Noun genders, why? what for?

demalaga

Member
España castellano
Which is the advantage in a language to use genders?¿How many genders are in different languages?¿For what reason appear or desappear?
For example it seems that English have very little left of the ancient genders, still it uses different personal pronouns ( He, She, it) but little more (It is my opinion but don't intend to be dogmatic and would thank any correction)
Turkish does not have different personal pronouns.So the pronoun "o" is used for all nouns.Arabic has got masculine and feminine, but uses also special accordings with verbs and adjectives depending whether or not the noun is a rational thing (a human person, an angel, and so on)and the plural irrational things are treated like singular feminine (Is it not strange?)
Also Polish makes different concordances and case endings deppending whether is a rational or irrational, or even a living thing (animal) or unanimated.So Polish has really five genders.¿What could be at the origin of this abundance of genders?
 
  • Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    The main advantage of the genders is a stronger distinctness of the speech. In Russian verbs differ in genders in the Past form and that is very convinient.
    Nouns referring to the animated things have different forms, and this is also very convinient.
    For example we don't need such constructions in Russian like English he-fox, she-cat, etc. Almost all the amimals have different names depending on their gender.
    Besides of the gender Russian nouns are subdivided into aimated and inanimated (they are declined differently in the Gen.).

    Genders are peculiar to the most Indo-European languages and match the ancient division of the things masculine-feminine and/or alive/not alive.
    There are three genders in all ancient languages such Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and many modern - German, Russian, Dravidian.
    Other languages have only 2 genders - masc/fem, such as Semitic, Baltic, Celtic, Roman, some languages have another 2 genders - medium/not medium - Hittite, Sweden.
    African languages usually have another system - classes instead of genders, and the number of classes may be very large - 15-20 and more. Each class is declined differently, and even fem. and musc. nouns (animated) may be in the different classes (but usually in one "lass of people").
     

    Spectre scolaire

    Senior Member
    Maltese and Russian
    Maroseika said:
    The main advantage of the genders is a stronger distinctiveness of the speech.
    Then, what about those languages which do not possess gender distinction - most notably Turkic languages? Are they indistinct?


    I think you are actually alluding to a better explanation yourself:
    Maroseika said:
    African languages usually have another system - classes instead of genders, and the number of classes may be very large - 15-20 and more.
    It is a primordial concern among humans to arrange the world according to different categories. In religion there are categories of all kinds – “do this, don’t do that”, “this animal is edible, that one is not”, etc., etc. in order to distinguish yourself from your neighbor who might do this and that in slightly different ways. I can’t see that language should be less important in terms of ‘categorization endeavors’.


    Look at Chinese and the incredible phenomenon of measure words to get an idea as to how gender distinction in, say, Indo-European languages might be expressed in very different ways.

    You don’t even mention American-Indian languages and aboriginal languages in Australia where quite sophisticated rules – we would probably say “alien rules” – of nominal distinctions play an all-important role.

    Seen from outside, I think gender distinction in Indo-European languages is an archaism indicating an old categorization of the world – something we have been schlepping along with us since the mist of time.
    ;) :)
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    Then, what about all those languages which do not possess gender distinction? Are they indistinct?
    Surely not. But in these languages distinctness is achieved with another means.
    For me our way looks more convinient, of course (in fact more habitual).



    Seen from outside, I think gender distinction in Indo-European languages is an archaism indicating an old categorization of the world – something we have been schlepping along with us for quite a long time.


    Each and every feature of our language is a kind of archaism, because our language as a whole roots in the deep antiquity. Does it mean we should reject it?
    People are really divided in men and women (as well as in many other categories). On my opinion, this division reflexion in the language is fine and very convinient.
     

    Hernan Pons

    Senior Member
    Chile
    Everyone has a point. Don't forget that languages are codes that reflect their users' worldviews, and each system is loaded with belief systems, rituals and particular cosmovisions that must be represented in the ways speakers conceive and interpret the world. Moreover, languages change and accommodate to societal evolution and the need for gender or plural distinction may evolve as life evolves. As an example, take the modern distinction we use nowadays between 'husband/wife/significant other' to specify the gender of the recipient say, for instance, in insurance policies.
    The same goes for any categorial taxonomy that the human kind deems necessary to incorporate. Commentaries are welcome.
     

    Spectre scolaire

    Senior Member
    Maltese and Russian
    To Maroseika:
    There is no value judgment in my posting (at least there is not meant to be any) – but I can easily come up with one:

    Turkish is a very ‘economical language’. I can’t think of any other which is.

    And yet, I am fascinated by many utterly uneconomical languages. Why should we say ‘one language’, but ‘two languages’ when I have already said two? Obviously there is very little I can do about it.;) And I can’t explain why indeed Turks say good nightswhen going to bed. Cultural emphasis reflected in their language?

    You were asking in the first place “What is the advantage for a language to have genders?” Now you have answered the question saying –-

    Maroseika said:
    People are really divided in men and women (as well as in many other categories). On In my opinion, this division reflexioncted in the language is fine and very convenient.
    May I ask why this is so convenient?


    Hernan_Pons said:
    languages are codes that reflect their users' worldviews, and each system is loaded with belief systems, rituals and particular cosmovisions that must be represented in the ways speakers conceive and interpret the world.
    I agree. But I am not sure what you mean saying that

    Hernan_Pons said:
    languages change and accommodate to societal evolution and the need for gender or plural distinction may evolve as life evolves.
    Do you mean that gender may develop as an element of language change or that gender is already an intrinsic element in a language reflecting what you call the “users’ world views”?


    Just a detail, but one of considerable epistemological importance.
    :) İyi geceler! It is bedtime in Beijing.
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    I think Spectre Scolaire has a very good point here: Why do we use the plural in English, German, and Spanish, but not in Japanese or Chinese? The French could cope without pluralization, actually, because it's very often only written, rarely spoken (okay, ces sounds different from ce(tte), but this is almost an exception). Why should we differentiate between animate and inanimate in Arabic, Czech, and Polish, but not in Portuguese or Norwegian? Why does Hindi use the verb to be, even though there's already a conjugated verb in the sentence, but Turkish can perfectly do well without to be in the present tense? What are those strange tenses and moods in Ancient Greek, Gujarati, and Turkish for, if German and Arabic could express everything with only the present and past tense (the rest are composed tenses; moods are often optional or stylistic)? Cases are the same problem: They make German, Latin, and Ancient Greek vary with their word orders, where case-less languages would become incomprehensible (German: Den Fisch aß der Hund, but English The fish ate the dog). Why do some languages need tones or symbols for one or more words to express themselves better, but many languages can use different tones for the same word without changing its meaning and employ letters that can be learned separately to put together a complete word?

    It's the same with genders: Some languages may use it as a pecularity (Germanic languages wouldn't need it, see English the car/the man/the woman), others must have it to distinguish between masculine and feminine, which would not be possible otherwise (see Arabic baytu 'l-imraa'a al-kabiir huwa ... or baytu 'l-imraa'a al-kabiira huwa "the big house of the woman is ..." <-> "the house of the tall woman is ...").

    As you can see with English, it works very well without genders for inanimate nouns, but we use them in German. It always sounds strange to mean when the Dutch say de man (the man), which sounds like German die Mann, which would be grammatically incorrect. However, they can do very well without genders in both English and Dutch, but why can't we in German? The answer is: We can! But we don't need it.

    Nevertheless, there have been several changes of cases and cases in German: I think the sign rune has changed from neuter *rûnô to feminine Rune in German. The word zuîval was neuter in Old High German and is now masculine as Zweifel. I can't tell you why that happened, but it is for sure that some endings can determine the gender (which is the case for rûnô [-o] and Rune [-e]). I think words ending in -el in New High German are masculine, not sure about Old High German -al.

    However, why do we need to explain why we use genders? In some centuries, German will lack its genders, too, and it won't sound strange, because they will be erased bit by bit; maybe at first the neuter and then the feminine. Cases will be removed (they are sometimes in colloquial speech already), and it will adjust to English and Dutch. I'd even venture to say that English is the language that has developed the furthest among all Germanic languages. Dutch is on the best way to catch up, and (High*) German is still very far back. I'd exclude the North Germanic languages, because they have developed some pecularities regarding definite articles and genders. It would go too far to explain this phenomenon here.

    I hope this helps. :)

    *I'm using High German here, because some dialects only use two cases (nominative and dative or accusative, depending on the region) and there's often no difference between the masculine and feminine attribute ("mein Mann" and "mein Frau < miin Fruu").
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    To Maroseika:
    There is no value judgment in my posting (at least there is not meant to be any) – but I can easily come up with one:

    Turkish is a very ‘economical language’. I can’t think of any other which is.

    And yet, I am fascinated by many utterly uneconomical languages. Why should we say ‘one language’, but ‘two languages’ when I have already said two? Obviously there is very little I can do about it.;) And I can’t explain why indeed Turks say good nightswhen going to bed. Cultural emphasis reflected in their language?

    You were asking in the first place “What is the advantage for a language to have genders?” Now you have answered the question saying –-

    May I ask why this is so convenient?
    I've already tried to answer to this question on the example of Russian.
    - We may use special word for each animated being. I may be mistaked, but I suspect of the English-speakers not being so much happy with all their he-oxes.
    - Due to feminine ending of Russian verbs in the Past feminine speech phonetically differs from the musculine one and that seems to me beautiful. Besides, it makes the speech clearer.
    - Declension of the nouns also differs depending on the gender, enriching the language with the delightful colours.
    I only regret of the dual number, Russian language has lost about 600 years ago, because it also sounded differently depending on the gender.
    - Medium gender gives us additional instrument to express our attitude to something, when we want to outline intermediate character of somebody.
    In short, the more instruments in the langauage the better.
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    To Maroseika:
    There is no value judgment in my posting (at least there is not meant to be any) – but I can easily come up with one:

    Turkish is a very ‘economical language’. I can’t think of any other which is.

    And yet, I am fascinated by many utterly uneconomical languages. Why should we say ‘one language’, but ‘two languages’ when I have already said two? Obviously there is very little I can do about it.
    I would be surprised if any human natural language were found to be "more economical" by any objective measure (I'm talking about spoken languages, of course -- writing systems can be, and have been designed with more or less redundancy). Human language must have a large information redundancy in order to be understandable easily and reliably, and I don't think there is any difference between languages in the ease and reliability of oral communication between native speakers.

    I have written about this topic in a recent post in this forum. In short, in any language, it's easy to find examples of complicated rules about syntax and agreement that could be eliminated without reducing its expressive power. Gender agreement rules certainly fall into this category. However, if such rules were eliminated, the reliability of communication would be reduced, since it would no longer be possible to identify misspoked or misheard sentences by the fact that these rules have been violated. It would also increase the number of syntactically ambiguous sentences.
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    However, why do we need to explain why we use genders? In some centuries, German will lack its genders, too, and it won't sound strange, because they will be erased bit by bit; maybe at first the neuter and then the feminine. Cases will be removed (they are sometimes in colloquial speech already), and it will adjust to English and Dutch.
    That's not necessarily true. Nobody knows how languages will develop in the future. Some gender rules might remain for a very long time, perhaps so long that the language change will change its course and start moving in a synthetic direction, which could bring a resurgence of the gender system. We can't know.

    I'd even venture to say that English is the language that has developed the furthest among all Germanic languages. Dutch is on the best way to catch up, and (High*) German is still very far back. I'd exclude the North Germanic languages, because they have developed some pecularities regarding definite articles and genders.
    Actually, I think that grammar of Afrikaans is about as analytic as English. Certainly, any other Germanic language could be only a distant third on the scale you mention.
     

    Maroseika

    Moderator
    Russian
    I would be surprised if any human natural language were found to be "more economical" by any objective measure (I'm talking about spoken languages, of course -- writing systems can be, and have been designed with more or less redundancy). Human language must have a large information redundancy in order to be understandable easily and reliably, and I don't think there is any difference between languages in the ease and reliability of oral communication between native speakers.
    But isn't it a fact that each langauge is tightly connected with the national mentalitet?
    For example, free order of the words in Russian allows you to turn your speech in any direction right in the middle of the sentence, while strict order of English and especially German makes you to plan more thoroughly what exactly you are going to say.
    Absence of time categories in the most of African languages - doesn't it allow the natives to treat the time itself less seriousely?
    Redundance of the tenses in Spanish - doesn't it make them structure the time better than Russians who have only one past time?
    Maybe this conclusion are too superficial, but what if not?
     

    Athaulf

    Senior Member
    Croatian/Bosnia, Croatia
    But isn't it a fact that each langauge is tightly connected with the national mentalitetmentality?
    Actually, my point above has little to do with these issues. What I had in mind is the purely technical role of gender (and other) agreement rules in increasing the reliability of communication by adding redundancy.

    For those who aren't familiar with these information-theoretical concepts, here is a familiar example that represents a very good analogy: credit card numbers. The last digit of the credit card number doesn't carry any information -- it has to be calculated as a mathematical function of the preceding numbers, and there is no freedom in its choice if all of the preceding numbers are given. Therefore, if you know a credit card number that is missing the last digit, you can easily compute it and complete the number. So why this redundant digit that carries no information? The reason is error detection: if an error happens and you have a credit card number with one or more wrong digits (e.g. if the card scanner malfunctions or the number is mistyped or misheard over the phone), it is highly likely that the last digit won't match this calculation any more, and the error will be detected before proceeding with the transaction.

    Similarly, redundant agreement rules help error detection in human communication. A misspoken or misheard sentence might easily end up violating the agreement rules, whereas if such rules didn't exist, it would still be a valid sentence with a different (and wrong) meaning. The same goes for complicated syntax rules: a wrongly transmitted sentence will sound suspicious if it violates the expected word order. Synthetic languages rely more on the former mechanism, and analytic ones more on the latter. This aren't the only redundancy mechanisms in human languages, but they certainly are important. Of course, none of these mechanisms are 100% reliable: a mistaken sentence might still end up respecting the syntax and agreement rules by accident, just like a mistaken credit card number might still add up correctly by accident. But it does increase reliability and reduce the probability of misunderstanding.

    For example, free order of the words in Russian allows you to turn your speech in any direction right in the middle of the sentence, while strict order of English and especially German makes you to plan more thoroughly what exactly you are going to say.
    Absence of time categories in the most of African languages - doesn't it allow the natives to treat the time itself less seriousely?
    Redundance of the tenses in Spanish - doesn't it make them structure the time better than Russians who have only one past time?
    Maybe this conclusion are too superficial, but what if not?
    The problem with such conclusions is that they aren't supported by any practical examples. For examples, Russian has far fewer verbal tenses, aspects, and moods than English or Spanish, and yet there is nothing in those languages that you couldn't express with equal precision in Russian. It's easy to come up with theories like this, it's but far harder (and usually impossible) to actually find some concrete examples of real-life situations in which they become relevant.


    - Due to feminine ending of Russian verbs in the Past feminine speech phonetically differs from the musculine one and that seems to me beautiful.
    I definitely agree! :thumbsup: :)
    (This holds for all Slavic languages, not just Russian.)
     

    jfm

    Member
    Sweden
    Grammatical gender in human language has its origin in 'categorization', a fundamental human cognitive capacity. Without it we wouldn't survive. Being able to make generalizations (i.e. create categories) and discern differences (draw boundaries) is necessary for us. Thus grouping objects, activities, whatever, into categories is something that, in one way or other, is reflected also in our languages.

    However, simply grouping nouns into various sets is not sufficient to warrant the technical label 'gender'. Some form of agreement phenomena must also be involved. If a language simply categorizes nouns into declensions, without employing any kind of agreement, then it's usually not considered to be gender, in the technical sense.

    The reasons why grammatical gender occurs and persist (or even originates) in languages is not well understood, though explanations have been offered. The most common explamation is usually text cohesion, i.e. if a text involves several participants and uses lots of pronominals referring back and forth, then its easier to track the proper referents for each individual pronominal. However, this explanation often breaks down when there are several participants of the same gedner/noun class. Nevertheless, text cohesion is the most commonly advanced reason for why gender+agreement persists in languages. (Redundancy is not sufficient to explain its existence, though it certainly plays a part in its persistence.)

    There is no major difference between grammatical gender and noun classes. The basic premise for both types is that nouns are categorized into two or more categories (which may be semantically-based to various degrees) and that these categories are also marked as agreements on adnominals (adjectives, demostratives), pronouns, and verb (subject marking, sometimes also as object marking).

    The semantic basis of genders/noun classes is often exagerrated. Genders are labelled 'masculine' and 'feminine' in many European (and other) languages, but they are seldom (never?) equatable with the categories 'male' and 'female'. A certain overlap does exist, true, but they are not identical. The semantic basis of genders in the so-called noun class languages, like Swahili, is also often exaggerated. Even though semantic parametres can often be discerned, to a certain degree, there are numerous exceptions to the rules. Virtually every comprehensive grammar of a Bantu language includes "miscellaneous nouns" that do not fit into established semantic definitions.

    ---
    jfm
     

    Whodunit

    Senior Member
    Deutschland ~ Deutsch/Sächsisch
    For example, free order of the words in Russian allows you to turn your speech in any direction right in the middle of the sentence, while strict order of English and especially German makes you to plan more thoroughly what exactly you are going to say.
    What do you mean? In German, you can vary with the word order due to cases and genders:

    The dog ate the fish.
    Der Hund aß den Fisch nicht. (neutral)
    Der Hund aß nicht den Fisch. (emphasis on den Fisch)
    Nicht der Hund aß den Fisch. (emphasis on der Hund)
    Den Fisch aß der Hund nicht. (emphasis on den Fisch)
    Den Fisch aß nicht der Hund. (emphasis on both den Fisch and der Hund)
    Nicht den Fisch aß der Hund. (special emphasis on den Fisch)

    Es aß der Hund den Fisch nicht. (poetic, neutral)
    Es aß der Hund nicht den Fisch. (poetic, emphasis on den Fisch)
    Es aß nicht der Hund den Fisch. (poetic, emphasis on der Hund)

    It would even be possible to say Es aß den Fisch der Hund nicht, but that is almost incomprehensible, because it sounds both archaic and poetic. However, grammatical rules would allow it.
     

    jfm

    Member
    Sweden
    I missed this part:

    Absence of time categories in the most of African languages - doesn't it allow the natives to treat the time itself less seriousely?
    Which African languages lack "time categories"? Please specify.

    If you're referring to tense-marking by way of inflections (as in European languages) versus time marking with adverbials, then it's actually the other way round. The semantics of temporal adverbials are "more temporal" than are the meaning of tense inflections.

    Inflections usually carry additional atemporal meanings, and are often used in ways that go against expected meanings. Consider, for instance, the use of the so-called historical present, the neutral-tense use of grammatical present tense ("dogs are faithful", "birds fly", "water contains hydrogen", etc.), the added aspectual meanings of many tenses (e.g. progressive is...Ving in English), and so on. Temporal adverbials seldom carry these extra grammatical meanings, and require a much more "serious" consideration of time.

    ---
    jfm
     

    ireney

    Modistra
    Greek Greece Mod of Greek, CC and CD
    I don't feel I am ready for any conversation that goes beyond the "because" and other obvious reasons for the existence of one, two, three or no gender at all in any language or discuss the relative merits of any language (not in a qualitative manner at least) but I thought some may find the following threads interesting:

    pc gender eradication
    Gender in languages - why?
     
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