Evolution of word gender in languages

relativamente

Senior Member
catalan and spanish
No, but I would say that most us nouns are masculine.

Many nouns ending nominative in us are feminine
example or 2 declination quercus , pinus, all nouns of trees are feminine,
Also from the 4 declination manus is femenine
But from the second all nouns ending in um are neuter.There is no exeption at all, being one of the few rules without exception.
 
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  • bibax

    Senior Member
    Czech (Prague)
    ...being one of the few rules without exception.
    You can create many rules without exceptions. For example:

    The nouns of the 2nd, 3rd, 4th declension can be of any gender.
    The nouns of the 1st and 5th declension can be only masculine or feminine.
    The nouns ending with -tudo or -itas in nom. sing. are always feminine.
    The nouns ending with -a in nom. plur. are always neuter.
    ....
     

    relativamente

    Senior Member
    catalan and spanish
    consideration, constitution, restitution, creation, and so many words ending in tion in English in the end are derived from abstract Latin words ending in -tio derived from Latin verbs.All this nouns liberatio, ratio, emancipatio and so on are femenine nouns.
     

    edwardtheconfessor

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Thank you so much: relativamente, bibax, jazyk (and any other enlightening contributors).

    As I say, I am not a Latin scholar, so I'm afraid the subtleties of Latin declensions are way beyond me - sorry! However; some interesting points all of you!
    Rumanian (of which I know only a few words) has three genders. Hmmmm! Well this explains a bit of the puzzle, doesn't it? I guess this would be because the Latin dialect of Roman Thracia and Dacia (from which modern Rumanian evolved), unlike Gaulish or Tuscan or Lombard Latin, say (modern Italian evolved chiefly from Tuscan Latin), had no original uderlay or palimpset of native Celtic speaking - although Thracia and Dacia must surely have had their own native peoples and languages too even so, even if these were not Celtic - whatever these were ... pre Roman conquest (perhaps someone knows more about this?).

    Maybe it was that these Celtic languages (about the modern descendants of which I, alas, also know very little) had only the two genders for all nouns; so perhaps this is why most modern 'Latin' languages (e.g. French, Italian) have only masculine and feminine gender nouns and have lost the Latin neuter gender (again, any experts here who can enlighten us about these Celtic languages?).

    The loss of noun endings which might, had they remained, have provided clues as to gender, in French say; maybe this was due, in the cae of French anyway, to the Frankish dialect of Latin (ancestor of modern French) 'clipping' or 'closing' so many open vowels or open vowel endings, often by the addition, or even contraction of these, with nasalised consonants. I note, however, that many Latin nouns, too, appear to have 'closed' consonant endings. And this would not explain, either, what happened in the case of Spanish and Portugese.

    Italian, though, clearly went in the OPPOSITE direction - with almost all words ending in open vowels, and these (rather handily in modern Italian) rendering almost invariable noun gender endings -o for masculine -a for feminine (e.g. libro - libri (masc.); tavola - tavole (fem.) .. and so on), so the 'work' is all done for you, so to speak ... but, of course, no neuter nouns. Again; hmmmm! We still haven't really answered why these were lost in all modern 'Latin' languages (except, it seems, Rumanian), have we?

    Now, the point about the (originally) FEMININE gender of so many English abstract nouns (ultimately derived from Latin verbs) is a very interesting one. I hadn't realised this (or, at least, it hadn't occurred to me)! It does seem to look as though I was right, then: masculine and feminine genders for nouns denoting inanimate objects DID once exist in English (although not all abstract nouns in English end with 'ion' by any means, of course: 'honesty', 'courage', 'virtue' and so on .. many of these too, interestingly, having gradually changed from their original meanings over time - cf Chaucerian and Bunyanian Middle English, for example) neither, of course are all English nouns ending in 'ion' abstract e.g. 'station'.

    And it would seem as if I was right in suggesting that these masucline and feminine genders for all but a handful of nouns denoting living things disappared along with so many word endings/inflexions as English evolved out the fusion of old Anglo Saxon and Old Norse (which had different word endings and different grammatical inflexions), many of these being simply thrown away! English lost, of course, in the same way, most of its verbal conjugations (for tense, mood, person etc.) and case inflexions, as we know (don't know if these case inflexions would be anything like equivalent to the Latin declensions? Excuse my ignorance here! Enlightenment please!).

    But now, if this is correct, then it follows, does it not, that the reservation of neuter gender in modern English for only animate things (which have a sex) is really an etymological trick, isn't it? (And, yet again, any etymological experts here who can shed further light on this, please do so!). And, if so, then what of the other Teutonic (and Nordic) languages (German, Alsatian, Dutch, Luxembourgesch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese)? Have these all retained the three genders, even for nouns denoting inanimate objects? (Experts here too, again, speak forth please!).

    The seeming logical nonsense (to a native English speaker like myself) of having masculine and feminine gender nouns for things like books, tables, chairs etc. which have no sex, then, is clealry not so - and the loss of these genders in modern English for all but animate or living objects is, then, not, in fact a logical process at all, but rather a mere accident of philological history. Correct? (experts and opinions here too, please!).

    As to minor matters: for my embarassing ignorance in not knowing that 'octopus' is not an original Latin word; apologies and thanks for correcting!
    For enlightening me also regarding Latin feminine gender nouns ending in
    '-a' (e.g. mensa) and their correct pluralisation; many thanks also. Do I take it, then, that all feminine gender Latin nouns ending '-a' should be pluralised with '-ae' ? If so, can anyone shed light on the many other Latin nouns which seem to end with '-um', '-us' (which, in this case, apparently, may be either masculine or neuter and one cannot know by the word ending alone?)
    .. and yet other Latin noun endings such as 'on', 'ion' and goodness knows what else - anyone offering any guidance here? - or, as with French nouns and their gender, does one simply have to learn and memorise all these individually (alas and oh dear!)?

    Do please keep the discussion going - so long as this remains on subject and informative as well as both interesting and helpful (as it is thus far!). And thanks, also, moderator for blending this thread with another of close similarity. I think this helps the discussion!

    - edwardtheconfessor
     

    bibax

    Senior Member
    Czech (Prague)
    For enlightening me also regarding Latin feminine gender nouns ending in
    '-a' (e.g. mensa) and their correct pluralisation; many thanks also. Do I take it, then, that all feminine gender Latin nouns ending '-a' should be pluralised with '-ae' ? If so, can anyone shed light on the many other Latin nouns which seem to end with '-um', '-us' (which, in this case, apparently, may be either masculine or neuter and one cannot know by the word ending alone?)
    The Latin nouns ending in -a are the so called a-stem nouns. Their nominative plural always ends in -ae (remember larva/larvae, antenna/antennae). They are either feminine or masculine, never neuter.

    feminine: femina (woman), puella (girl), dea (godess), ...
    masculine: poeta (poet), nauta (sailor), agricola (farmer), ...
    inanimate thing are always feminine: mensa (table), terra (earth), cauda (tail), ...

    The Latin nouns ending with -us are o-stem (dominus, abacus) or u-stem (spiritus, manus) or rarely consonant-stem nouns (opus, tempus). They can be of any gender, mostly masculines, rarely feminines (names of trees, countries, manus, domus) and very rarely neuters (vulgus, opus, tempus).

    The Latin nouns ending with -um are o-stem nouns, always neuter.

    The modern Romance languages merged the masculine and neuter o-stem nouns, for example:

    Petrus (masc.) became Pietro, Pedro, ...
    castellum (neuter) became castello, ....

    So we cannot say the Romance languages lost the neuter gender. They only lost the morphological distinction between masculine and neuter. Then it would be redundant to say that Pietro is masculine and castello is neuter in Italian when there is no morphological distinction between them.
    I think it is not a Celtic influence.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    And it would seem as if I was right in suggesting that these masucline and feminine genders for all but a handful of nouns denoting living things disappared along with so many word endings/inflexions as English evolved out the fusion of old Anglo Saxon and Old Norse...
    The Old English declension system survived the Viking period virtually intact. Only the instrumental case merged with the dative but this happened in continental West Germanic (e.g. in Old High German) too and is probably not a sign of Old Norse influence. The further simplification to 3 cases (nominative/accusative, genitive and dative), two numbers and no gender distinctions happened during the 12th and 13th centuries in the Middle English period. By the mid 13th century, gender inflections were generally lost but gender associations must still have existed because the Old English masculine definite article "se" (rather than "Þe") stayed in use until about 1300 for formerly masculine noun.


    ... [W]hat of the other Teutonic (and Nordic) languages (German, Alsatian, Dutch, Luxembourgesch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese)? Have these all retained the three genders, even for nouns denoting inanimate objects? (Experts here too, again, speak forth please!).
    Most Germanic languages in principle know all three genders though Dutch, Low German and modern North Germanic languages with exception of Icelandic for all intends and purposes lost the distinction between masculine and feminine and in practice distinguish only between "common" and neuter. Standard German and Icelandic still distinguish all three genders.


    So we cannot say the Romance languages lost the neuter gender. They only lost the morphological distinction between masculine and neuter. Then it would be redundant to say that Pietro is masculine and castello is neuter in Italian when there is no morphological distinction between them.
    More important than the loss of morphological distinctions for nouns are those for adjectives. As long as you have to inflect adjectives according to the gender of the attributed noun, noun genders remain relevant even it noun exhibit no gender makers any more by which you could distinguish masculine and neuter.
     
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    irinet

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    "the origins irretrievably lost in the distant mists of time". You can only think of Adam and Eve and, probably the answer is there! The gender issue is everywhere, in Br., too: a cat is male when we say Tom-cat, is it not? You have actor and actress, a.s.o.
     

    Lars H

    Senior Member
    And, if so, then what of the other Teutonic (and Nordic) languages (German, Alsatian, Dutch, Luxembourgesch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic, Faroese)? Have these all retained the three genders, even for nouns denoting inanimate objects? (Experts here too, again, speak forth please!).

    Hej

    A recent thread in the Nordic forum regarding Swedish genders can be found here.

    The thread's title is completely misleading, but what happened was that the thread deviated far away from its intended topic and instead became partly relevant for this thread. And it's in English.

    But in short; masculin and feminin nouns do still exist in Swedish, but they are diminishing. Meaning that we don't say "han/hon" (he/she) any more (with a few exceptions), but the masculin or feminin inflection rules still apply.
     

    poetpenpassion

    Senior Member
    Russian - Russia
    Hello! How are you? I`am fine, thank you! My name is Yelena, i`am from Russia, from Moscow. A think that it`s about how to sound words, beautifully or not. Excuse me, please, for my bad English!
    Here is some words in Russian lenguage:
    stol (tavola, table, mesa) - masc.
    kniga (libro, livre, book) - fem.
    kryeslo (sedia, butaca) - neuter
    solntse (sun, le soleil, el sol) - neuter

    It`s impossible tosay el mesa, la sol, la libro, la soleil. Ye
    In Russin language we don`t have articles. Thank you for your atention! Yelena, Russia, Moscow.
     

    edwardtheconfessor

    Senior Member
    English - British
    The gender issue is everywhere, in Br., too: a cat is male when we say Tom-cat, is it not? You have actor and actress, a.s.o.

    Well, thank you, irinet, for bringing this to my attention. You are right, of course ... 'a.s.o.' (and so on) indeed! :-
    sculptor (masc.) - sculptress (fem.), sorceror (masc.) - sorceress (fem.), God (masc.) - Godess (fem.) or even author (masc.) - authoress (fem.) ...
    There are even such examples as: he-wolf, she-wolf; billy goat, nanny goat or, of course dog - bitch, pig - sow, fox - vixen (where the word changes totally) or (curious reversal of default gender here): duck - drake.
    You could even take such (in my view) etymologically 'dubious' derivatives as: dominator - dominatrix, or executor - executrix (a term much loved, for some reason, by lawyers!)
    In some cases, even the 'parent' noun ITSELF has no gender (or has lost it) but has masculine and feminine 'spin-offs' bearing no phonetic resemblance whatever to the 'parent' noun e.g. :
    deer (or rabbit): buck or doe; swan : cob (masc.) or pen (fem.); horse: mare or stallion -
    And so on (as you rightly say) ...

    BUT what do all these nouns have in common? Answer: they all denote LIVING or animate things (yes, even gods!), which therefore have a sex (and, therefore, logically, should have a gender)!

    I never yet, in English, heard of a 'she-table' or a 'table-ess', a 'he-chair' or a 'billy/Tom (or any other gender, masculine or feminine) sofa' , nor of a (feminine gender) 'refigeratrix' !!!
    We could, of course, say "girl's (or girls') book", "men's room", "girly neglige" or we could even say (in colloquial slang and euphemism) "girlie magazine" - but we are not here ascribing gender to the ACTUAL NOUN (or to the object that it denotes); merely adding a (gender specific) pronoun in posessive case, or, in the case of "girlie magazine", in fact describing its contents, and providing in the process a clue as to the likely gender of its interested readership (in fact, not female but male!).

    What we are trying to establsih here (or I am, anyway) - if possible, once and for all (or do I ask too much?) - is: how come/came that which seems to me to be the logical absurdity of ever having had or of still having gender (and therefore ascribing a sex) to ANY INANIMATE(and therefore, by definition, sexless) thing or things at all ... be these concrete nouns, denoting tables, chairs, books etc.; abstract nouns, denoting such things as courage, strength, virtue etc. (which might, perhaps, poetically, be depicted as muses etc. having gender, but which, of course, are, in reality, sexless); or even collective nouns denoting numbers of inanimate objects,
    e.g a fleet/aramada/flotilla of ships; a weaponry/armoury/arsenal of weapons and armour; a sheaf/wadge/ream etc. of paper or paper products; a heap/pile/collection/display/assortment etc. of many and various inanimate things. .....

    How come any of these sexless things should ever, in any language actually, have been ascribed a gender (and, therefore, a sex) as seems to be the case in so many European languages???

    So far, several contributors to this thread have brought their specialist knowledge and informed opinions to bear on this question, and I thank you all for your illuminating comments thus far!
    For those who are interested (and I shall not too far stray off-subject here, I promise!), this question arose for me recently when working on my professional website and with, as I have indicated, an extremely poor knowledge of Latin, I sought to find (by browsing on the internet, of course), the correct Latin pluralisation for the word 'opus', denoting, of course, a piece of work and, to my surprise (call me very ill-informed or naive!), discovered that 'opus' is a NEUTER GENDER noun in Latin.

    Having studied only Italian and some French, I had not even realized that their 'parent' language had three genders - yes, do please call me ill-informed and naive!! Thus, then, 'opus' must be (for strict correctness) pluralised as 'opera'. And thus the English neologism 'opuses', denoting a plurality of orchestral works by a composer (or writings by an author) is (in Latin) a grammatical nonsense, as is the widespread use (common now in many European languages) of 'opera' to denote a single performed and staged musical work, coming as it does from the sixteenth century Italian name 'opera in musica' ('works' - not 'work' -'in music') - these opera, of course, conceived, as originally intended, as comprising a fusion of several (hence the plurality) art forms - drama, dance, song and instrumental music.

    The question which immediately arose for me, of course, is: why, in this case (if Latin recognised three genders), have all modern 'Latin' languages (or call them 'Romance' or 'Romantic' languages, if you like) - except, it seems, for Rumanian - lost, fused or otherwise abandoned all the neuter gender nouns? And, in addition, why would ANY language (as Latin, for example, clearly did) recognise - quite randomnly it seems - some INANIMATE things as 'male', some as 'female' and yet still others as 'sexless' (neuter) when they are ALL sexless! And I'm afraid we have still not answered this question - have we?

    It seems I have been 'guessing in the dark' in suggesting that the Celtic predecessors of Latin in Roman Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul (modern day Northern Italy) and Iberia (modern day Spain and Portugal) - as distinct, it seems, from Thracia and Dacia (modern day Rumania) - influenced this development of abandoning neuter gender. This remains, however, in the absense of informed opinion, still an open question?

    It seems, too, that I was only 'half right' at best in supposing that English lost its true array of noun genders, including, as I see it once had, masculine and feminine genders for many inanimate objects (is this so?) ...
    and in suggesting that this happened during the great denudation of word endings which arose from its growth out of the fusion of Old Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse (thank you, berndf, for clearing this up also, a little (but not completely!), for me!).

    And then, of course, what of the pre-Latin, and even parallel to Latin (as in 'Koine' form) Greek, which was still being widely spoken throughout the Eastern Mediterranean well into late Roman and Byzantine, and even Ottoman times - some roots of which indubitably fed into many evolving Teutonic languages (perhaps even some Slavic and Turanian languages too???)? Hmmmm. Here again, alas, my scholarly prowess finds its limits, for I am not, alas either, really a Greek scholar ... Any offers of informed opinion here?

    I do believe I am becoming vindicated, though, in my view that the ascribing of 'neuter' gender to so many English nouns IS really an etymological 'sleight of hand' since, as you righly point out, berndf, if you sheer the associated adjectives (as well as the definite and indefinite article) of all gender inflexions, and in addition, you discard all gender differences in the noun plurals and in case inflexions (or even, as English has, discard most of these inflexions themselves altogether) then, yes, noun gender does effectively disappear, doesn't it? It's all a 'trick with smoke and mirrors' really, isn't it (to coin a phrase!)?

    I am grateful, too, to you, bibax, for further enlightenig me about Latin noun endings and correct pluralisations. This ceratinly does take away, for me, a little of the daunting mystery of Latin nouns. However, everyone, we haven't put this whole discussion 'to bed' yet by any means, have we?

    For, as to why any European languages at all ever did, or still do, ascribe gender (and therefore sex) to nouns denoting sexless things remains an unanswered question - and remains as a logical absurdity. Does one not agree?
    As to the case of gender in pronouns, Lars H and berndf, I thank you for clarifying this also. Not all world languages, in fact, have gender in pronouns; not even in the third person singular. In Tagalog or Pilipino, for example (the native language of my first wife), there is no pronoun gender of this kind. Some e.g. African languages (such as Yoruba and Swahili, of which I know a little) have no noun gender either. Swahili, for exmaple, has noun CLASSES, with their own rules of inflexion (for plurals etc.) - but these have no sex or gender attribute to them. Oh, and thank you, poetnpassion (Yelena) for enlightneing us about Russian nouns and gender. My finacee is Russian - so I must quizz her about this!

    We are making progress here, but we have still this real 'tough nut' question to crack yet, don't we? Any further thoughts of informative value - most welcome! Thank you.

    edwardtheconfessor
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    You could even take such (in my view) etymologically 'dubious' derivatives as: dominator - dominatrix, or executor - executrix (a term much loved, for some reason, by lawyers!)
    Not at all dubious. The word forms are perfectly regular in Latin. Dominat- and execut- are the participle stems of dominari (to rule, to govern) and exequi (variant of exsequi, to carry out, literally to follow out) respectively. The participle stem of verb XXX followed by -or means a male person who does XXX and followed by -(t)rix (-t- is omitted if the stem ends in -t) means a female person who does XXX. The modern Romance forms, e.g. French dominatrice and exécutrice, are derived from the accusative forms dominatricem and executricem with the final -m removed.


    For, as to why any European languages at all ever did, or still do, ascribe gender (and therefore sex) to nouns denoting sexless things remains an unanswered question - and remains as a logical absurdity. Does one not agree?
    After all we know about primitive societies, our Neolithic ancestors would probably not have understood your question. They most likely did not know the very concept of inanimate things. "Of course does a stone or a tree have a spirit", they would probably have answered. "And of course, these spirits have genders", they might have added.
     

    edwardtheconfessor

    Senior Member
    English - British
    Not at all dubious. The word forms are perfectly regular in Latin. Dominat- and execut- are the participle stems of dominari (to rule, to govern) and exequi (variant of exsequi, to carry out, literally to follow out) respectively. The participle stem of verb XXX followed by -or means a male person who does XXX and followed by -(t)rix (-t- is omitted if the stem ends in -t) means a female person who does XXX. The modern Romance forms, e.g. French dominatrice and exécutrice, are derived from the accusative forms dominatricem and executricem with the final -m removed.

    Thank you, berndf - I stand corrected (as they say!) .. by the way, everyone - I don't need any posts correcting my error in suggesting that "girl's (or girls') book", "men's room", "girly neglige" or "girlie magaznie" is a use of a gender-specific PRONOUN. I spotted my error as soon as I sent the post: they are, of course, a use of (gender specific) adjectival subsitutes in the possessive case, or of actual (gender indicating) adjectives. "Slip of the keyboard" (or, perhaps more accuratley, "slip of my mind") there - apologies!

    After all we know about primitive societies, our Neolithic ancestors would probably not have understood your question. They most likely did not know the very concept of inanimate things. "Of course does a stone or a tree have a spirit", they would probably have answered. "And of course, these spirits have genders", they might have added.

    As to what Neolithic peoples actually believed; well, we do have much excellent educated guesswork about this - but there is an awful lot that we don't know (and perhaps never will!) - at least about pre-literate Neolithic, or for that matter Mesolithic or even Paeleolithic, cultures. But from what I know of the fragmentary attempts which have been made to reconstruct, for example, 'pre-Nostritic' and 'Nostritic' words and fragmentary phrases (and these are believed to have been the true ancestors, at any rate, of the Indo-Aryan language stem - circa, perhaps 6-8,000 BC or earlier) - there does seem (as far as I am aware - correct me here if I am wrong, please do, any experts?) to be no evidence of any emergent noun gender denotation for "inanimate" objects such as, say, rocks, stones, caves etc.

    I think I am right (am I not?) in believing that the pre-Roman Druids believed in local 'nature Gods' of rocks, trees, rivers etc. .. and many early Bronze Age peoples, and even some early Iron Age peoples, throughout the world it seems, had similar theogenies. The plethora of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Godesses, in fact, grew (from late Neolitihic/early Bronze Age times) originally out of local tribal 'totems'. I am not either (alas!) a real scholar of Ancient Egyptian, but I think I am right in saying that their language did not assign gender to any of its nouns denoting natural (or man-made) sexless objects - as distinct from its deities or images of them? So also (am I right?) within the early pre-Vedic, Vedic and Dravidian languages of India? So too, again, with the evolving Native American languages? Hmmmm.

    It is well-known, I think, that the pre-Islamic and pre-Christian missionary African tribal religions had similar local 'totems' and divinities - who also dwelled, they believed, in streams, rocks, stones, trees, caves, mountains. Yet, from what I know of the development of African languages, and from what I know of their modern descendants (as I have indicated in my previous post), their nouns denoting "inanimate" objects: rocks, stones, mountains, caves, even trees (which ARE living, but tend to be bisexual) have never recognised gender in these. I think I'm right in saying, too, that Mandarin Chinese (of which I know a few phrases) and also Turkish and Japanese (ditto) and even Arabic (which I have attempted to learn) have no history, either, of noun gender in the denotation of such "inanimate" objects. Am I correct here (any experts in these fields)?

    I think we need to distinguish VERY carefully here between ancient peoples atrributing DIVINITIES or DEITIES (or call them tribal Gods or 'totems', if you wish), which might have been thought to INHABIT specific rocks, stones, caves, rivers, streams, mountains or even trees - between these and the nouns generically denoting such OBJECTS.

    This being so, berndf, with the greatest respect, I do not think this is bringing us very much closer to the answer (and I shall not give up hope of there being one!) - sorry! Please continue this discussion, though, and therefore, by all means everyone!

    - edwardtheconfessor
     

    Uriel-

    Senior Member
    American English
    Sorry, but you say it like gender's a bad thing...


    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...

    As a speaker of a language that has no grammatical gender, let me just say that that is easier said than done. Although we are always encouraged to learn the article with the noun as a way of reinforcing the noun's gender (el gato, la silla, el artículo), it's just really hard to do in practice --probably because in English, articles are pretty interchangeable and largely unassociated with their nouns. (A and an being the exceptions.)

    Even when I know a word ends with a or o in Spanish, deep down it's just a sound to me, devoid of significance, and by the time I get to the noun I've already said the article -- and it probably didn't agree with the noun that followed it -- because I wasn't even thinking about the noun when I said the article; if you speak a genderless language, the article is just something you say on the way to the noun. I can't speak for other English speakers, but the complete lack of that dimension in my own language makes it hard for me to "tack on" that dimension (mentally) in another -- I just don't naturally think of words that way when they don't refer to something that has an intrinsic natural gender. It's a conceptual stumbling block.

    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.


    I have no mental issues with words like his or her or its having a trace of gender associated with them, because I only apply them to nouns of a known natural gender -- it'd be a whole different story if I had to apply them to tables and chairs.

    What's ironic, though, is that Spanish, for being chockful of feminine and masculine indicators at every other turn, doesn't have his or her -- preferring instead to use the ambiguous su. (I've always wanted someone to explain that to me!)

    In fact, in your example: Alice told Bob N could borrow G car, but N had to go get A at the shop first, you could drop the pronoun "he" and be forced to use that ambiguous su, and have even less of an idea of whose car was being borrowed by whom than you would in genderless English:

    (at least in my bad Spanish) Alice le dijo a Bob que podía prestar su carro, pero tenía que ir por ello al taller primero.

    I'm always reading su-laden texts in Spanish and wondering exactly what belongs to who!
     

    effeundici

    Senior Member
    Italian - Tuscany
    As a native speaker of a language with genders, my opinion is:

    - Genders are a useless complication
    - The fact that, in Italian, a fork is a "she" and a knife is a "he" doesn't have any serious meaning for me. It just reminds me when physicists name subatomic particles as red/green - up/down - positive/negative. They could call the genders first/second class, up/down class, a-ending/o-ending class and nothing would change. (

    Nonetheless when my 3 years old daughter makes a mistake with genders I simply can't stand that and, of course, correct her.

    Just my 2 cents.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    I think I'm right in saying, too, that Mandarin Chinese (of which I know a few phrases) and also Turkish and Japanese (ditto) and even Arabic (which I have attempted to learn) have no history, either, of noun gender in the denotation of such "inanimate" objects. Am I correct here (any experts in these fields)?
    - It is always difficult to transport grammatical concepts to so radically different languages as Japanese or Mandarin but I think it is fair to say those languages have no concept of grammatical gender as we know it.

    - Turkish definitely does not have grammatical gender. And this has nothing to do with animate or inanimate; there simply is no grammatical gender.
    - Arabic, like all other Semitic languages, from the oldest attested Semitic language, Akkadian, to modern Semitic languages, has a strict two gender system where every noun, with animate and inanimate referents alike, is either masculine or feminine with no third possibility. In Arabic, a stone or rock, ajar, is masculine while a small pebble is feminine, ajarah; -ah is a typical feminine suffix and a ajarah is so to speak a stone-ess. This shows how gender in objects is used to convey properties which are customarily associated with gender, in this case size.

    ... the Indo-Aryan language stem - circa, perhaps 6-8,000 BC or earlier) - there does seem (as far as I am aware - correct me here if I am wrong, please do, any experts?) to be no evidence of any emergent noun gender denotation for "inanimate" objects such as, say, rocks, stones, caves etc.
    The three-gender system is ubiquitous in IE languages and it therefore hard to imagine they should not be rooted in a concept which already existed in PIE. What we do not know is what these three genders were used for. Generally, IE languages do not grammatically distinguish between animate and inanimate objects now do we (the speakers of gender-inflected IE language like my own mother-tongue) feel we are missing anything by not doing so. English is a bit special within the IE language family in drawing this distinction through its use of the pronoun it. E.g. in my language I can use the word Erzeuger (creator) for a company or factory producing a certain good, for an abstract concept in mathematics and for animate beings, i.e. God or a biological father. In referring to an Erzeuger I always use er (=he) and thus am not forced to distinguish between the uses. On the other hand, being a gendered language, I cannot formulate sentences like "I will visit a friend tomorrow" without disclosing my friend's gender. The gender-inflection is even stronger in Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew. In Hebrew, e.g., I cannot say "I love you" without making explicit both your own and the addressed person's gender (a man says to a woman 'ani 'ohev 'otakh and a woman to a man 'ani 'ohevet 'otkha).
    Back to the meaning of the neuter case: While it is a fairly safe bet to assume the three gender system is rooted in PIE we do not know what it might have been used for. As IE languages do not systematically distinguish between animate and inanimate beings, it might have had a very different connotation then it has in English. In German, e.g., the neuter has the connotation of being small. The German word for child is (Kind) is neuter and all diminutive suffixes convert the gender of a noun to neuter. So, one possible interpretation of the three-gender system is representing the trinity of father, mother and child without any consideration for inanimate objects. I am mentioning this to show you that there are other possible interpretations of the three gender system than the one you are used to in English. Reconstructing of the actual meaning of the PIE gender system is and probably ever will be beyond the capacity of linguistics.

    The plethora of Ancient Egyptian Gods and Godesses, in fact, grew (from late Neolitihic/early Bronze Age times) originally out of local tribal 'totems'. I am not either (alas!) a real scholar of Ancient Egyptian, but I think I am right in saying that their language did not assign gender to any of its nouns denoting natural (or man-made) sexless objects - as distinct from its deities or images of them?
    Egyptian, being related to Semitic languages, had the same two-gender system as Arabic or Hebrew. Every noun, with animate or with inanimate referents, was either masculine or feminine.
    I think we need to distinguish VERY carefully here between ancient peoples atrributing DIVINITIES or DEITIES (or call them tribal Gods or 'totems', if you wish), which might have been thought to INHABIT specific rocks, stones, caves, rivers, streams, mountains or even trees - between these and the nouns generically denoting such OBJECTS.
    The distinction of a stone being a spirit, a stone having a spirit or a stone being inhabited by a spirit is made by us to be able to comprehend animistic views of the world because otherwise we wouldn't. To a member of such a cultural group these distinctions would make no sense at all. It suffices to go back to Greek mythology where Helios traverses the sky with his chariot. The question whether Helios is the Sun or the god of the Sun is absurd. The same is true for the question whether Gea is the Earth or the goddess of the Earth. Of course, Helios is the Sun and is a god and Gea is the Earth and is a goddess.
     

    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    For, as to why any European languages at all ever did, or still do, ascribe gender (and therefore sex) to nouns denoting sexless things remains an unanswered question - and remains as a logical absurdity. Does one not agree?
    It doesn't seem like much more of a logical absurdity than so many other things in natural languages, such as the countable/non-countable distinction in nouns (which English finds so important, but is pretty much irrelevant in the Romance languages), or the choice between certain prepositions, or even the choice between noun cases, sometimes, or phrasal verbs.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    It's important to understand that language gender isn't about a man / a woman, it's an abstract concept applied to language to show they belong to different groupings.
    I personally think it's unfortunate that these labels were used because it makes people think that in these languages a book is like a man while a pen is like a woman, when this is not the case at all. It's equally possible back in time the speakers decided to denote some nouns as hands, and the other ones feet. Then people would be asking 'Is this noun a hand or a foot?' and it'd be perfectly normal to us. Differing genders were probably a very logical separation of two groupings to the ancient peoples so they categorised their language (that behaved in different ordered ways) as such.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    It's important to understand that language gender isn't about a man / a woman, it's an abstract concept applied to language to show they belong to different groupings.
    I personally think it's unfortunate that these labels were used because it makes people think that in these languages a book is like a man while a pen is like a woman, when this is not the case at all. It's equally possible back in time the speakers decided to denote some nouns as hands, and the other ones feet. Then people would be asking 'Is this noun a hand or a foot?' and it'd be perfectly normal to us. Differing genders were probably a very logical separation of two groupings to the ancient peoples so they categorised their language (that behaved in different ordered ways) as such.
    I am not sure. There are cultures where masculinity and femininity are viewed as universal forces of nature applying to all being. E.g. in traditional Chinese philosophy you may very well speak of the Yin Qi of a book or the Yang Qi of a pen.

    Virtually all views off nature are laden with anthropomorphisms. In our modern Western culture, we describe the physical world around us in terms of laws of nature, a concept which is not even 500 years old, without even thinking for a split-second how extremely anthropomorphic this very concept is. Similarly, other civilizations describe nature in terms of male and female principles or forces or energies, whatever you choose to call it, regarding this as the most natural thing in the world.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Well then that can apply to be more of a backing of what I said. This male / female split being so ingrained in the psyche of people that when chosing to label words that behaved in different groups, they chose the most natural groupings they were aware of, that of different genders.

    What I aimed to show with my post was that (responding to edwardtheconfessor) nobody had ascribed a sex to an inanimate object, the differences have been labelled as male/female (but in a parallel universe it could have been night/day, hand/foot), the inherent properties of what it means to be male/female aren't characteristics attributed to the nouns (for example) they represent, but rather a label used to categorise words that behaved in a systematically 'different' pattern.
     

    jmx

    Senior Member
    Spain / Spanish
    ... the countable/non-countable distinction in nouns (which English finds so important, but is pretty much irrelevant in the Romance languages) ...
    Really? In Spanish you can say "quiero leche" (I want (some) milk) but you can't say "*quiero libro", instead you should say "quiero un/el/ese/algún/... libro" (I want a/the/that/some/... book), because 'milk' is uncountable while 'book' is countable. This is even more evident in French.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    What I aimed to show with my post was that (responding to edwardtheconfessor) nobody had ascribed a sex to an inanimate object, the differences have been labelled as male/female (but in a parallel universe it could have been night/day, hand/foot), the inherent properties of what it means to be male/female aren't characteristics attributed to the nouns (for example) they represent, but rather a label used to categorise words that behaved in a systematically 'different' pattern.
    Seen as a "rational reconstruction" to describe this within the framework of how we view the world, I agree with you completely. A person who has never known any non-animistic outlooks of the world would most likely fail understand what you are talking about.:)
     
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    irinet

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Right. I am amazed to find such a debate on this topic here!
    Let's see what we have here: I think gender helps Romanian how to speak correctly because we have, for instance: un (1) idiom - doua (2) idiomuri (Neuter) and not doi (2) idiomi like in 1 idiot - 2 idioti (masculine)
    As to English, things are easier since you have: a table - two tables or a chair - 2 chairs or a floor - 2 floors, etc.
    How can I speak correctly without making this difference? Is this about inanimate things that do not need of gender or it's just about gender as an inflexion rule?
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Moderator note:

    This thread is definitely not about whether gender is "useful" or not - except insofar it is relevant for development of the feature; also it isn't one about whether it is nice to have it or superfluous, or which languages have it and which don't (that is of course, except if another point concerning the etymology is made - in this case it is of course relevant to point out that this or that language does have gender, or doesn't).

    Thus, I would like to remind you of the topic proper of this thread, which is the evolution of word gender in languages - so the when's and why's, but not anecdotes about the feature itself.

    Thank you very much!
    Cheers
    sokol
    Moderator EHL
     
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    Outsider

    Senior Member
    Portuguese (Portugal)
    Really? In Spanish you can say "quiero leche" (I want (some) milk) but you can't say "*quiero libro", instead you should say "quiero un/el/ese/algún/... libro" (I want a/the/that/some/... book), because 'milk' is uncountable while 'book' is countable. This is even more evident in French.
    There are certainly instances where the distinction is useful, but it's much less pervasive than in English.

    It's important to understand that language gender isn't about a man / a woman, it's an abstract concept applied to language to show they belong to different groupings.
    I personally think it's unfortunate that these labels were used because it makes people think that in these languages a book is like a man while a pen is like a woman, when this is not the case at all. It's equally possible back in time the speakers decided to denote some nouns as hands, and the other ones feet. Then people would be asking 'Is this noun a hand or a foot?' and it'd be perfectly normal to us.
    Or like de-words and het-words in Dutch.

    But I would disagree a bit with you. We cannot deny a certain correspondence between grammatical gender and "true" gender. After all, when you apply an adjective to a person you will normally employ the masculine version for males and the feminine version for females.

    There is certainly a correlation, but it's only a statistical trend with many exceptions. Different factors contribute to the grammatical gender of a word. Meaning is certainly important in some cases, but equally determinant are regularizing tendencies that just look at a word's "shape" to decide gender. Rather than a careless use of semantics, I see grammatical gender as the result of a competition between semantics and word morphology.
     
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    Angelo di fuoco

    Senior Member
    Russian & German (GER) bilingual

    The three-gender system is ubiquitous in IE languages and it therefore hard to imagine they should not be rooted in a concept which already existed in PIE. What we do not know is what these three genders were used for. Generally, IE languages do not grammatically distinguish between animate and inanimate objects now do we (the speakers of gender-inflected IE language like my own mother-tongue) feel we are missing anything by not doing so. English is a bit special within the IE language family in drawing this distinction through its use of the pronoun it. E.g. in my language I can use the word Erzeuger (creator) for a company or factory producing a certain good, for an abstract concept in mathematics and for animate beings, i.e. God or a biological father. In referring to an Erzeuger I always use er (=he) and thus am not forced to distinguish between the uses. On the other hand, being a gendered language, I cannot formulate sentences like "I will visit a friend tomorrow" without disclosing my friend's gender. The gender-inflection is even stronger in Semitic languages like Arabic or Hebrew. In Hebrew, e.g., I cannot say "I love you" without making explicit both your own and the addressed person's gender (a man says to a woman 'ani 'ohev 'otakh and a woman to a man 'ani 'ohevet 'otkha).
    Back to the meaning of the neuter case: While it is a fairly safe bet to assume the three gender system is rooted in PIE we do not know what it might have been used for. As IE languages do not systematically distinguish between animate and inanimate beings, it might have had a very different connotation then it has in English. In German, e.g., the neuter has the connotation of being small. The German word for child is (Kind) is neuter and all diminutive suffixes convert the gender of a noun to neuter. So, one possible interpretation of the three-gender system is representing the trinity of father, mother and child without any consideration for inanimate objects. I am mentioning this to show you that there are other possible interpretations of the three gender system than the one you are used to in English. Reconstructing of the actual meaning of the PIE gender system is and probably ever will be beyond the capacity of linguistics.

    You don't really take the Slavic languages into account, do you?
    There the differentiation between animate and inanimate objects is quite persistent within the three gender system of the Slavic languages (declension of masculine nouns!) and was even more so in archaic forms than it is today. If there someone who has decent knowledge of the Old Church Slavonic he could tell more than I can without doing research in order to avoid telling rubbish.
    I am not quite sure about it, but as far as I know it is possible to draw certain conclusions from the rather conservative pronominal system of Czech and what was considered animated or inanimate about the social positions of the different sexes and, yes, genders.

    Don't know if the Baltic languages also have the distinction between animate and inanimate objects.
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    You don't really take the Slavic languages into account, do you?
    There the differentiation between animate and inanimate objects is quite persistent within the three gender system of the Slavic languages (declension of masculine nouns!) and was even more so in archaic forms than it is today. If there someone who has decent knowledge of the Old Church Slavonic he could tell more than I can without doing research in order to avoid telling rubbish.
    I am not quite sure about it, but as far as I know it is possible to draw certain conclusions from the rather conservative pronominal system of Czech and what was considered animated or inanimate about the social positions of the different sexes and, yes, genders.

    Don't know if the Baltic languages also have the distinction between animate and inanimate objects.
    The interpretation of genders has changed over time and some languages use the neuter gender to differentiate between animate and inanimate and others don't. 1000 years ago, English used genders like German still does today and now uses "it" to distinguish animate from inanimate objects. Slavic languages, by and large, seem to have gone in the opposite direction during the same time.
     

    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    There the differentiation between animate and inanimate objects is quite persistent within the three gender system of the Slavic languages (declension of masculine nouns!) and was even more so in archaic forms than it is today. If there someone who has decent knowledge of the Old Church Slavonic he could tell more than I can without doing research in order to avoid telling rubbish.
    Yes of course, those differences exist - in Slovene for example with animate nouns accusative ending is the same as genitive ending:

    - človek = man: gen. = acc. = človeka
    - korak = step: gen. = koraka, acc. = korak

    I haven't checked my OCS grammar (= Old Church Slavonic) as I couldn't anyway give any decent guesses whether or not this is considered an old, common Proto-IE feature or else a Slavic innovation, but I would expect that this feature was even more pronounced in OCS.

    It would be indeed interesting to know whether this is some remnant of the original development of gender in IE.
    In another thread I mentioned that Hittite had the "commune" gender distinction (non-distinction between women and men) - but this was different, it means that Hittite differentiated between:
    - things alive (and considered*) being alive), be they male or female; and
    - things not alive (or considered not being alive).

    *) I don't remember exactly anymore, to illustrate - I'm rather sure that e. g. Gods were considered of falling into this category.


    The Hittite genus commune is considered by some historical linguists being at the very core of Indo-European gender development; personally, I've never come across a statement of any linguist that the same were true for Slavic distinction in masculine declension - but I cannot rule out that such theories exist.
     

    bibax

    Senior Member
    Czech (Prague)
    You don't really take the Slavic languages into account, do you?
    There the differentiation between animate and inanimate objects is quite persistent within the three gender system of the Slavic languages (declension of masculine nouns!) and was even more so in archaic forms than it is today.
    Yes of course, those differences exist - in Slovene for example with animate nouns accusative ending is the same as genitive ending:

    - človek = man: gen. = acc. = človeka
    - korak = step: gen. = koraka, acc. = korak
    Not completely correct (from historical point of view).

    Common Slavic did NOT distinguish animate masc. and inanimate masc. nouns in its declension system. The o-stem masc. nouns chlap (= guy) and dub (= oak) were declined exactly the same way. Similarly the u-stem masc. nouns syn (= son) and med (= honey) were declined the same way (but differently than the o-stem nouns).

    The form človeka (človek = hu/man, masc.) is historically genitive singular, not acc. sing. In Common Slavic (as well as in Old Czech) the accusative sing. was always equal to nom. sing. for both animate and inanimate masc. nouns.
    It is possible to use genitive as a direct object instead of accusative, in the terms of syntax it is the so-called partitive (or negative) genitive. For some reasons the partitive genitive prevailed over the accusative only in the case of the animate masculine nouns and effectively replaced it. In the case of the inanimate masc. as well as all fem. and neuter nouns the subtile distinction between part. genitive and accusative in the direct object remained in many Slavic languages.

    Replacing accusative by genitive is also obvious in the personal pronoun declension. In Old Czech the accusative form of my (= we) was ny which is non-existent in Modern Czech. Nowadays we say that accusative of my is nás which strictly speaking is genitive.
     
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    irinet

    Senior Member
    Romanian
    Moderator note:

    This thread is definitely not about whether gender is "useful" or not - except insofar it is relevant for development of the feature; also it isn't one about whether it is nice to have it or superfluous, or which languages have it and which don't (that is of course, except if another point concerning the etymology is made - in this case it is of course relevant to point out that this or that language does have gender, or doesn't).

    Thus, I would like to remind you of the topic proper of this thread, which is the evolution of word gender in languages - so the when's and why's, but not anecdotes about the feature itself.

    Thank you very much!
    Cheers
    sokol
    Moderator EHL

    Sorry to think that I tell anecdotes here.
    I meant that in my language the gender issue is complex. What is striking for me is how inanimate things can be feminine (in the plural), masculine (in the singular) and neuter when you 'draw the line', like: "Let's see, what do we have here, now?"
    un stilou(sg., masc.) - 2 stilouri (pl., fem)
    un blog (sg., masc.) - 2 bloguri (pl., fem) - foreign word + Rom. morpheme - as you can see
    To sum up, first time masculine, second time feminine; all in all, they are neuter. How is this possible? Neuter gender does not refer to being inanimate. It's about a blending process of [+masc.] + [+fem.] altogether. For instance, we have the word 'animal'[+animate, +living, +neuter].
    But what about the word 'soul'. Is this animate, inanimate? I know it's abstract and neuter.
    What am I missing here about this subject matter? I also want to have a clear picture about this evolution and if it works for us or doesn't because as I see it, the forumists here have plenty of questions to answer and many, many interesting ideas.

    Cheers to all!
     
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    sokol

    Senior Member
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    What am I missing here about this subject matter?
    Well, the thing is that in IE neuter did not develop as a 'blend' of masculine and feminine; rather, or so it is believed by those who think that Hittite is representing an old (the oldest) stage of gender development, it could have been like that:

    Step 1: gender distinction only distinguishes between masculine/feminine = animate "gender" and non-animate "gender".

    Step 2: animate gender splits into masculine and feminine, so that we now have a three-gender-distinction.

    Note that this is a hypothesis, accepted by some but (to my knowledge) not all comparative linguists.
    Hittite did not have masculine vs. feminine, it had only animate vs. inanimate; the case of Hittite could be the "original" IE gender system but it might be a Hittite innovation not shared by any other branch of IE languages.

    Your suggestion of neuter developing as a merger from masculine and feminine is based on observation of modern languages only; for this (to my knowledge) there's no evidence to be found in ancient languages.
    So while this might have happened in other language groups it is rather safe to say that in Indo-European gender did not develop like this.

    For some reasons the partitive genitive prevailed over the accusative only in the case of the animate masculine nouns and effectively replaced it. In the case of the inanimate masc. as well as all fem. and neuter nouns the subtile distinction between part. genitive and accusative in the direct object remained in many Slavic languages.
    Thanks for the detailed explanation - this is exactly what I was looking for, but as I have hardly any resources for OCS and Common Slavic available I wasn't able to to say whether or not there's a (any) relation to an inanimate/animate distinction. Obviously this is not the case, so it is clear that this Slavic feature has no relevance for the development of gender in Common Slavic and Indo-European.
     

    edwardtheconfessor

    Senior Member
    English - British
    "We stand in sight of The Promised Land" - after Paul Cezanne..

    Mikael Thompson (The sci.lang FAQ: 28, 14 Sept 2010, cached by google http://www.zompist.com/lang21.html#28) 'How did genders and cases develop in IE?' (Indo-European) :-
    "The ANIMATE nouns are the historical source for the masculine gender, and the INANIMATE nouns for the neuter. This is why in all classic IE languages" [Meaning Greek and Latin and archaic languages such as Hittite and (Ancient) Persian - to which he also refers?] "the neuter nominative and accusative have identical forms and the only basic difference between masculine and feminine neuter nouns is in the accusative" [i.e. in the case of proto Indo-European] " ... PIE" [Proto-Indo-European] "didn't bother much with specifiying plurals, but when it did, it added an '-s' or other endings. The neuter plural is NOT descended from this, however- active/stative languages simply didn't make plurals for inanimate nouns - but instead a COLLECTIVE NOUN, treated grammatically as a singular. This collective noun ended with '-a' in the nominative and accusative and eventually it developed into the feminine, which in all the old IE languages has the same form in the nominative singular as does the neuter plural nominative-accusative. It is also why the correct neuter plural takes a singular verb. The reason it is called the FEMININE, of course, is that nouns ending in females " [Does he mean the nouns which had now taken this '- a' collective noun suffix?] " fell in this gender most of the time." [This, if he is correct, would have been a kind of etymological 'trick' or 'sleight of hand' ? He effectively acknowledges this .. ] "This is puzzling and probably we must accept it as a fact whose explanation can't be recovered from the depths of time." [I refer your point about this last, berndf, post #65, 22nd Sept para. 5]

    Anne Curzan, University of Michigan; 'Gender Shifts In the History of English' (Cambridge UP, 2003) :-
    "Gender, although a common feature in many languages throughout the world is NOT essential to a language; many languages have never had gender systems and others have lost them with no lethal reprecussions." [I heartily agree! It is organic to my arguments. I respectfully cannot agree that "the three gender system is ubiquitous in IE languages." - berndf post #65, 22nd Sept, para. 4 - if by 'ubiquitous' you mean 'multi-useful' or 'multi-purposeful'. Some other posters, I think, agree ; post #64, effeundici, 22nd Sept.] "Many European languages other than English have witnessed a noticeable decay in the original grammatical gender " [ I refer Lars H, re: the tendency to 'falling off' of usage of these in pronoun use - post #58, 20th Sept.] "although few are as dramatic as English." [Then Curzan refers to Corbell's observation (SEE REFS BELOW) that in many SLAVIC languages (I think you seek to bring our attention to this, Angelo di fuoco; post #75 , 23rd Sept) there has been a reversal against the trend, with subgenders being added to the gender system.] "the triple gender system has been maintained in, for example, German and some Slavic languages." [As poetnpassion shared with us, post #59, 20th Sept.] "This has been reduced to a two-gender system in the Romance languages " ['Latin' languages.] "Ibrahim (1973) " [SEE REFS] "notes that the neuter was always only 'vaguely' distinguished from the masculine;" [BUT see Thompson's (above) explanation of how this really happened.] "its paradigm of inflectional endings often differing in only two cases," [Here, Curzan refers, by way of reference to Ibrahim, to what I call this etymological 'trick' of emergent modern 'Latin' languages - creating, by this process of 'merger', what I call the 'logical absurdity' of ascribing masculine or feminine gender to such sexless objects as tables, chairs, desks, pens, books - even though a similar 'chop logic'/random/arbitrary logic had already occured (as we have seen) even before the eclipsing of any logic of animacy/ inanimacy e.g. in emergent Greek and Latin.] "so the merger of the two classes did not involve the restructuring of entire paradigms." [This, then, was how the logical absurdity was accomplished. Of the even more abstruse and inexplicable etymological 'trick' of English attributing a 'concocted' 'neuter' gender - much later - to all nouns denoting all inanimate objects, Curzan writes:] " This shift from grammatical to natural gender " ['Natural gender': she means gender reflecting the actual sex of (animate only) things.] "renders English unusual among Indo-European languages."
    [And all evidence DOES suggest that this process in English began 'big time' (though it took a few centuries to complete), during the emergence in Middle English of a uniqely 'shorn' grammar with so many noun, verbal, pronomial inflections abandoned altogether. This left, of course, word order , instead, as the only viable way of indicating case (and much else). Change the word order of many nouns and you change the case completely.
    This 'concocting' of a deceptively logical 'neuter' gender for inanimate things after the fact seems to have been an etymologically 'disingenuous' manouvre - possible, I suggest, only because of this great 'robbery' of so many grammatical inflexions. Erades (1956) (SEE REFS) remarks:] " The gender of English nouns, " [Emergent modern English nouns] "FAR FROM BEING SIMPLE AND CLEAR " [as modern English speakers suppose] "is compicated and obscure and the principles underlying it are baffling and elusive, no less, and perhaps even more so than in other languages." [Overstatement? Several etymologists point to the inherited anomaly of modern English having, for example, a triple gender pronoun system persisting in the personal pronouns: 'he/she/it' ( 'him/her/it', 'his/her/its') yet an animate/inanimate (but genderless) distinction in the relative pronouns; 'who/which' ('whom', 'whose'.). - surely a survival from an older logical 'set' originating in, and persisting from, PIE (cf Thompson - above)?
    This last would seem to make my response to berndf (my post #62, 22nd Sept, para.1) valid in its assertion that the ascribing of spiritual animacy to objects, such as stones, rocks, trees, rivers, mountains, caves or even trees was NOT the causation of attributing gender to inanimate objects by ancient (Neolithic or earlier) peoples - again, I refer to Thompson's careful explanation of how and why this happened. And this also happened, clearly, quite a bit later in historical (or prehistoric) terms. This will be true if we assume Thompson correct. It is far the best explanation I have thus far come across.

    Thompson's assertion that the first DI-partite (NOT tri-partite) attempt at classifying nouns in PIE, perhaps early Bronze Age times circa 3- 4,000 BC - took account, indeed, of - and, at first only of - this distinction between animate and inanimate things I find credible. The ascribing of 'masculine' and 'neuter' (NOT 'feminine' at all - at this stage) gender to these respectively - which probably began, as Curzan would call it, by natural as opposed to 'semantic' or 'grammatical' gender, was then later, by degrees, confused and obfuscated by the more random assigning of either of these two genders to nouns denoting increasing varieties of things both animate and inanimate.
    Thompson himself, we note, comments on this strange, illogical and inexplicable development - whose origins appear to be 'lost in the mists of time' (to paraphrase him). As I have said, on that - the problematical remoteness in time - you berndf and Irinet ( your post #57, 20th Sept) are both right.
    I cannot, respectfully, accept any explanation (I refer post #61, 21st Sept, berndf, final para.) of the emergence of noun gender as having any root whatever in such a belief system. This belief system of spirits, souls, deities and similar inhabiting certain natural objects was, in fact, almost universal among prehistoric Homo Sapiens and, as Curzan also points out, a little earlier in her work (REF IBID.), there are other world language systems - e.g. Bantu languages such as Swahili, some Turanian languages (e.g. Turkish), which have never had anything resembling what we call gender of nouns - though classify them otherwise they assuredly did and do.
    Leaving aside 'Nostritic' (or 'Nostratic') and 'pre-Nostritic'; here's my hunch:- this di-partite classification of nouns (animate and inanimate), became 'Hobson-Jobson'd' into some kind of emergent gender-based attempt at noun classification AND created as it did so many anomalies in emergent Iron Age languages and their grammars - the descendants of which we still live with today. Clearly this had, somewhere down the line, a (probably Neolitihic) ancestor in this (I say logical) distinction between ANIMATE AND INANIMATE things - and this same kind of (genderless) logic has been, in my view, the inception of noun designation in other world (e.g. Bantu ,Tagalog/ Pilipino (refer my post #62, 22nd Sept , para. 3)) languages.

    Thanks all who assisted/ inspired me in this quest for an elusive 'holy grail'!

    REFERENCES:
    Corbett, Greville G.; 'The World Atlas of Language Studies' (Cambridge UP, 1991)
    Ibrahim, Muhammed, Hassan; 'Grammatical Gender; Its Origin and Development' (Jana Linguanum Series Minor 166, Mailon, The Hague and Paris, 1973)
    Erades, P.A.; 'Points of Modern English Syntax', 1956 (published in 'English Studies' Vol. 38, Issue 1-6, 1957).

    - edwardtheconfessor
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    "We stand in sight of The Promised Land" - after Paul Cezanne..

    Mikael Thompson (The sci.lang FAQ: 28, 14 Sept 2010, cached by google http//www.zompist.com/lang21.html) 'How did genders and cases develop in IE?' (Indo-European) :-
    "The ANIMATE nouns are the historical source for the masculine gender, and the INANIMATE nouns for the neuter....
    No disagreement, except maybe the reminder that these are result obtained by a technique called internal reconstruction. Reconstruction of proto-languages from attested languages is already a daring endeavour and reconstruction of a pre-proto-language from another reconstructed language should always be taken with a grain of salt.

    If you read Mikael Thompson's explanations carefully, especially those about water and fire, you will find that the relevant definition of "animate" in the context of an active/stative language is "capable of acting" and is not necessarily linked to any biological sense of the word.
     

    Istriano

    Senior Member
    Croatian
    Really? In Spanish you can say "quiero leche" (I want (some) milk) but you can't say "*quiero libro", instead you should say "quiero un/el/ese/algún/... libro" (I want a/the/that/some/... book), because 'milk' is uncountable while 'book' is countable. This is even more evident in French.

    In (Brazilian) Portuguese, you can perfectly say:


    Água é bom. (no article) [Water is good]
    A água está boa. (article) [This water is/tastes good]

    Quero um livro.
    (article) [I want a book]
    Quero o livro (article) [I want this book]
    Quero livro (no article) [I want any book]
    Quero livros (no article) [I want books]
    Quero os livros (article) [I want the/these books].

    Mulher brasileira é bonita = Brazilian women are nice.
    Quero praia já já! = I want (any) beach right now!

    It's not logical being forced to say
    two pieces of advice in English instead of dois conselhos,


    Going back onto the topic,
    Dravidian languages have the ''natural'' gender,
    so boys are masculine, the Miss World is feminine, but a table or a cat is neutral.
     
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    Istriano

    Senior Member
    Croatian
    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).


    Sometimes, the gender is decided morphologically and not semantically,

    pesadilla, paradoja end in -a, so they are feminine (in Spanish)
    pesadelo, paradoxo end in -o, so they are masculine (in Portuguese)
     

    sekelsenmat

    New Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    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 Polish it is słońce (neutral), Russian солнце (neutral)
     

    sekelsenmat

    New Member
    Brazilian Portuguese
    Quero livro (no article) [I want any book]
    Quero livros (no article) [I want books]

    But that's child-speech. I don't think this is acceptable in adult speech, unless you are pretending to be a child.

    Edit: Now I remembered one ocasion where this is indeed valid. For example if someone asks:

    Você quer pizza ou macarrão?

    A valid answer is: Quero macarrão.

    But still this isn't valid as a general sentence. In general sentences one would require an article.
     

    Explorer41

    Senior Member
    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.
    Do you mean, they supposed (or "felt") that many thinkable objects have an associated human-like quality - some human nature, similar to our minds and having a will, a thought and everything else? I can't understand the words "spirit" and "animus", I don't know what do they mean here in this discussion.

    If it is what you mean (or if you mean some other thing and you're able to explain what), what are evidences for this theory? They should be strong enough, as the theory itself looks strange. Why did we lose that associations between things and human natures? We could have them as well in our life, they wouldn't interfere our feeling. Why did we need such associations at that time? What is a nature and what is a cause of such supposed correlations between a type of a society and having that associations? From where do we know about it?

    Answers for these questions are seemingly obvious for you, but I can't see them. For me, it is a whole strange idea. I should also add that giving a human nature to the Sun or to the Earth is not the same as giving a human nature to every non-abstract object (to every stone and to every stick). And also, that stories about gods may strongly concern some parts of a human mind, limited, but leave other parts untouched.

    And by the way, if every material object had a human nature of a particular gender, then such genders had to be learned together with language. So the idea doesn't give an answer to the question about the origin of grammatical genders -- it just reformulates it for some unknown for me reason. From where did animus genders arise?

    Thanks in advance for clarifying
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    ...I can't understand the words "spirit" and "animus", I don't know what do they mean here in this discussion.

    If it is what you mean (or if you mean some other thing and you're able to explain what), what are evidences for this theory?...
    You could start by reading this Wikipedia article about Animism.
    So the idea doesn't give an answer to the question about the origin of grammatical genders -- it just reformulates it for some unknown for me reason. From where did animus genders arise?
    In PIE, the origin of genders has been explained further in the thread. My point is that the development of the original active/stative collective/stative individual into masculine/feminine/neuter is a re-interpretation which seems paradoxical from a modern perspective but not from an Animistic perspective which prevailed in many older cultures and in some still does to some extend, like in Shintoism or Hinduism.
     
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