https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Why are so many things gendered?

As a native English speaker, this is so confusing to me. Why are nouns gendered? What's it actually for? And why does the gender of a noun affect so many other words in a sentence (such as adjectives)? What would cause a language to develop like that?

I know I'm probably missing some significant meaning to it all, but right now it just seems pointlessly complicated.

Also, who decides that a table is female and a dress is male (though I'll admit, I am fond of the fact that dress is male in Spanish)?

I do plan to Google this at some point and have a good look into the linguistics of it all, but I figured I'd ask here too in case anyone can give me the basics.

5 months ago

35 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/AlastairRae

The question should really be why are English nouns not gendered. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_English it lost a lot of grammar in the Middle Ages. Something to do with mixing Norse, Saxon and Norman?

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/spiceyokooko
spiceyokooko
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The question should really be why are English nouns not gendered.

The quick and simple answer to that is, because they don't need to be! :-)

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/m.fowler
m.fowler
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The longer answer is after the norman invasion french was the language sued by the nobel classes. The only people regularly speaking english were common and uneducated, and through inproper education they more or less stoped using the more complicated aspects such as gender, as well as many other grammar aspects, leaving us closer to what we have now,

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
b05aplmun.ca
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People who were "uneducated" by modern standards have maintained complicated linguistic systems throughout history.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/m.fowler
m.fowler
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Yes absolutely. Poland for example has been invaided repeatedly and kept a very strong sense of self, and maintained their language. It just so happens that in this case that didnt happen. I do not think of it as the language regressing but rather an evloution in response to the the situation. Its not really about them being uneducated by modern standards and is certainly not bellitteling them, but this was 1066 and the people were very much still peasents and lived off the land for others. Education exisisted it just wasnt available to the masses. If they werent peasents or were educated in a more classical sense they were done so in French. Not that im amn expert but that was what I was tought in history and it makes sense to me.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
b05aplmun.ca
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You might want to take a look at this article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English_creole_hypothesis. As you can tell from the article itself, creolization is not the only theory about the development of English out there, but it makes much more sense to me than the notion that lack of education somehow resulted in massive changes in the language.

It sounds to me like your history teacher might not know a whole lot about the development of language and has odd ideas about what it means to be "uneducated" in a context in which most people are "uneducated. "

Historically, the vast majority of people have not learned language in formal educational settings. This has not stopped the development of grammatically complex languages by many peoples.

In fact, in Western cultures, even now, much of language continues to be learned at home or in other not-explicitly-educational contexts. Formal education only builds on our basic knowledge.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Lrtward
Lrtward
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Part of the magic of romance languages :)

English has a tiny bit of that: we call ships "she" for example. I don't know the history of it, but you do get used to it after a few gazillion hours of practice and repetition.

What's crazy to me is that an item can be masculine in Spanish but feminine in French (and vice versa). There is seemingly no rhyme nor reason to it all.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Good point! Yeah, that (items having different genders depending on the language) is confusing to me too. I wonder who originally decided upon the genders in each language.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Klgregonis
Klgregonis
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No one "decided" on it, it's a way of categorizing the world. It seems to be somewhat built in, Indo-European languages aren't the only ones with a categorization system that puts nouns in different classes, seemingly arbitrarily. Grammatical gender is not the same as biological gender, that is simply a word that the 17th century grammarians decided to apply. It refers to the way words behave , ie, does the adjective take an a or an o at the end. It has nothing to do with whether la guerra (war) is a masculine or feminine activity.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Chilotin
Chilotin
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It is a typical Indoeuropean thing. English is an outlier in this aspect. Proto Indoeuropean had a distinction between animate and inanimate (let's say, an eagle vs a feather) that evolved into genders for words in its daughter languages. Latin and Old English had three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. I.e.: bera (bear) was masculine, blod (blood) was neuter and ea (water) was feminine. Spansih lost neuter and English lost all of them.

In Spanish, gender is a feedback between etymology and form. A feminine word in Latin is usually feminine is Spanish and a word that ends in -a is usually feminine despite its origin (except a lot of word with Greek origin). Then, papa (potato) and callampa (mushroom) are feminine because they end in -a, even though they come from Quechua, a language without genders.

What is this for? For nothing. Maybe it was useful in Proto Indoeuropean but it lost its "useful" meaning. It is only a feature of the languages, just like English conjugates third person (Why "he goes"? "he go" would work fine) or it has different forms for to be ("I is, you is, his" would work even finer) or plurals with s (there are language where "my houses" is said "my plural house" or even "my house"). Languages are irregular and full of "unnecessary things".

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Thank you for all this information! This explains things really well. And good point about 'he goes' and 'I is, you is' - that bothers me too!

I know it just doesn't work this way, but darn it I wish languages were regular and clear. The way my brain works, the irregularities can really stick out and utterly perplex me, even once I know the basics of how to use them. I'd gladly support a major rewrite of the English language to get rid of those ridiculous things (like the ones you mentioned) but I know people would never go for that. And anyway, it would just change again soon afterwards. sighs

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Jacob2714

Our ancestor languages have more genders, and they branch off like trees from the older languages with older features, sometimes losing their features over time ('degenderating' har har). I am informed that the earliest known forms of our Indo-European language family were split into nouns in animate and inanimate forms, and the animate form became masculine and feminine due to some difference in a case ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender#Indo-European

It seems that the further you get to the fringes of Europe, the less genders a language retains. Romance languages have often discarded their neuter forms due to high grammatical similarity with the masculine form. ... https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vulgar_Latin#Loss_of_neuter_gender ... or as in the case of our Germanic cousins in Scandinavia the masculine and feminine nouns re-morphed into a common gender. For us it all must have been similar 'enough' just to combine it all.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

That's so interesting, thank you! I had no idea about animate nouns becoming masculine / feminine nouns. Linguistics is fascinating to me! And thank you for the links!

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
b05aplmun.ca
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This is pretty typical of Indo-European languages, as I understand it. From that point of view, English is the oddball language.

In the case of Spanish, it inherited a gendered system from Latin, although some of the details have changed. (Latin also had a neuter gender, which Spanish,, obviously has lost - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_grammar.)

I've been taking Catalan, which is very closely related to Spanish. In most cases, obvious cognates have the same gender in both languages - but you can't count on it.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/spiceyokooko
spiceyokooko
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Latin also had a neuter gender, which Spanish,, obviously has lost

It has?

The difference between, esa, ese, eso, esta, este, esto is what then?

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
b05aplmun.ca
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There are no neuter nouns.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/spiceyokooko
spiceyokooko
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But Spanish still retains some of the Latin neuter gender you said it has lost, that was the point. It hasn't lost it, some of it still remains.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Klgregonis
Klgregonis
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Yes, some does. lo, ello, esto, eso, aquello. Just like English retains some gendering in the pronouns, with he and she, him and her, his and hers, his and her.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/alex_arnl

Very true. Spanish has a lot of neuter elements such as the demonstratives 'esto/eso/aquello', the pronouns 'ello/lo/algo/nada', the article 'lo' (which creates neuter nouns from adjectives), not to mention that every infinitive used as a noun is considered neuter as well.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Yeah, English is a bit of a weird one really. It doesn't seem to fit neatly to any groups, from what I've seen. It has such a mix of things going on.

Thanks for the info about the history of Spanish. I'm still curious about why they have genders though. I just don't understand why that would develop in a language (Latin, or any before it) in the first place.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Vereschagin
Vereschagin
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Try asking the opposite question about English instead. Why aren't English nouns gendered?

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

I figured it's just because they don't need to be. Having genders for inanimate objects doesn't really make sense, and it just makes things needlessly complicated.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not just randomly hating on other languages here. I think some things about Spanish make more sense than English (such as a lot of the spelling). I just really don't understand the point of gendering things that cannot actually have genders. But then I am quite literal-minded.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

I think I'm struggling to understand this because I'm quite literal-minded. I'm autistic and get confused by a lot of non-literal communication. So it's difficult for me to understand why something that - literally speaking - cannot have a gender, is treated as gendered. I just...argh, I want to understand so much because I enjoy learning about linguistic things like this, but it makes no sense to me.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Chilotin
Chilotin
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Don't think in terms of genders. Think of "categories": "feminine" is in fact "A category" and "masculine" is "O category". There are maaaany exceptions, but it works in most words.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Klgregonis
Klgregonis
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You could think of them as el and la words instead of masculine and feminine. Don't get hung up on those labels. And remember, Spanish isn't English. You have to let go of your English language logic and let Spanish be Spanish.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Does anyone know who first decided whether each noun would be male or female? And how did they decide what each noun's gender would be? I can't see anything inherently female about a table, for example, so how did they decide it?

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Chilotin
Chilotin
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They aren't male and female, they are rather "A type" and "O type". Their names, "masculine" and "feminine", were created by Romans, because in Latin they matched good with words related to male and female persons ("filia" vs "pater"). These names have been cause of centuries of confussion.

We don't think a table is a woman or a female thing, it is only an object with a name that ends in -a.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Ohhhh... Wow, I really misunderstood! Thank you! This clears things up a lot. Darn Romans confusing me from millennia ago!

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Klgregonis
Klgregonis
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No "one" decided anything. Languages aren't decided and designed by a committee, except for con-langs like esperanto, Klingon and High Valyrian. They just grow.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Yeah, I know. But I figure languages do start with someone (or with a certain group, in a certain area) and someone was the first person to start categorising words that way. Languages are created by humans, so someone (or, again, a group of people) were the first ones to decide that those categorisations should exist in the language.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/StarlitTardis

Umm...some of the comments seem to have disappeared. At the bottom of the page it says that there are 7 hidden comments, but when I click on that they still don't show. Does anyone know why?

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/sophiawain2

It is just part of the language.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/redneckray

To gender is to sort.

In English we sort nouns into three(formal) piles: masculine, feminine and neuter according to our conceptions. Nurses are female, doctors are male.

Kinda argumentative ain't it?

Even worse "informally" things that are expensive, desirable, hard to control, noted for their beauty are feminine.

Things that are grubby, utilitarian, powerful, educated or sexually equipped are masculine.

Sexist ain't it?

Spanish throws words into piles quite differently.

They throw nouns into two piles. Ain't no neuter.

It has nothing to do with sex. Mostly it has to do with the last letter in the word.

Since it ain't obvious that '"policia" is feminine and "agua" is masculine the gender indicating adjective is thrown in front to warn you.

Easy peasy

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Chilotin
Chilotin
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Yeah, but... "agua" is a feminine noun: "el agua era fría y clara". That "el" is a special evolution of old "ela" that became "la", except before words that begin with a stressed a, like "águila", "arma" or "ala".

I think English classifies nouns in 2 piles: countable and uncountable. It has effects in plurals and determiners.

5 months ago

https://www.duolingo.com/b05aplmun.ca
b05aplmun.ca
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English does not have a formalized system for noun gender anything like what you're describing. People are (usually) either masculine or feminine, according to their biological sex and/or preferred gender. They are referred to as "she" or "he" accordingly, with some recent experimentation with indeterminate pronouns. Some occupational terms are also explicitly-gendered.

Inanimate objects and concepts are neuter and referred to as "it." There are some very minor exceptions in standard English. (For instance, it 's acceptable to refer to a ship as "she.") (Admittedly, however, some dialects of English have much more extensive gendering of inanimate objects.)

Many people may thinks of nurses as female, but, in fact, not all nurses are female and the word "nurse" is not explicitly gendered. Probably fewer people think of doctors as exclusively male, since women have really broken through that glass ceiling. "Doctor" is another occupational term that is not explicitly gendered.

5 months ago
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