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Linguistic gender personification of boats, cars, planets, and storms?

Source of Benny the Bunny

Here and there in history, some cultures have tended to apply gendered personifications to ships, cars, countries, planets, and storms among other things.

This discussion was inspired by someone who mentioned that ships are given female personifications. (Or rather were. The practice is becoming notably less common.) What even inspires people to call a ship "she in" the first place? Or for that matter countries (save for a few exceptions). Mother Earth? And, is there something unique differing between Hurricanes Andrew and Urma? The more I considered these things and poked around on the internet, my curiosity was piqued.

There seem to be a few different theories out there. Some grossly (hetero)sexist, some as a device of comfort to insulate (mainly men?) from loneliness and fear. (I added "mainly?" not as a dig, but because the articles I'm reading center men as the agents personifying ships as women, not women leading that practice (Not that there weren't any women sailors. There were, some were even famous pirates! The question mark is a sincere invitation to investigate that perception, for confirmation or debunking if you'd like.)

For now, here is my contribution towards the investigation of linguistic gender personification of boats as women.

..the tradition of boat-owners, typically and historically male, naming their vessels after significant women in their lives — wives, sweethearts, mothers. Similarly, and more broadly, ships were once dedicated to goddesses, and later also to mortal women of national or historic significance, thereby bestowing a benevolent feminine spirit on the vessels that would carry seafarers across treacherous oceans. Figureheads on the prows of ships were often depictions of such female namesakes, denoting the name of the ship for a largely illiterate maritime population. This practice dated from the early 18th century... From, "Why is a ship a she?" by Glossofilia.

The quote above is not a conclusion. It is one piece of the story. I invite those interested to join this discussion and help us all learn more about the practice of providing gendered personification to things that are not people or animals. :)
("Thing" has an undesired connotation. But, I have not yet arrived at the word I'm looking for.)

January 16, 2018



Hi HalJam,

Once again you conflate "gendered personification"

I am specifically talking about gendered personification, not noun classes in the OP. From there, comments have gone where they will. Noun classes and social gender do overlap in some languages though not all.

I'll be back tomorrow to read more of what you wrote. I could learn something new when I do. So, I am looking forward to it. :)


To be fair, I found the OP was perfectly clear in his or her post what they were talking about, and I find the question very interesting. To claim they are "only interested in a limited subclass of grammatical genders" sounds a bit unfair to me - "Here and there in history, some cultures have tended to apply gendered personifications to ships, cars, countries, planets, and storms among other things." does not exclude the possibility of the animate/inanimate genders you quote, does it? The boats with female names are merely an example. I for one find it an interesting question to talk about. Your post added an interesting - and for me, new - perspective, but to me it also sounded somewhat aggressive.


I think it’s far more than the sailors being men and missing women. The men are being carried in a womb-like vessel through the salt ocean to safe arrival on land. What could be more of a birth metaphor than that?


Just because it can be construed as a metaphor does not make it a likely explanation; when was the last time you made a decision based on its metaphorical value? And why would sailors want to invoke the metaphor of birth in the first place?
If there must be a metaphor, a better one to me is marriage—the sailors must devote their work and attentions to looking after the ship, through both calm and stormy waters, as if it were a partner, without which they would not be able to navigate across the vast and uncertain seas and achieve their ultimate objective.

Referring to a ship as 'she' is and was essentially a mark of respect (sailors will still get offended if you call their ships 'it'); this is because the ship is the most important thing keeping the sailors alive at sea, and ingrained respect for it is more conducive of good upkeep of it. As most sailors are and have been male, personifying the ship as female elevates and differentiates it from the crew (the life of a sailor was pretty cheap in the 18th century; a ship was not)—it is their collective complement, and thus (for most men), a woman.


I believe in the power of metaphor. Do I mean it is literally true, no. Do I think that the peril of the sea and the cocooned safety of the ship charges gender assignment? Yes.

There are more things in heaven and earth...after all.


English used to have grammatical gender, too: http://the-toast.net/2014/06/02/a-linguist-gendered-pronouns/

Ships are a remnant of that.

In general, one should not think of objects in say German having a human-like gender, but rather there being two grammatical genders, where the association with human genders is a nice mnemonic device.

[deactivated user]

    Hurricanes haven't always been named after both males and females. http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/hrd/tcfaq/TCFAQ_B.txt

    By the way, meteorologists use "it" to refer to a hurricane, and most people living in hurricane-prone regions just refer to the storm by its name ("Andrew", "Irma", etc.) or call it "the hurricane" or "the storm".


    lol great read. The dude naming hurricanes after his ex-girlfriends was perfect.


    I would like to know what came first: the picture or the discussion topic? Have a nice day :D
    Actually German is full of examples for this. Most mountains are female, most trees male, most flowers female, most ships female, for rivers it is mixed (inside of Germany mostly female, outside of Germany mostly male). Days and months: male. Colors are neutral. Actually it is quite hard to remember all the different genders in foreign languages so it comes in handy if there exist some "clusters" or patterns.


    Perhaps a tiny bit off-topic:

    An useful differentiation you could make in your example about German words is the difference between the gender of concepts and the gender of nouns. Concepts in themselves are not (often) gendered, but the words used to express those concepts often are. In fact, one could actually think of 'word gender' as 'word color' and it would change nothing. Word gender can be seen as a way to divide words into groups (often but not always) posessing the same pattern (conjugation or ending vowel for example).

    Take for example the German word (der) Löffel (the spoon). Nothing in this word suggests that the concept itself is a masculine concept. After all, spoons are used by both males and females and I do not believe that the concept of a spoon is a concept that one could identify as either masculine or fenimine. In fact, if you go over to Spanish you'll see that the Spanish word for the concept of spoon is a feminine word (la cuchara). Thus you could say that in language there are gendered concepts and gendered words that do not always correspond to one another.

    As an example of a gendered concept I could talk about is the concept of pregnancy which is something only people born with the body of a woman/women can experience. Even if the concept of 'pregnancy' would be a masculine word in any language, it would still be a fenimine concept. The gender of the word does not influence the gender of the concept.

    I'm interested in anyone's thoughts on this matter.


    Believe it or not, the discussion. It was inspired by This Comment (If the anchor doesn't load, the comment might be hidden. If so, just look for hidden.)

    if there exist some "clusters" or patterns.

    I wanna know how the clusters/patterns came to be. My curiosity is hungry for the history behind it all. (If only histories were carrot flavored...)


    I am not sure if the entire evolution of a language can be broken down to a few stories behind it. It might be a lot of work to look at the influences, yes, starting with some cavemen who might have thought a well genders might be useful for our lives reproduction purposes - is that guy over there male or female, sustaining gentrification through culture - and especially religion - and carrying it over to immaterial stuff, first natural things such as trees, mountains and flowers by looking at their prominent traits, damn that tree is tall, these flowers are so beautiful. If I am not mistaken Dutch had three genders, now only two de and het where the de-words were former male and female words and het neutral. Languages evolve surounded by culture. And for your native culture these patterns become so ingrained that you even recognize the gender of a new word in most cases correctly. I wonder what a map of language families, religions, cultures and their historic migration movements would tell us :)


    What I find particularly interesting is that in German the sun is female and the moon male, whereas it's often the other way around in other languages with grammatical gender. I don't know why German is different though.


    It's the same with other Germanic languages as far as I know.


    But the German language has a strong grammatival gender in any case. It would be interesting if the above went against the grammatical gender. Or perhaps the practice stemmed from grammatical gender, which even English would have had at an early stage in it’s development.


    Most mountains are female?? I can't think of a single example where they're not male, except if they have female words attached like "Spitze" or "Alpe". Could this be a regional thing maybe?


    In West Pacific, I don't know specifically if the International names were a he, she or an it. But if a system enters the PAR, it is given a local name, that could be either he, she or it. Like Yolanda (female), Dante (male) and Vinta (it; Filipino isn't gender specific)



    I am not familiar with Filipino. Are the words "he", "she", and "it" English translations? Or, has the Filipino language incorporated those pronouns directly as loan words? I ask because "It" in American English is mainly a non-human object pronoun, save some exceptions: mainly when referencing babies ("Is it a boy or a girl?" is common among binary gender enculturated folks. Much less common among nonbinary folks. Super rare among enculturated, genderqueer nonbinary folks, as gendering someone without that person's consent is considered an act of violence in genderqueer culture.), though also asking "Who is it?" such as when someone is at the door or on the phone and the person wondering is asking the person answering the caller. Outside of those instances, more commonly in American English, Singular They would be used as the gender-neutral pronoun for people in the 3rd person singular to reference humans alongside he and she, rather than "it". :)

    I am interested to know what the PAR is and more about Filipino in this context if you are willing to share more. ^_^


    In FIlipino, there is no grammatical gender, so "he" and "she" are "siya" (nominative).

    Infinitive: ligò (to take a bath)

    Naliligo siya.
    He takes a bath

    Siya'y naliligo.
    He is taking a bath.

    (You could also say she is taking a bath/ she takes a bath)
    (Maybe I won't elaborate the changes of some accent marks)

    Let's talk about Filipino inversions. As you can see, the sentence almost mean the same, but the first one, the "siya" or the subject comes after the verb "naliligo" (present tense of ligò). If the subject comes after the main verb, it is in simple present tense.
    Now what is that "siya'y"? A contraction of "siya" and "ay" (to be is "ay" in Filipino in ALL tenses and moods). The use of the present naliligo says the form of "ay" in English, since it is in present, so "ay" is "is". If I used "naligò" (past) "ay" would be "was". So siya+ay=he+is. If the sentence order is in Subject+ay+Main verb. It is in progressive tense (the "ay" dictates what kind of progressive it would be, past progressive, future progressive whatsoever)

    since ligò means "to take a bath", then the conjugation of "naliligo" is in present tense, then, taking it to a present tense becomes "takes a bath".

    In Simple Present:
    Naliligo siya.
    Takes a bath he.
    He takes a bath.

    Siya'y naliligo.
    He is takes a bath.
    He is taking a bath (the "ay" makes it progressive)

    Let's take another example:

    Infinitive: làba (to wash clothes) (yeah, clothes specifically)

    Naglàlaba ang alè.
    The old lady washes clothes.

    Ang alè ay naglàlaba.
    The old lady is washing clothes.

    This time, the subject is neither a "he" or a "she", a specific person is used. The main subject is "ang alè" (the old lady). If you could apply the simple present and present progressive structures, you could infer the two sentences.

    Filipino Possessives

    The derivatives of "siya" in possessives are "niyang" (you could pronounce it as ñang) and "kaniyang", with shortened versions of "n'yang" and "kan'yang" respectively.

    Maganda ang kaniyang damit.
    Her dress is pretty.

    Ang sùot niyang damit ay maganda.
    The dress she's wearing is pretty.

    Notice the use of niyang and kaniyang.

    "kaniyang" is used when the noun (to determine) is the direct object. "niyang" is used when the noun (to be determined) is the main subject)

    Let's detail the sentences deeper:

    maganda -- Filipino for beautiful
    ang -- the (Filipino isn't gender specific, you will use "ang" as the Filipino counterpart of "the" and nothing else) kaniyang -- possessive, the noun it determines is the dress which is the direct object of the sentence (what is pretty in her? Her dress.)

    ang -- the
    sùot -- Filipino infinitive: to wear
    niyang -- possessive, the "damit" it modifies is the subject of the sentence.

    Filipino "it"

    The Filipino "it" could be written either "ito" or "ìto", they're still the same. It won't mess your grammar.

    Masayà ito.
    It is fun.

    Ito ay masayà.
    It is fun.

    This time, if an "ito" is surrounded by an adjective, or otherwise an "ay" away from an adjective. The meaning would be "it is adjective"

    Ito ay/Ito'y

    "Ito ay" or "ito'y" is "this is" in English.

    Ito ay lapis.
    This is pencil.

    Ito ay ìsang lapis.
    This is a pencil.

    Lapis ito.
    It’s pencil.

    The word “ìsang” is the Filipino for “one” (adjective). “ìsa” is otherwise used if you’re referring to the number “1” itself.
    Look at the “lapis ito”. “ito” (it) comes after the main subject. In English, it is the opposite, the “it” comes first, making it’s pencil, if you may ask where did the “is” came from if there is no “ay”, well, placing “ito” at the end makes “ito” function like the French “c’est”

    I would like to discuss about the Filipino that is, those are, these are but that would be slightly off topic.

    The PAR (Philippine Area of Responsibility) is a region around the country of Philippines. If a Tropical Depression (or higher) enters or forms in it, it is given a local name. The Area of Responsibility is probably for storm warnings. If you take a look on Pacific Typhoon Seasons on Wikipedia, some systems have names inside parentheses, those are names assigned by the Philippines after it entered or formed inside PAR.


    For the most part, these phenomena in English stem from the grammatical gender of the words in their native languages. Thus, while there may be some correlation between categories of words, linguistically speaking, deemed biological gender is distinct from grammatical gender.

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