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

Paul J. Kriha (
Fri, 28 Jul 1995 13:57:04 GMT

In article <>, (Glynis Baguley) wrote:
>In article <>
>> I have often wondered quite where the idea of gender FOR NOUNS came from;
>> seems so natural (well, it is) for speakers of languages that have it, but
>> unnatural for the rest of us. Any ideas? (I can perhaps see
anthropomorphism for
>> some things, like wind or sun, but this seems unlikely for everyday
>> also, they vary - table is a different gender in French and German, for
>> example.)
>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?

My understanding is that usually in the normal day to day conversation
there is almost no link between grammatical gender and sex.
That is certainly true in Slavic languages which have well preserved
gender noun categories with agreement in both verbs and adjectives.

The link between gender and sex is used relatively seldomly, however,
it is as a powerful tool in poetry and whenever an emotional
colouring related to sex is needed.

>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 Slavic schools, linking sex to gender is usually discussed
in language poetry classes. In ordinary conversation the gender
is indeed just a grammatical class. Each gender has four,
five or more subclasses, so there is much more to wary
about then just genders.

>If you were anthromorphising the sun, would you see it as masculine
>(Latin) or feminine (German)?

I see Sun definitely as a neuter :-)

Take another heavenly body, the Moon:
In Czech: Me^si'c is masculine
luna is feminine
me^si'c^ek is neuter
lunka is feminine
lunic^ka is feminine

To anthromorphise one can choose the word to suit
the intended sex.

Paul JK