Grammatical Gender

The gender of countries in the French language...

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Because English does not associate gender with words apart from literal references to it, such as in the pronouns he and she or words like male and female, the concept of grammatical gender can be somewhat difficult for native English speakers to grasp at first. Yet gender in the grammatical sense of the word occurs in most other languages. Indo-European languages (see the associated page) such as French or German associate gender only with nouns, pronouns and their modifiers, but for example Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic also associate gender with verbs.

tablet with Minoan script

tablet with Minoan script

So a natural question is whether or not grammatical gender and actual physical gender have any real connection. Unfortunately, the only genuine answer must be both yes and no. As mentioned recently in an article in the NYTimes, a study has shown that speakers of a given language will expect in a voiced-over cartoon that animated objects will have a voice and characteristics which are male or female depending on the grammatical gender of the specific object in a way that is language specific. Thus, a Spanish speaker to whom a bridge is masculine will describe the bridge in terms culturally more attributed to males and also expect a bridge speaking in a cartoon to have a male voice, but a German speaker to whom a bridge is feminine will similarly describe the bridge in terms culturally considered feminine and will expect the cartoon bridge to have a female voice. Yet at the same time, a literal take on grammatical gender can lead to confusion. The most notorious instance, known from Mark Twain‘s references to it, is the fact that the term Madchen for a young woman in German is grammatically neuter– not feminine.

Yet one does not need to understand why any given word in a specific language has the associated gender it does in order to be able to correctly use the associated grammatical forms. In most languages, whereas some exceptions may exist, patterns exist whereby the gender of words can be recognized. For example, in many Indo-European languages, especially Romance languages, nouns with the root vowel a in the final syllable are most often feminine and similarly nouns with the root vowel o or u are most often masculine. Exceptions can be memorized.

The majority of languages with grammatical gender will have either two or three. In the former cases, they are masculine and feminine and in the latter case masculine, feminine and neuter. One should notice though that neuter is a gender itself; it is not gender-neutral. Early Indo-European languages seem to have had all three genders.


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