Why Do Languages Have Gender?

Why do languages have gender? For an English speaker, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of learning a new language. As Mark Twain once wrote in reference to German:

“A person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it! A person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all…”

Doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it? And yet many, if not most, languages across the world divide nouns up by “gender,” often in quite arbitrary ways. Here’s a quick primer on this interesting language characteristic, along with some tips and tricks to make learning gendered languages easier.

Grammatical Gender Vs. Natural Gender

It’s important to distinguish between grammatical gender and natural gender. Natural gender is simply the gender of a person, animal or character. Grammatical gender is a way of categorising nouns; it doesn’t necessarily match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described.

In some languages, grammatical gender is more than just “male” or “female.” Some languages have a “neuter” class, while others have different genders for animate versus inanimate objects.

Languages also have different ways of assigning gender. Some languages go by the physical characteristics of the object in question. Often, mythology and cultural views on gender come in to play, too. For example, in the Alamblak language of Papua New Guinea, the masculine gender “includes things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow (e.g. fish, snakes, arrows and slender trees).” Hmmm. I wonder why?

Meanwhile, the Zande language of Africa divides nouns into 4 genders: masculine, feminine, animal and inanimate. However, some inanimate objects that are important in Zande mythology are classified as animate.

Other languages assign gender based on the ending of the word. For example, Spanish words that end in -a are usually feminine.  That’s why la mesa is feminine even though a table doesn’t physically have a gender.

Why Divide Nouns By Gender?

Why do gendered languages exist? After all, English does perfectly well without assigning “feminine” and “masculine” characteristics to objects that lack genitalia.

Actually, English used to be a gendered language, too. English speakers stopped classifying most nouns by gender during the Middle English period.

Basically, gender in languages is just one way of breaking up nouns into classes.  In fact, according to some linguists, “grammatical gender” and “noun class” are the same thing.  It’s an inheritance from our distant past. Researchers believe that Proto-Indo-European had two genders: animate and inanimate. It can also, in some cases, make it easier to use pronouns clearly when you’re talking about multiple objects.

Fun Facts About Gender and Language

  • In Portuguese, the word  mulherão means “voluptuous woman.” However, the word itself is masculine.
  • In the Ket language of Siberia,  “those [nouns] of no importance to the Kets are feminine, whereas objects of importance (e.g. fish, wood) are masculine.” This is probably an indicator of women’s status in Ket society.
  • The word for “manliness” is feminine in the following languages: Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi.
  • The Klingon language has three genders, and they’re as random as you’d expect from an alien language:  beings capable of language use, body parts, and all other nouns.

Tips and Tricks For Language Learners

If you grew up speaking a nongendered language like English,  trying to learn a gendered language can be tricky. You have to remember which word goes with which gender, a classification that is often completely arbitrary and counterintuitive. Here are some helpful hints.

  • When you memorize vocabulary words, memorise nouns and articles together. It’s not enough to know that lápiz means pencil.  Memorise el lápiz, and the masculine article el indicates the gender.
  • Better yet,  most languages that have genders also have a specific sets of word endings that are usually one gender or the other. For example, nouns that end with -a are usually feminine in Spanish.  Try to memorise these, along with any notable exceptions.
  • Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months offers the following advice: If you don’t know, just guess! Seriously, it’s well nigh impossible to learn a language if you’re not willing to embarass yourself a bit trying to speak it. So…just guess. More than likely you’ll still be understood. Worst case scenario, you’ll make an amusing inadvertant error like asking for “the Pope” (El Papa in Spanish) instead of a potato (La papa) with your meal.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. One study found that even native French speakers had a hard time agreeing on which gender goes with which word. When asked to assign gender to 93 masculine words, study participants were only able to agree on 17 of them. Even worse, out of a set of 50 feminine words, the group only agreed on one.  This stuff is hard. 

How is a Key Like a Woman? When Grammar and Gender Politics Collide

How is a key like a woman? Well, one study found that if you speak Spanish (or another language where the word “key” is feminine), you might describe keys as “intricate,” “little” and “lovely.” Meanwhile, if you speak German (or another language in which “key” is masculine), you might use words like “heavy,” “metal” and “jagged.”

More concerningly, another study looked at languages around the world and found that “on average, countries where gendered languages are spoken ranked lowest on the scale of gender equality.”

Eventually, some languages may shed their pesky nonsensical gender distinctions as the countries that speak them pursue equality between men and women. The Guardian has suggested this may be on the horizon for German.

What do you think? Does grammatical gender make it more difficult to learn a new language? Should languages that use grammatical gender try o find a new system to use in the name of equality, or is that a bridge too far?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

11 replies
  1. Lee
    Lee says:

    Once in “Calvin and Hobbes”, Calvin asked his teacher why the class didn’t learn noun genders. He concluded with “I demand sex education!”

    Reply
  2. boggle
    boggle says:

    simply stating that gender splits nouns into classes is an obvious consequence of gender assigned nouns but tells us nothing about how they came to be assigned in such a way or what the purpose was. It says nothing about why languages have gender.

    Reply
    • Gerry
      Gerry says:

      I’ve been wondering about this for years and have never come across a believable answer. Why would anyone introduce such a difficulty into a language ? And yet it is so common.

      Reply
      • Martin
        Martin says:

        It seems odd that languages only feel the need to group the vast number of nouns into only 2,3 or maybe 4 groups. If there is an advantage in grouping then why restrict it to such a small number of groups and if there is no advantage then why do it all?

        Reply
        • Alison Kroulek
          Alison Kroulek says:

          Good question, Martin. My (mostly uneducated) guess is that humans love to classify things. We do it even when there isn’t an advantage; even when it hurts us. But using lots of different groups would probably become unmanageable, so that’s why the number of groups tends to be restricted.

          Reply
          • Harry
            Harry says:

            I am no expert, but maybe gender started for the words that do relate to gender or things men use or women use. When it came time to codify gender articles from neighboring valleys, the winning choice may have been picked for a variety of reasons, leaving a pattern that seems arbitrary today. Since sex is a very important emotional part of our brains, maybe a sex tag helped early people to tag and remember words as vocabulary grew. Now we should simplify language for easier learning.

          • Tom
            Tom says:

            When worrying about papa be careful not to masculinities it. Papo has an altogether gender bending effect… Don’t understand? Ask an Argentinian… Or think of an English 4 letter word beginning with c

  3. John
    John says:

    As I’ve have been studying languages for some time now, I’ve gotten a bit used to grammatical gender. Still, I think languages can do without them.
    I mean, it works out fine for languages like English and Japanese.

    Reply
  4. Hamish Hall
    Hamish Hall says:

    Ah! German gender. One must learn the gender together with the noun as though it were one word rather than two. Reading a comment that German may one day “modernize” their language is certainly a possibility. After all, they modernized their hand-written alphabet ninety or so years back. The English language is relatively easy to learn regards its one article, the THE. Spelling is the bug-a-boo. English needs to modernize spelling, tossing out the many French spellings. One can learn the German pronunciation of its alphabet and almost read the language out loud without knowing a word you are reading. Impossible in the French or English language.

    Reply

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