Re: Noun genders (was: Re: Is English a creole? (was: Indo-European Studies))

Christopher Monsour (
Fri, 28 Jul 1995 11:53:32 GMT

In article <>,
Glynis Baguley <> wrote:
>Me too. Something I'd be particularly interested to know is whether
>the terms masculine and feminine (and neuter, etc) have been used for
>as far back as anyone knows, or whether they were much later. The word
>`gender', etymologically, has no connection with sex, simply meaning
>`type' or `kind'. In the languages I have some knowledge of, there are
>some words that seem to belong to the `wrong' gender, eg `la
>sentinelle', `das Maedchen' (all diminutives in German are neuter),
>those first-declension nouns in Latin like `poeta' and `agricola'. Is
>this because the terms `masculine' and `feminine' have been used, if
>not arbitrarily, then loosely as convenient but not particularly
>accurate labels for categories that might just have well have been
>labelled `Type 1', `Type 2', etc? Are we wrong to think that
>grammatical gender is closely connected with biological sex or hazy
>notions of male and female characteristics?

Are you sure about `agricola' and `poeta'? I thought they were
actually masculine, which would of course be the right gender, but
with goofy inflections. Unfortunately, I haven't a Latin dictionary
at hand and I can't remember any paradigm (e.g., whether one says
`agricola bonus' or `agricola bona').

>Do speakers of languages in which nouns have gender actually think of
>the names of objects being masculine or feminine, or are these just
>grammatical terms that only matter in grammar lessons?

In high school I learnt a few rules of thumb (can't remember them now)
for distinguishing the gender of 3rd declension masculine and feminine
nouns based on their meanings. They didn't apply to most nouns, but
they did work.

It might be interesting to investigate nouns that can be either
masculine or feminine, but for reasons other than sex (e.g., nouns
like `domus' and `dies', not ones like `canis').

--Christopher J. Monsour