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.
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.