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.)