Why is gender of nouns useful in German?
Aside from tradition it feels like an unnecessary hassle. I mean German could be learned much easier without all the gender-related stuff. :)
Does it have some actual purpose or is it just a legacy of the development of the language?
Well, it can sometimes be useful to know whether your boyfriend met a male or a female friend last night. :) Otherwise, I think it's down to language history. There are many languages that have genders. See this map:
English originally also had genders (and cases, for that matter), but managed to get rid of them a long time ago. And the language still works.
If you are feeling slightly frustrated at the moment, I can highly recommend an essay written by a fellow sufferer, by the way: Mark Twain, who travelled to Heidelberg and tried to learn German in the 19th century. The essay is quite funny, and among other things, he talks about the gender problem:
As far as English is concerned, I am personally all for abolishing the distinction between present perfect and past tense and getting rid of the progressive aspect. That would make my life much easier. :)
Fie on you! We love our confusing progressive verb tenses. We embrace them. Notice even the speakers of patois or English slang use the past, present and future progressives vs perfects with nearly 100% accuracy (also the subjunctive cases.)
Gender adds complexity to language and allows complex statements to be boiled down to simpler sentence structure. Not that German reduces it's sentences the same way French or Spanish does, but having genders does make sentences clearer and cleaner in a way.
Oh the other hand, English speakers find gender nouns to be intrusive. I'm not going to tell you if the neighbor I'm interested in is a Nachbar, a Nachbarin or a paar Nachbarn, until I'm darn good and ready. In German, this information is essential to initial communication about this neighbor.
I admit that learning the gender of nouns can be a chore, like learning the cases, but these are the things that make languages so interesting. I am a native English speaker, and I think how much poorer the English language would be without its nuances of tenses. And, for example, Irish Gaelic has an extra present tense, the present continuous. Languages are beautiful things and despite the difficulties I am having at times with German, I will persevere because I love it.
So the main advantage of genders is they add flavor to the language. It makes the language a bit less practical, but in life nice things are not always practical I guess. :)
Luiseadh, nicely put. I just read an article about the three present English tenses. It asserts that English kept this aspect of Celtic languages (Manx, Cornish, Welsh, Gaelic) which have three or more present tenses (that continue in other tenses). Just part of the big old garbage pail of cultures that is English! Keep at the German. I'm beginning to see a glimmer of beauty in it, even hear it when spoken by some. The flexibility of the sentence structure must make for some very unique and beautiful poetry.
It's not about aesthetics, it's not about tradition, it's not about utility. Let's face the facts: it just is because it is, and we are powerless to change it.
It depends how talking originated, and what its purpose was initially, and is now. Spoken language originated very late in the evolution of the complex social behaviour seen in dogs, monkeys and apes. I think some researchers believe it originated to replace social grooming in apes. Apes groom each other in order to reinforce a complex network of social bonds (no, they're not picking fleas off each other). I don't think talking originated simply for practical reasons, to communicate facts, and I don't think this is or has ever been its sole purpose. I am thinking that in some way, language represents processes which are going on in the mind, many of which are not rational or factual. Human beings have many more faculties than logic (indeed many of them seem not to possess logic at all), so you can't wonder why language isn't simple and logical, and you can't force language to become logical.
I seem to remember hearing somewhere, that forcing language to follow some logic or ideology, is a characteristic of repressive regimes.