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 embarrass 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 inadvertent 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.
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!
43 thoughts on “Why Do Languages Have Gender?”
Once in “Calvin and Hobbes”, Calvin asked his teacher why the class didn’t learn noun genders. He concluded with “I demand sex education!”
Ha, that’s awesome, Lee! I love Calvin and Hobbes but had totally forgotten about that one. 🙂
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
It’s not just gender. Verbs and adjectives have also been put into groups, with different ways of conjugation. Even genderless languages like Japanese and Korean are guilty of this.
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.
In Japanese, some words are masculine and feminine, or strictly spoken by men. This is just with the spoken language.
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.
Excellent comments. German is indeed so regular that you always know how to pronounce it, even when you don’t know what it means.
Grammatical gender in a language has absolutely nothing to do with sexism. We have three grammatic genders in Spanish and none of the identity politics and gender segregation of anglo-saxons. Stop the bullshit, stop trying to impose your view of the world on other peoples. Stop feeling morally superior.
Manu, you seem to have overlooked that a sample of one (i.e. Spanish in Spain) is not a statistically significant sample. The article said that one study found “on average [note], countries where gendered languages are spoken ranked lowest on the scale of gender equality.”
You may be outraged that Spain be tarnished with this sexist brush (actually the statement doesn’t tarnish any particular country), but it would be nicer if you were less inflammatory in your comments.
“on average [note], countries where gendered languages are spoken ranked lowest on the scale of gender equality.”
This is total BS. There are very few languages without a grammatical gender, besides English, and most of them are languages from Islamic countries. I dare say the languages that differentiate between grammatical genders (like almost every European country) have better equality.
I like your answer. People seem to concentrate on the sex part of the nouns without taking in consideration that it is related to the end of the word. Ex: casa ends in a is femenine, plato ends in o is masculine. Most nouns that end in in consonants are masculine. Like in every rule there are exceptions, some have to do with the word in a gramatical sense, how it will sound put together in a sentence. I’m not an expert but it all makes sense to me. I’m bilingual and as an adult learning English was very difficult to remember all the “rules” that most people don’t even know.
This article has ‘vexed’ me more than any language I have had to learn. You simply stated genders are a way of classifying nouns………. It’s like trying to answer why are there different colours of cars and then answering it is because cars have different colours.
Extremely non-informative, which didn’t answer the question at all.
Dude, there’s no answer to this. Be mindful that grammatical gender could be ARBITRARY. Verbs and adjectives have also been classified as group 1, group 2, strong verbs, weak adjectives, etc.
This is my opinion about why languages were divided into male/female and sometimes neutral (inanimate): The world’s first important division was male/female. It determined roles and the development of culture; why would it not also influence the development of language? It is perhaps harder today to see how being born a male or a female would be the primary way of determining your behaviour; roles are far more flexible today and continue to evolve. However, our ancestors did not enjoy this kind of flexibility and the language they created reflected the importance of this division.
For those who think languages should drop this cumbersome division – it will shut doors for those of us who take pleasure in learning more a culture through learning its language. Moreover, though all languages are constantly evolving, simplification for the sake of making a language more accessible comes with the price of destroying some of its beauty and uniqueness.
Kathryn – – –
We must not forget that the basic purpose (“The Main Thing”) of language is communication and therefore information delivery (ID).
Anything that inhibits or reduces the efficiency of that will likely not survive for a thousand more years. The use of computer “languages”** may greatly influence upcoming structure of more mobile languages like English, whose ID is much larger then most others, even with its polyglot spelling system.
Yes, languages have beauty and transmit culture, addling sparkle and interest to learning them. But I’m afraid those days may draw to a close based on utility. Right now, for example, all airlines around the world, often even within their own countries, use English because of its ease of expression, speed of ID, and crispness of sound.
** Having done a lot of programming myself, I sometimes find my nerdy half forming verbal computer expressions/”algorithms” in conversation with fellow nerds, without even trying or feeling embarrassed. Nested “Conditionals”, like “If…then” formed the most efficient, fastest, least ambiguous way to do ID information, even orally. Expect to see more of that as languages, none which are perfect, continue to evolve. And, BTW, my computer never did care all that much whether a cat was masculine or feminine! (^_^).
“Right now, for example, all airlines around the world, often even within their own countries, use English because of its ease of expression, speed of ID, and crispness of sound.”
Wrong. They use English for one reason only: it is the primary global language. There is no intrinsic feature about English that makes it somehow preferable to any other language.
History, not language is the key here: for the past 200 hundred years the two great political, economic and military superpowers have both been English-speaking.
Had circumstances been different, French or Spanish or German or Chinese could just as easily been the global language (indeed, French and Spanish were once in far more widespread use globally than English).
Interesting article. Actually, I find quite odd a gender-neutral language like English, Turkish, Finnish, etc…because it is strange thinking about something without attributing a gender to it.
I am Brazilian and every time I think about something I end up giving a gender to it. The interesting thing is to figure it out how genders vary among languages. For instance, some things so delicate like flower and butterfly are feminine in both Spanish and Portuguese but flower is masculine in Italian and butterfly is masculine in German.
In English, despite being a nongendered language, I have seen in movies people referring to a boat as She. Additionally, in an exhibition in the USA, they have used the pronoun ‘her” when referring to Germany and in the Eddie Vedder’s song “The face of love” he also used the pronoun “her” when referred to “face”. In the first case, words ending in “y” like Germany, Integrity, functionality, purity, at least in my opinion, they sound as feminine, as well as the ones ending in -ness like cleanness, righteousness, etc…
I have to say, as a native speaker of Portuguese, I never thought about genders in nouns or how adjectives have to match in gender as well…because I don’t think about gender when I use Portuguese. I can’t speak for all people who are native speakers of languages with genders.
When I say mesa (table), I instinctively say a mesa (the table) or a mesa branca (the white table), I don’t specifically think oh this is a feminine noun. It just happens to me that it is feminine and if I were to say o mesa or o mesa branco it would just sound weird and not match my language.
Does anyone else who speaks a language with gender agree?
I’d love to participate with this!
I think gendered languages are nonsensical and counterproductive to clear communication. Time to get rid of it. It’s sexist and unnecessary.
I agree that gender should be eliminated because there is no reason for it. I’m still trying to understand Portuguese after studying it for 5.5 years and visiting Brasil 17 times.
Wow grammatical gender is copping a lot of flak here. If anything, we need to rid all languages of the subjunctive mood. Just kidding, I both love it and hate it for its seeming complexity and its utility.
I’m a native speaker of English but have studied Italian and Spanish cumulatively for around ten years. Also know a little Portuguese, but definitely far from fluent! I’m hopeless with French. You’re coming at grammatical gender from a non-native speaker’s perspective, but a native speaker rarely thinks about gender. It just is. It is pretty automatic to me now. It has become intuitive to me, even if I learn a new noun I almost always immediately know the gender from the ending of the word and/or the definite article (which by the way, Italian has 6, or 7 depending on who you talk to). If I make a mistake using a word for the first time, who cares?
I don’t think you can demand that a language change a fundamental part of their grammar because it makes you “confused” or it’s ”too hard to learn”. If you changed everything to masculine for example, most of the words in Spanish and Italian would then end in “o” and it would totally change the flow and sound of the language. Or will you just change the definite article to one of the genders? Madness. You’d end up calling a woman “il donna” in Italian, or “el mujer” in Spanish. It would never catch on. It’s just… wrong. In language learning there are just a lot of things you have to let go of needing an answer for why it is the way it is. Like stop being bitter about it, just be better lol. No one put gender there on purpose to trip you up or be sexist, it’s just how the language developed over history.
Languages are also not just utilitarian information delivery systems, so you can’t use the argument that it is inefficient and hinders clear communication or whatever. Words carry emotion, colour, light, shade, culture, texture, etc. like why does poetry exist if language exists only to convey information? I argue it can make communication even clearer/more precise. For example in Italian (and Spanish) (and Portuguese) you can let the other person know who you’re talking about without even mentioning who you’re referring to, for example “Yesterday I visited my friends” if you said “Ieri ho visitato le mie amiche” using the feminine plural for “friends” the other person immediately knows you visited a group of female friends with no males present. Or if you are talking about two things like a window and a mirror, then you say “I really need to wash it”, the word for “it” (lo or la) that you use tells the other person whether you’re talking about the window (feminine), or the mirror (masculine).
Anyway TL;DR gendered nouns are one those features that many many languages have as part of their grammar so just get over it, no offence.
Side note: I’m all for English completely changing our dumb spelling system in order for it to become more phonetic. I just think it’s too big of an undertaking and no one’s willing to try to change haha. Remember that time America tried to switch their country to the metric system which makes far more sense and is way more logical, but to this day they’re still using the imperial system? Also it’s not just our nonsensical spelling. It’s also difficult to pronounce for many because English is a stress-timed language, which is a big adjustment coming from a syllable-timed language. Another story for another day.
You’re sharing really important content for people who want to learn foreign languages. Thank you for this. I hope that you will continue doing this type of content.
I have been searching for the answer to this for a long time. This is another article that explains how gender is used, but does not explain why it is used.
My best understanding is that languages are often controlled by elites. Elites have often made languages more complex than is needed for communication. They have done that so that it is easy to distinguish the educated people from the others.
English dropped gender during a period after the Norman invasion of 1066, when the elites moved their focus to French. The ordinary people took their opportunity to drop gender.
That’s my interpretation of what I’ve been able to find out. I think similar ideas have led to simpler conjugation of verbs. And simple conjugation made phrasal verbs more effective. And shorter verbs (without ‘endings’) made English easier to use in signs and slogans. And those advantages built on themselves.
English is powerful because these changes.
I think that is why English is used so much for communication, especially practical communication. Many other languages carry cultural baggage with them, that has lots of cultural value, but makes effective practical communication more difficult, and accentuates class and male/female differences.
In English possessive pronouns his/hers/its identify the owner, whereas is many other languages, they are employed to match the arbitrary gender of the thing owned. The English is both simpler and of practical use.
As a native English speaker living in Israel, I found Hebrew a very difficult language at first.
Apart from the alphabet and writing right to left, it has gendered nouns and verbs.
If a girl is speaking or a boy is speaking about a girl then you use the feminine form of the verb.
A boy saying “I am writing.” will say it different to a girl saying it, but if he says “She is writing.” he will use the feminine form.
Most feminine nouns end in “a” but there are a lot of exceptions. It is usually possible to find the gender of a noun according to the plural.
Most masculine plural nouns end with “-im” and feminine nouns with “-ot” . But the word “avanim” (stones) is feminine and ‘shulhanot” (tables) is masculine.
i have pondered this question at length. every answer seems arbitrary. BUT you need a good reason to go to this trouble,so . I have come to the conclusion that, the gender attributed to any give noun is relative to the god or goddess that the given item is reigning over i. e. if the god of dogs is masculine the noun will be the same,if the goddess of hair(beauty) if feminine the word will be the same. Thus invoqeing the inherint power of given diety,in a pagan society a very relavent motive.
That may be true in some cases, but it’s far from universal.
Toby has nailed it, thanks for a thoughtful response.
Toby, what a beautiful perspective and insight. I loved your comments about language not simply being about the exchange of data. As Christina Anne has said, Toby has nailed it.
Oh the science of words! I am amazed we have lasted this long.
As someone who studied Romance languages and English, I find it somewhat hard to believe that gendered nouns cause sexism. Speaking English does not automatically mean you are not sexist, after all. There is plenty of sexism to go around in the English-speaking world, no offense to anyone, without gendered nouns. Also, there are nouns that are gendered simply by the way they are written or conveyed: a prince is male, a princess is female. That’s also assigning gender– in that case sex explicitly (ha)– to a noun. It doesn’t happen as often, but there’s plenty of it to go around with actual living things: actor/actress, king/queen, duke/duchess… cow/bull, hen/rooster… You also have to memorize those differences in English. As to having to learn the gender of a noun… C’mon! You have to learn “sight words” in English because there are no hard and fast rules about how things are written. English is horrific regarding spelling! Every rule I was taught has a ton of exceptions. (Anyone remember the joke re: spelling fish “ghoti?” With gh an f sound, etc.) It’s easier to not have to remember a gender, but as someone else pointed out, the gender can be useful in communication– the article can convey what you are talking about. Similar with verbs. Every English speaker detests verb conjugation, given how easy it is for most verbs in English: I walk, you walk, you [plural] walk, they walk, and… he walks (!). But in certain situations, the verb tells you nothing about what you are speaking of. You do not have to use any other word but the verb to understand who is doing the walking or when: “camino hacia el parque.” Based on the verb alone, I can tell who is doing the walking. I have to add the pronoun in English to know who is doing the walking. This may seem trivial in my example, but there are other situations where it can be very helpful… English is most prevalent internationally due to economic and political reasons. And as others point out, language is more than strictly for communication.
As an author, it is an interesting mechanism to genderize: “The Enterprize, oh, she was a lovely ship” said Captain Kirk affectionately. This makes for a different note then “The Titanic, oh, it was a lovely ship” said the captain as he watched it sink into the icewater.
I agree with some comments, but quite a few are so wrong. When you see the fact that making languages easier helps to learn them, you are blind to the fact that easier languages are just more primitive. The more tools a language has, the better it can express the user and describe the world.
In English, the use of indefinite articles like ‘a’ and ‘an’ seems relevant to this debate on the purpose of gender assignment in other languages. We use ‘a’ only if the word that follows it begins with a consonant sound. We use ‘an’ only if the word that follows it begins with a vowel sound. It seems an unnecessary complication to me since ‘a apple’, ‘a umbrella’ and even ‘a ape’ are perfectly pronounceable. There might be a tiny pronounceability benefit in breaking up two vowel sounds with the ‘n’, but it seems pretty insignificant to me. My point is English speakers don’t usually question this convention, it’s just how it is. If we break this convention, it sounds wrong to us and we tend to judge the violator harshly.
In Europe at least, I assume most languages with gendered nouns are that way because they inherited it from Latin. If English were to be the basis for future languages, they might all retain the indefinite articles I mentioned above. Once a convention exists, if usually sticks around because violating it is seen as having a poor grasp of the language.
I would also point out that some of the gendered conventions do carry over to English as well. We feminize a masculine name, for example, most often by adding ‘a’ to the end: Roberta, Paula, etc. Clearly English has a bias not just between people’s genders, but word genders as well, it’s just a little more hidden.
If you want to learn why the masculine, feminine and Neuter are a centralized part of language, not just for nouns, but for the 13 pronouns that all languages use….the he, she, we, us, they, them, ect. These nouns, pronouns and other parts of speech are interpreted by the Masculine, Feminine and Neuter. European languages like Greek, Latin, German, Romantic and/or other dialects of these European languages, and of course languages such as latin, which dates back to the Roman Empire, all exist based on these distinctions; however, when we came across the pond to form this more perfect union, we didn’t create or develop a new dialect or derrivation, as those in South, Central and Latin America did with Spanish, Portuguese and other dialects or derrivations, which have Greek and Latin as its origins. We just simplified things by reversing the Spanish and Latin languages, by relocating the placement of nouns and verbs, but the most significant action taken, was to eliminate the Neuter here in this new world. The US only has the masculine and Feminine to translate or interpret our distinctions. If you want to understand or aware of this absolute truth, reach out to me, and I’ll develop a seminar to better help you walk in this foundation.
As some others have stated, native English speakers are so used to their own language that they don’t even really think about the gender nouns that actually are present in the English language:
Actor/actress, waiter/waitress (server), steward/stewardess (flight attendant), comedian/comedienne, man/woman, father/mother (parent), boy/girl (child), uncle/aunt, husband/wife (spouse), stallion/mare (horse), rooster/hen (chicken), prince/princess..