Gendered nouns

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I received a comment a few weeks ago asking me why languages like French and Italian have gendered nouns. This is an issue that has been debated a lot in the literature, and there isn’t really a good answer at this point. But putting the why issue aside for now, let’s go on a quick tour of grammatical gender.

Before we get to gender though, we first need to talk about noun classes. Noun classes are additional ways of categorizing nouns based on factors like gender, animacy, and even shape. Grammatical gender is a subset of noun classes that focuses on, well, gender. Languages will typically denote different noun classes of words by adding prefixes and suffixes to them, which are also shared with other words in a sentence like verbs and adjectives. Noun classes are not universal to all languages though which is why a language like English does not do anything like this.

Since we can’t use English examples to talk about noun classes, we will instead use Shona. Shona is a language in the Bantu family that is spoken in Zimbabwe. This is a go-to language for the purposes of talking about noun classes because it has a total of 21 different noun classes. That is not a typo, there are really that many distinctions that they make. It is not as complicated as it might sound though once you look at their paradigm and start to notice a pattern.

Table from Wikipedia

According to the table above, noun class 1 is for human nouns while noun class 2 is for human nouns that are also plural. Noun class 20 has been excluded from this table because it is considered vulgar. You can see this pattern repeat on all the noun classes where they will have one class for singular nouns and a second class for plural nouns. You will also see here that some of the prefixes are reused multiple times (I guess they didn’t want to make it TOO complicated). Ultimately, we can see that “boy”, “tree”, “house”, “scorpion”, and “river” all get different prefixes or changes to the beginning of the word because of the noun class they belong to.

While this is all really complicated and interesting, you may be asking yourself at this point “why did a system like this develop?” For a language like Shona, these noun class markers not only show up on the nouns, but they will also show up on the verbs and other words in the sentence as a way of either marking the importance of a concept or showing important links between concepts. Let’s take a look at an example.

In Shona, if you have the phrase “Pachikoro panotamba vana” it translates to “at school the children play”. Looking at these words individually, the root word “chikoro” (school) is paired with the “pa-“ prefix (noun class 16) and the word “vana” (children) is composed of the root word “ana” with a “va-“ prefix (noun class 2). The word in the middle “notamba” (play) takes same prefix as school. Basically, what this sentence is trying to say is that the children are playing at the school and not at the playground because we are emphasizing this link between the playing and the school.

Using the same word order and changing the prefix on the playing verb to become “Pachikoro vanotamba vana” we are instead drawing the link between the playing event and the children. Essentially this would be like saying that the children are playing at the school, not the adults.

This is just a quick example, but you can imagine how this would scale up if you had a long sentence with multiple nouns and embedded clauses. Having the ability to draw direct links from one word to the next without changing the ordering of the words can be pretty efficient. This is the trade-off that you get in languages with complex noun class systems. You can be very flexible with the word order.

To make this same meaning difference in English we need to do things like change the word order, put verbal emphasis on certain parts, or add extra context to clarify what we mean. In Shona, all they need to do is change a prefix on one word.

Grammatical gender is a much simpler version of this and is typically just limited to two or three classes. Everyone knows the common examples of French, Italian and Spanish that have two genders in their grammar (masculine and feminine), but some often forgotten members of this discussion are languages like German and Romanian which make a three-way gender distinction on nouns (masculine, feminine and neuter). 

In addition to the masculine/feminine divide, some languages simply make an animate/inanimate distinction, such as Ojibwe (an indigenous language spoken in parts of Canada and the United States), as well as a common/neuter distinction like we see in Swedish and Danish.

Swedish and Danish used to have a three-way distinction on their nouns like German does, but the masculine and feminine distinction melded together into this common category and only the neuter distinction is still observed.

But I think the real point of the question being asked (if I am interpreting it correctly at least) is why do the French have masculine sofas and feminine tables? We have seen the pattern evolve in multiple languages from all different families so it’s not like we can even just trace it back to some weird thing they decided to do in Latin.

I mean I was able to tell you all of these amazing things that some languages do with gender and noun classes still. From the simple two-way distinctions to the incredibly detailed 21-way distinction, there is clearly a lot to explore and so much that I glossed over still. All of these different systems evolved independently too! Shona and the Romance languages are about as related as chickens and dogs in terms of language lineage, yet they each independently arrived on a system like this. Contrast this with English, which is quite closely related to German, yet English has relatively little gender marking (we have pronouns and pairs of nouns like “king” and “queen” that are inherently gendered), but German makes the three-way contrast I talked about earlier.

There have been theories proposed in the past that this gender marking in some languages may be linked to an evolution of the animate/inanimate distinction. But this raises a few questions. If this were the answer, why do we still see animate/inanimate distinction? Would they not have all evolved to gender distinctions? And better yet, why does Shona take things to the max and include so many classes rather than simplifying it down?

Other explanations have tried to draw a link between humans’ perception of gender and sex and how we view the world. This theory does make a bit of sense when you observe the fact that languages which make gender distinctions will never have things like “man” or “male dog” with feminine morphology. These are items that we would call naturally gendered. It really starts to fall off when you look at tables and sofas though. What feature of a table “exudes” feminine energy?

When it comes to new words entering French specifically, we can look to Académie française for guidance! Académie française are the official council in charge of maintaining the “purity” of the French language, which essentially means they oversee the addition of new words to the French dictionary while also dictating the pronunciation of words for “formal French” usage. Even their rules are not definitive though since there have been cases over the years of the gender of some nouns changing over the years based on usage popularity.

So why does gender matter in some languages? The answer to that one is mostly just a big shrug at this point. It is probably the least satisfying conclusion I will ever write here, but it is very true. Ultimately, there is no satisfying answer as to “WHY” this happens. What we have instead is a ton of variation and things to talk about when researching languages, which is the kind of stuff that (ideally) keeps people like me busy forever.

I suppose the moral of the story is that language is a complicated thing which can often act like a living organism. Language change is complicated, but absolutely worth talking about in a future post. For now, I am sorry that I couldn’t give a satisfying answer to the original question. I just hope that showing the various systems that different languages use was still interesting enough to read about.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.


There is snow way that is true!

It is winter here in Canada. As I write this, I am home visiting some family for the holidays which is of course a blessing in these still uncertain times. Here in Alberta the temperatures have dipped down below -40 Celsius at times (which is the same in Freedom Units) with snow falling almost every day. This frigid wasteland has me thinking about a common myth that has been thrown around a lot in the past and I felt that now would be a good time for me to talk about it. But first, I should introduce a few key concepts so you can understand the explanation a bit better.

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Morphology is a subfield of linguistics that cares about how words are formed and how those words relate to other words in a sentence. It deals with things like affixation and case marking and is often lumped in with syntax because they have a surprising amount of overlap to give us the field of morphosyntax. Affixation is the process of adding supplemental material onto a word to either change the category of it, or enhance it in some other way. This could be something as simple as adding an -s to the end of the word to make it plural, or it could be a complex multistep process to make a word like antidisestablishmentarianism by attaching a whole bunch of affixes before and after the base word, establish.

Case marking is a morphological process in which a noun is “marked” in some way to designate its grammatical role. This could be as simple as designating a noun to be the subject or the object of a sentence. The process of case marking often involves some sort of affixation in some languages but may also result in a completely different word being used in others. It is a little bit tricky to explain using English examples because English does not have a very good case system, but you can see it on personal pronouns. Take the pronoun ‘they’ for instance. In most forms of English, you can say something like “They will see you tomorrow” but you can’t produce a sentence like “*You will see they tomorrow”. Instead of using ‘they’ in the object position, you need to use ‘them’. This is why, when a person is giving you their pronouns to use, they will give you a pairing like ‘they/them’, ‘she/her’, ‘he/him’, etc. because you need to know how to address them as the subject of a sentence and as the object.

In the world of morphology, we would call the first pronoun in the pairing the “nominative” pronoun, and the second one would be the “accusative” pronoun because in English, subjects are assigned nominative case and objects are assigned accusative case. There is so much more to case assignment and so many more types of case that words can have, but that would be a whole post on its own and would require a lot more setup because English does not have a particularly rich case system so I will keep that one in my pocket for a later post. Right now, let’s get back to affixation.

As I mentioned, affixation in English has two basic functions. It can either change the category of a word through a process we call derivation, or it can enhance a word in some way through a process that we call inflection. Beyond affixation though, we can also just combine two words together through a process called compounding. All these processes can happen multiple times to a single word, but the order of them is of the utmost importance.

Keeping on theme with the frigid awful landscape I am stuck in for now, let’s look at snowblowers. What are snowblowers exactly? Simple! They are machines that blow snow. But how is the word snowblowers formed?

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Let’s start back at the base with the word ‘blow’. The instance of ‘blow’ in this compound word is a verb that refers to some type of wind creating an air current. But the word ‘snowblowers’ is a noun, so we know that at some point, there was a derivational process which changed the category of the word. As it turns out, this happens when we apply our first affix to the word. Adding ‘-er’ to the end of a verb will change its category to a noun and make the definition of it essentially “the thing that does the verb contained within the word”. So really, a blower, is just a thing that blows for the purposes of this compound word.

But how do we know that this was the first word that was attached to this compound? Well, have you ever heard of a snowblow? The fact that my word processer just underlined the snowblow in red when I finished typing it tells me that you probably haven’t. The fact that snowblow doesn’t exist tells us that we need to create the word ‘blower’ before we can add on the word snow. And this is the compounding process in action where we combine the noun ‘snow’ with our newly formed noun ‘blower’ to create the new noun ‘snowblower’.

In this particular compound, we would call ‘blower’ the head of the compound because it is the one doing the majority of the heavy lifting in the definition of the compound. Think about it like this, a snowblower is a thing that moves snow around by blowing it, it is not something that is creating snow to be placed in a pile for movies or things like that (that would be a “snow cannon”).

This is a little difficult to see when we are working with two nouns, but picture a compound like ‘breakwater’ where we a combining the verb ‘break’ with the noun ‘water’. The end result of this combination gives us the noun ‘breakwater’ so we know that the head of the compound is the noun ‘water’ and it is what is dictating the class of the compound.

Back to ‘snowblower’ we now only need to add on the plural ‘-s’ affix to create the word ‘snowblowers’. This is an inflectional affix because it is not changing the category of the word at all, it is still a noun. In other words, we are not changing what the snowblower actually is, there are just several of them now!

All of this information about affixation is just a primer for the real thing that I wanted to talk about today though (which is still snow-adjacent!). Over the years, you may have heard the myth that speakers of the language Inuktitut have a greater appreciation and knowledge of snow because they have 50 (or hundreds according to some) words for snow. This is not actually the case and I can show you that. But when pop-science articles are making these sorts of claims, what do they mean and what are they getting wrong?

First off, let’s talk about Inuktitut. Inuktitut is a language in the Eskimo-Aleut family that is primarily spoken in Northern Canada and is recognized as one of the official languages of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories with approximately 35-40 thousand speakers based on the 2016 census data. Inuktitut is known as a polysynthetic language which lines up quite nicely with what we have been talking about, affixation.

Polysynthetic languages are languages that create words from many morphemes, some of which can stand on their own and some that cannot. Bringing it back to the ‘snowblowers’ example, words like ‘snow’ and ‘blow’ are perfectly fine on their own, but things like ‘-er’ and ‘-s’ need something to attach to and cannot stand alone. Polysynthetic languages go far beyond compounds like this though. They can contain whole utterances and ideas within a single word.

A good example of this is pulled from Wikipedia. In Inuktitut, the word ‘qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga’ means “I’ll have to go to the airport”. I did not forget any spaces in the word I promise, it is really all just one word. And the base morpheme of this word is ‘qangata’ which means “to raise/to be raised in the air”. So, through a multistep process of affixation and compounding (which you can see for yourself in the link) Inuktitut speakers are able to take the complex concept of one’s need to go to the airport and contain it within a single word.

Back do the snow question then. Does Inuktitut really have over 50 words for snow? No! They have a lot of words “about” snow… but so does English! In English, we have wet snow, heavy snow, light snow, snow drifts, snow banks, snow angels, and so many other things related to snow. In English we do not have the same ability to create incredibly complex compounds like Inuktitut does so in reality Inuktitut would also have the majority of these snow descriptor type compounds that we have in English as well as the ability to express a complex idea like the verb ‘aputiktatuk’ which means “fetches snow to make water”. This is a word that contains the word “snow” within it, but it is not a word for snow! This word is hardly even about snow at the end of the day!!

A long story made short here is that there is this old idea put forward by some linguists that the words in a language and the way that they are used can determine the way that speakers of the language think and as it turns out, it doesn’t really hold melted snow at the end of the day. This theory is known as linguistic determinism and I think for the sake of time here, I will leave that be for now as a teaser for a future post. But I hope that I was able to adequately show that no, Inuktitut speakers do not have a richer and more in depth understanding of snow because they have “so many words for it”.  The fact that there are so many words related to snow is just a consequence of how their language forms words.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.

When does “this” become “that”?

Earlier this week, beloved internet nerd Hank Green posted a tweet expressing his frustration about not understanding the relationship between what/that, where/there and when/then. The actual answer to the question is incredibly fascinating and is summed up brilliantly in this short video by Jess Zafarris.

But I am not here to try and take credit for this answer or to expand on it further, I want to take a minute to talk more about the relationship between “this” and “that”.

As Jess pointed out in the video, “this” and “that” are demonstratives that we have in English that are used to locate things in space. But when exactly does “this” become “that”? “This” is usually reserved for things that are in our grasp or are comparatively closer to us than “that”. For instance, if you were holding a pen, you could easily say “This pen is quite reliable” but it would be weird to talk about the same pen you are holding and say “That pen is quite reliable”.

If there were two pens on a table, you could pick up one of them and easily talk about “this” pen that you are holding versus “that” pen which you are not holding. But as we know, the concept of “that” is not as spatially confined as “this” is. We can talk about a “that” that isn’t even in the same room.

If you find a pen on a table that writes significantly better than your friend’s favorite pen he keeps at home, you could probably pick it up and say to them “this pen is so much better than that pen.” And your stationary obsessed friend would probably be able to figure it out. You may need to provide them with a few more specifics, but the point here is that “that” does not have to be within your eyesight. “That” could be anywhere other than here, and it is always going to be comparatively farther away than “this”.

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Now what about this scenario. You walk into a room and there are two pens on the table. One of these pens writes significantly better than the other, but you know that your friend has an incredible fountain pen at home that makes both of these pens look like utter trash. You turn to your friend and say “This pen is much better than that pen, but that other pen you have is the best”. This is a perfectly acceptable and understandable statement, but wouldn’t it just feel so much better if we had a nice way to talk about “that’s” that are likely really far away as opposed to “that’s” that are here, but are not “this”.

This is where we get into the concept of deixis. Deixis is the use of words and phrases to refer to a specific place, time, or person in context. The demonstrative words “this” and “that” can both be used to locate things in space meaning that they are also deictic words. When you are speaking to someone else, you usually use yourself as a default centre point for these words which is how we get this distinction where “this” is closer to you than “that”.

So the concept of “this” is a proximal deictic word, meaning close in proximity to the centre while “that” is a distal deictic word meaning it is further away from the centre. This is a deictic system that all natural languages have to some degree (at least based on the evidence we have). In addition to spatial terms, deixis can also help us differentiate between “now” and “then”, and it can even give us a three way contrast in English between “you”, “me”, and “them”, but in English we seem to be confined to just a “this” and “that” contrast for spatial location.

I say confined here because there are actually languages that go above and beyond in their spatial location capabilities. A language like Korean for instance has a three-way distinction on spatial reference much like we have a three-way distinction on personal pronouns. In Korean, you can use the word yogi to talk about something that is near the speaker, kugi to talk about something near the listener, and chogi to talk about something that is far away from both the speaker and the listener.

Japanese also has this same pattern with the words koko, soko, and asoko, while Tamil uses the words inge, unge,and ange to express the same thing. This pattern also shows up in Thai, Filipino, Macedonian, Yaqui, Turkish, and many more languages so it is certainly not a rare or obscure possibility, it is just something that we English speakers don’t have the ability to take advantage of.

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Moving away from “this” and “that”, let’s talk a little bit about the temporal aspect of deixis. In English, we have a similar two-tiered system that we use to talk about the proximal “now” versus the distal “then”.

The thing about “then” is that it is slightly ambiguous in terms of which “then” we are talking about. Are we talking about the “then” that just happened now? Are we talking about the “then” from a few days ago? Or are we talking about the “then” that is going to happen at some point in the future.

And here we have another shortcoming of English. Like the spatial terms, this is not an insurmountable shortcoming, we just have to do some extra work to differentiate between all of these “then’s”. But like the spatial stuff, there are languages that do a much better job than English of differentiating between “yesterday”, “the day before yesterday” and “that one Tuesday six months ago” (okay, maybe not that specific, but let me explain a bit more).

Take the language Zulu, a Bantu language spoken primarily in South Africa. In Zulu, you can make the distinction between the recent past tense and the remote past tense just by changing up the suffix on the word and altering the initial vowel (Bantu languages love to change many things in different places to accomplish one thing. I promise this is just one thing). For instance, sihambile in Zulu means “we went” (phrases in Zulu are expressed by a single word), but it has a recent sense of time. Compare this to sāhamba, which also means “we went”, but it was further in the past than the first example.

Now, let’s just imagine a scenario. Let’s say you are out with your friends on Monday July 26th, 2021, and you are having so much fun that you want to try and get together again on Saturday August 7th, 2021. You could say to your friends “Hey, we should hang out again next weekend”, and it would likely start some debate about “Wait, do you mean this next weekend beginning in five days? Or do you mean the one twelve days from now?”.

And again, this is another shortcoming of English that it turns out Zulu does not have! Like it’s past tense, Zulu can make a difference between recent future tense and remote future tense, but it is incredibly subtle and not in the place you would expect. Zulu changes something in the middle of the word to achieve this effect. Let’s walk through an example and you can see what I mean.

The word Ngizokuza translates to the phrase “I will come”, but this is going to happen before Ngiyokuza, which also means “I will come”. Simply by changing a zu to a yo in the middle of the word, Zulu speakers are able to easily differentiate between a near future and a more distant future.

Now I am not here to say that we all need to go out and learn Zulu to make plans with our friends in a more accurate way, I am just trying to show off all the cool and interesting systems that languages of the world have. English is a serviceable language for sure. If it wasn’t, we would have abandoned it long ago. I just think that learning a little bit more about how other languages handle things like this is incredibly interesting, and that’s why I love this field so much.

Thank you for reading folks! I hope this was informative and interesting to you. Be sure to come back next week for more interesting linguistic insights. If you have any topics that you want to know more about, please reach out to me at and I will do my best to write about them. In the meantime, remember to speak up and give linguists more data.