Grammatical gender is perhaps the most elusive concept for English-speaking foreign language learners to grasp. In every secondary school language class, explanations from the teacher that this language ascribes genders to nouns will inevitably be met with cries of ‘but why?’ from the student. For their part, the teacher typically declares that it ‘just is’ failing to satisfy the inquisitive young mind, which (at least in my experience) later leads to a complete mental breakdown in which they scream ‘yeah it’s dumb, but you just have to learn it alright?’ [profanity retracted]
Mark Twain too was vexed by this seemingly nonsensical gender assignment to ordinary words, writing of his failed attempts at learning German:
‘Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.’
This paragraph is composed of three core arguments:
The word ‘gender’ in a linguistic context derives from the Latin word genus via the French gendre, and originally meant ‘kind’ or ‘sort’ i.e. having no relation to biological sex whatsoever. In languages such as Sinhala, where the noun categories consist only of animate and inanimate, the idea of noun categories is still referred to as gender by linguists.
Language teachers who claim grammatical gender has no reason behind it are also out of luck. Languages with grammatical gender assign them in a consistent pattern following one of three broad systems: semantic, morphological or phonological.
Semantic systems are most likely the easiest for an English speaker to understand, as in these systems nouns are assigned a gender according to their meaning. In Tamil for example, masculine nouns refer to a god or male human, feminine nouns refer to a goddess or female human and all other nouns are designated neuter. There are some exceptions, such as in the case of anthropomorphised animals and metaphors, but the same occurs in English with animal characters in Disney movies having genders, and ships often being referred to as she.
In morphological systems, gender is typically determined by some grammatical feature. In Russian, the gender of many nouns is determined by their declensional type. Declension is when the form of a part of speech (e.g. adjective, noun or pronoun) changes to indicate some property of the word. In English, for example, we typically add an –s to indicate a noun is plural, or modify the word waiter to waitress to indicate we are referring to a woman. Russian has a far more complex system of declensions often grouped into four types. Generally, nouns of declension type 1 are masculine, those of types 2 and 3 are feminine and those of type 4 are neuter. Of course, there are some exceptions but these normally make semantic sense. Дядя (‘uncle’) belongs to declension type 2, and as such one would predict it has a female gender. In this case however, it has a male gender, as semantic rules (in this case male humans take a masculine gender) take precedence.
The phonological system is most common in the European languages that one typically learns in school – French, German and Spanish. It is also the most frequently applied system globally appearing in languages as diverse as Qafar, Hausa, Godie and Swedish. In these languages the sound and form of a noun determine its gender. In French, 97.1% of nouns ending in -sion such as persuasion are feminine as are 98.5% of nouns ending in -on like jambon. Indeed, around 85% of French nouns follow some kind of phonological pattern in attributing gender, and most of those that do not can be explained by a morphological or semantic rule. Mère and père for example attribute gender on the basis that a mother is by definition a woman, and a father a man. After accounting for these exceptions, only around 5% of French nouns follow no apparent pattern, and to argue one should learn the gender of every noun by rote because of this tiny fraction is absurd. When learning verb conjugations, the student is never expected to memorise every single one simply to accommodate the 5% of verbs which do not adhere to the standard rules.
Equally ridiculous is the idea that this system of noun categorisation serves no purpose. Languages rarely develop features with no functionality whatsoever. Studies on language acquisition in German children demonstrate that they understand the concept of pronouns by the age of two, whereas English-speaking children still use pronouns erroneously up until the age of five. This is because the tying of pronouns to grammatical gender makes the concept of pronouns less abstract. Similarly, French-speaking children understand the concept of grammatical number at a far younger age than English-speaking children, and perform better in arithmetic tests as a result. Although the reasons are not yet fully understood, linguists believe this is due to a relationship between number and gender. Overall, grammatical gender appears to speed up language acquisition and comprehension in infants, and children learning languages which have grammatical gender begin to speak at a younger age.
Grammatical gender also helps reduce ambiguity. In German, the words der Band, die Band and das Band (the ‘volume [of a series of books]’, the ‘group of musicians’ and the ‘ribbon’) are differentiated only by their gender. Moreover, the presence of three grammatical genders allows German speakers to use pronouns when English speakers would be forced to repeat a word in order to avoid confusion. For example, Germans could say ich nehme ihn/sie/es when referring back to three objects of different genders whereas English speakers would have to clarify what exactly it is that they are taking.
Ultimately, a frustration with grammatical gender is at best indicative of ignorance of its role and function. At worst it is a horrifying example of Anglocentrism whereby English speakers assume their language to be the only descendant of Proto-Germanic enlightened enough to reject the irrational and sexist constructs of lesser tongues. On the contrary, it is a massively useful tool, with greater consistency than many other grammatical features.
Michael Hendle, Linguistics Editor