye/-yo (o -yH1/-yH3), empiez a distinguir ciertas palabras con el nuevo sufijo como sexualmente diferentes de las del mismo campo semántico con sufijo-e/o-, que se empiezan a considerar como masculinos.
    A partir de aquí el desarrollo es sencillo:
    1. El sufijo -a- se convierte en Vt y marca de femenino frente a -e/o-, que pasa a serlo de masculino. El sistema atemático continua como está.
    2. Como consecuencia de lo anterior, en los temas en -e/o-, la forma de objeto (paciente) se empieza a polarizar como inanimado: quedan así un sistema fem/masc/inanimado en el caso sujeto (a+ø/o+s/o-m) y por el otro lado en el mismo caso sujeto la declinación atemática que enfrenta -s (agente) a -ø (paciente) y que se amolda al anterior esquema pasando -s a representar los animados y -ø los inanimados.
    3. Poco a poco la oposición en las declinaciones temáticas se va inclinando hacia la distinción final de géneros: -a- (fem.), -os (masc.), -om (neutro, 'ni uno ni otro'). La declinación atemática se ajusta a este sistema opositivo y distinguirá un masc-fem. (animado) en -s a un neutro (inanimado) en -ø.
    4. En el curso de los siglos, siguiendo con el latín (pero el mismo o parecido proceso se da en todas las lenguas ides), el paradigma de tre géneros, paradigmatizado en el adjetivo de tres terminaciones, en alternancia con el más indefinido sistema de género de los paradigmas atemáticos.
    5. En latín vulgar el valor moderno de femenino-a, masculino o, debió universalizarse en el latín hablado y poco a poco fué eliminando excepciones de género y el neutro que correspondía a otro eje sistemático y que en las lenguas romances desaparece (otras lenguas modernas lo mantienen).
    6. A día de hoy las lenguas romances mantienen los paradigmas con Vt (ahora morfema de género) y los restos del atemático.
    7. Toda esta evolución intralingüística ha llevado a que la primitiva distinción de género natural haya desaparecido como criterio de género para volver éste a sus inicios morfosintácticos ya que el morfema de género indica concordancia gramatical y es arbitrario.
    Creo que este esquema sitúa el proceso en su correcta perspectiva temporal y estructural.
     

    edwardtheconfessor

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Mod note:
    Original thread (posted in Latin) merged with an older EHL thread.


    Any Latin scholars out there who can clarify?
    Latin noun gender: why does it have three (masc., fem., neuter) unlike modern 'Latin' languages - which have only masucline and feminine (French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Rumanian) - but in all cases including randomly even for inanimate (therefore sexless!) objects, whereas modern English, say, by contrast, has masculine and feminine only for actual living things (which have a sex)?

    Examples: Latin: octopus (masc.) - plural: octopi
    radius (masc.) - pulral: radii
    BUT opus (neut.) - pural: opera
    genus (neut.) - plural: genera

    YET mensa (fem.) - plural ??

    English; lost the use of masculine and feminine nouns, (except those denoting things with an actual sex) - perhaps around the time it lost so many of its word endings, as a result of the fusion of old Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse?
    Modern 'Latin' langauages did the opposite (ALL nouns are masculine or feminine, quite randomly it seems, including all inanimate objects: NONE are neuter!)

    Examples:
    French: table (fem.)
    chaise (fem.)
    BUT livre (masc.)

    Italian: tavola (fem.)
    sedia (fem.)
    BUT libro (masc.)

    And we often, in some of the 'Latin' langauages, can't tell simply by the noun ending whether it is masculine or feminine (see French examples above) or, in the case of Latin itself, we can't tell whether masculine or neuter simply by the word ending? (see Latin examples above e.g. octopus (masculine) but opus (neuter)).

    Can anyone shed any light as to how come?

    Cheers - edwardtheconfessor; amateur philologist (but not a Latin scholar!)
     
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    jazyk

    Senior Member
    Brazílie, portugalština
    unlike modern 'Latin' languages - which have only masucline and feminine (French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Rumanian)
    Romanian has three.

    Examples: Latin: octopus (masc.) - plural: octopi
    Not a Latin noun. The Latin for octopus is polypus, plural polypi.

    YET mensa (fem.) - plural ??
    Its plural is mensae.

    in the case of Latin itself, we can't tell whether masculine or neuter simply by the word ending?
    No, but I would say that most us nouns are masculine.

    Can anyone shed any light as to how come?
    I have no idea. I can only suggest that you use Latin nouns according to their declension. There are five declension types and the most importation things to know are a noun's nominative and genitive. If you know that and know how the five declensions work, you should be able to decline anything (with a couple of exceptions).
     

    bibax

    Senior Member
    Czech (Prague)
    Besides the nominative singular you have to know the stem of the given noun and if the noun is neuter or not. The stem is obvious from e.g. genitive sing. or nominative plur., but usually NOT from the nom. sing.

    Latin inherited 6 stem types from the Proto-IE language:

    a-stem (1st decl.): femina, poeta, tabula, mensa (stem ending with -a: femina-, ...);

    o-stem (2nd decl.): dominus, liber, templum (stem ending with -o: domino-, libro-, templo-);

    consonantal stem (3rd decl.): amor, miles, vox, opus (stem ending with a consonant: amor-, milit-, voc-, oper-);

    i-stem (also 3rd decl.): civis, navis, mare (stem ending with -i: civi-, navi-, mari-);

    u-stem (4th decl.): spiritus, manus, genu (stem ending with -u: spiritu-, manu-, genu-);

    e-stem (5th decl.): dies, spes, materies (stem ending with -e: die-, spe-);

    The gender does not depend on the stem type. In Latin only a-stem and e-stem nouns cannot be neuter.

    The particularity of the neuter gender:
    1) accusative = nominative in both numbers;
    2) ending -a in nom./acc. plur. (opus/opera, addendum/addenda, mare/maria);
    It is common feature in all conservative IE languages (Old Greek, Latin, Slavic languages,...).
     
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