This blog is a he: gender in foreign languages

Cast your mind back to your twelve-year-old self stuck in the classroom on a Friday afternoon in the middle of a French lesson. (Or German, or Spanish, for that matter.) If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, what was the thing you struggled with the most when learning a foreign language? Was it the convoluted concoction of verb conjugations? The weird and wonderful sounds you had to produce? Or perhaps the fact that téléphone was masculine and voiture was feminine?

This last point – getting the gender right – is one that perplexes many native English speakers, who scratch their heads at the idea that random inanimate objects could be thought of as masculine or feminine, perhaps because of all the cultural associations we attach to those terms. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual – around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of formal gender system. The English language itself used to be no different to modern German in this respect, as Old English grouped nouns into three genders. In Anglo-Saxon times, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman – masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realize you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)

However, these gender distinctions began to disappear in northern England around the time of William the Conqueror and had vanished entirely by Chaucer’s day (linguists are not clear why, but it appears to have been part of a general simplification of English grammar as it evolved from Old into Middle English).

Ever since, English has used only natural gender: he refers to a biological male, she to a female, and it to more or less everything else. There are a handful of well-known exceptions such as ships, countries, and certain organizations, which – in rather formal contexts – can sometimes take the feminine pronoun she (but even so most British press coverage of the recent Costa Concordia disaster referred to the ship as it). So English speakers are used to simplicity in this regard, and find it odd that mistakenly asking for “une verre d’eau” rather than “un verre d’eau” could engender such looks of either blank incomprehension or utter despair (and usually both) on the part of Parisian waiters. If you throw in the fact that some common words in other languages can mean completely different things depending on whether they are masculine or feminine (papa in Spanish means ‘pope’ if it’s masculine, but ‘potato’ if it’s feminine) then English speakers may be justified in feeling baffled.

Are gender systems really that common?

Gender systems are particularly popular among Indo-European languages, so English is unusual here. If we look at the languages on Oxford Language Dictionaries Online, for instance, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (and Arabic – a Semitic language) have two genders each, while German, Russian, and Polish have three. Chinese, on the other hand (in common with Japanese, Thai, and Korean) has no linguistic genders at all – hence the tendency for some Chinese native speakers to say “he” or “she” indiscriminately when speaking English, whether they are referring to a man or a woman.

Chinese does however use another system called measure words which separates nouns into conceptual groups such as things in the shape of a line or small, round things such as pearls, teeth, and hearts and assigns them a collective term (a little like “piece” and “loaf” in “a piece of paper” or “a loaf of bread”). However, although this may seem like a similar concept, this classifier system is not technically the same as gender. We can say a gender system is present if a language features nouns that trigger agreement in associated words, such as adjectives. Take French, for example. If the site (site, masculine) in the phrase Le nouveau site a été mis en service jeudi (The new site went live on Thursday) is changed to a station de radio (radio station, feminine) the accompanying adjective (nouveau) and past participle (mis) also need to become feminine: La nouvelle station de radio a été mise en service jeudi (you see – you did remember that from school.) Therefore French has a gender system.

Can there be more than three genders…?

The answer is yes. Linguistic gender is not simply a matter of being masculine, feminine, or neither. Gender originally meant ‘kind, sort, genus’, and in fact another term linguists sometimes use is noun class. In other words, a gender system reflects the way we class the nouns around us, and if we step back a moment, we can see that there are many potential ways of doing this.

Certain African and Aboriginal languages, such as the Fulfude language of the Niger-Congo region, have as many as twenty genders or noun classes all triggering different agreements in associated words (consider yourself lucky in your schooldays). Some of these noun classes are very narrow: the second gender of Ngangikurrunggurr, an Aboriginal language spoken in north-west Australia, is specifically for hunting weapons, and the ninth is reserved for dogs. Dyirbal, another Aboriginal Australian language, famously places “female humans, water, fire, fighting” in the second of its four genders (most other animate objects, including male humans, fall into the first category), which inspired the linguist George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. (In fact, it might be worth speculating on whether the genders used in these languages reflect the way that their men class the nouns around them.)

On the other hand, male and female are not always distinguished: John Mansfield, currently researching the Murrinh Patha language of northern Australia, reports that the ten genders used are: kardu (people); ku (animals, meat, spirits); mi (edible plants); tju (weapons, not including spears); thamul (spears of many types); thungku (fire and fiery things); kura (water and other liquids); nandji (inanimate objects); murrinh (things relating to language); and da (places, and periods of time). The thamul class is falling out of use by the younger generation, as spears are no longer a central part of their world. Meanwhile, the Murrinh Patha people have integrated new Western concepts into their gender system in an interesting way: white people were originally assigned to ku, but are gradually being referred to as kardu, while heavy metal is also referred to as ku, perhaps because it is associated with black magic.

Moving away from the Outback, linguists theorize that Proto-Indo-European, the forerunner of most of the languages spoken in Europe, classified the world around in a similar way, firstly into “animate” objects, such as people and animals, and “inanimate” objects, such as stones and plants. The animate objects were then further refined into “masculine”, “feminine”, and “neuter” (neither) – classifications which survived into Latin and then remained, merged, or disappeared depending on the characteristics of the daughter languages that eventually developed. (My use of the term daughter language here was deliberate – to remind you that even in English we can still ascribe genders to concepts that are not biologically male or female.)

But…we still don’t know why une table is feminine!

So what makes une table – or its Latin forerunner, tabula – specifically feminine? The answer to this question seems to be elusive. There are some languages in the world whose speakers do perceive masculine and feminine characteristics in the things around them. Alamblak, a two-gender language spoken in Papua New Guinea, classifies anything tall, long, slender, or narrow such as fish, tall trees, and spears, as masculine, and anything short, squat, or wide such as turtles, houses, and shields, as feminine. Perhaps, academics speculate, our linguistic ancestors categorized the world around them in a similar way but the original connections have now been lost. Other linguists suggest that grammatical gender serves an additional communicative purpose in that it can often be a useful way of keeping track of the subject of a complicated sentence.

We are told at school, however, that gender in the European languages is largely arbitrary and we just have to memorize it, and that there is no inherent “maleness” or “femaleness” about any inanimate object. The fact that some nouns can be masculine in one language (for instance, ear is orecchio in Italian), feminine in others (oreille in French) and neuter in others (Ohr in German) would seem to support this. On the other hand, while the twentieth-century Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (the idea that the structure of a language influences how its speakers see the world) is still controversial, several studies have been carried out which suggest that speakers of various different languages do actually ascribe stereotypically masculine attributes such as strength and size to inanimate objects which are grammatically masculine in their language, and stereotypically feminine attributes such as prettiness and weakness to inanimate objects which are grammatically feminine.

Enough theory, now for the practical – any shortcuts for learning genders?

To get back to the classroom, the good news for English speakers is that gender – at least in the languages usually taught at school – is not entirely arbitrary after all, and there are patterns and general rules based on sound, spelling, and even meaning that can be followed more often than not. For example, almost all French words ending in –tion are feminine; monosyllabic German words are more likely to be masculine. Trees, languages, and colours are almost always masculine in French; fruits tend to be feminine. This may help to explain how gender is assigned to a new word – the new word is likely to take the same gender as another word with a similar written form. As a general rule, English loanwords are more likely to become masculine when assumed into French (le marketing), although watch out for words like l’app which is feminine because its true full form is application. Sometimes, however, the gender of a loanword can be unstable – E-Mail is usually die (feminine) in Germany, but often das (neuter) in Austria.

On a practical note, one popular way of memorizing genders is to keep colour-coded vocabulary lists; another is to link words to mental images. Neither are pain free – but there is one final word of reassurance for language learners. Studies have shown that even very young native speakers of French, German, and other languages have usually intuitively absorbed gender patterns based on sound and spelling well before they start school and are able to correctly predict the gender of invented words. So the more you immerse yourself in your new language, the more likely you will develop a feel for what is right. Now that it’s February, there’s another good excuse to book that holiday to the South of France this year.

This article was originally published as This blog is a he on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, OxfordWords, on January 30, 2012

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