Why do some languages have "genders"?

Discussion in 'Linguistics' started by Delvo, May 9, 2007.

  1. Delvo Registered Member

    I was pondering complications that some languages have and not others, and noticed that the lack of genders in English compared to most other European languages stands out from the rest. Most other complications a language can have involve meaning, and thus communicative usefulness, so a simpler language must either put up with imprecision at times or use some other method of conveying the same meanings. But verbal genders don't really influence the meaning of a word or phrase. They're completely arbitrary. They don't even really have the meaning that's usually ascribed to them with the mislabels "masculine" and "feminine" and such, since they're not assigned to nouns accordingly and thus can't possibly really be about gender. So they're just meaningless, arbitrary classifications of nouns into groups that have no relevance or purpose. They just make you learn more different ways of saying things and memorize an extra trait for every single noun the language has.

    So where did this come from? How could any language have ever developed with them in the first place?
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  3. Hani Registered Senior Member

    it's just arbitrary as you said... but sometimes you can find some indications; in Arabic for example, worst words like "war","disaster", etc. are feminine

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  5. Liege-Killer Not as violent as it sounds Registered Senior Member

    It certainly makes it more difficult to learn a foreign language. But languages do not evolve with the goal of making things easier for foreign speakers. Gender and other linguistic "complications" present no problems for the native speaker who learns that language as a child.

    They may have no relevance or importance to YOU, but that does not make them meaningless. There are reasons why categories like this arise in language, and there are many factors that play into it. Basically, it reflects the human need to make sense of the world by categorizing it. Genders are a way of grouping words referring to objects perceived to have something in common.

    Yes and no. Linguistic gender is not the same thing as biological gender. After all, some languages have as many as 5 or 6 genders, and some have none at all. Genders are simply conceptual categories. But for those languages that do have a two- or three-way gender system, it does overlap biological gender to a large degree.
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  7. Delvo Registered Member

    Like what?

    What do they have in common? I've seen no such pattern, and even native speakers of gendered langauges that I've talked to about it have said there isn't one in those languages' cases.
    Last edited: May 12, 2007
  8. Liege-Killer Not as violent as it sounds Registered Senior Member


    I often get the feeling that people have the wrong idea about how languages develop. I don't know about you, I just met you, so I'm not making any assumptions about what you believe. But I think this is a point well worth mentioning: languages are not consciously designed (with a very few special exceptions like Esperanto or Klingon). Languages don't come about by people putting their minds to work to create a logical system of communication. They evolve naturally and organically over periods of time, and are subject to all sorts of psychological and perceptual factors that may or may not be consciously recognized by the speakers of those languages. I think many people make the assumption that languages are necessarily logical in a common sense sort of way, but this is often not the case. In fact, speakers of a language sometimes apply that kind of logic to change some feature that has evolved in their language that seems not to fit and offends their logical sense (for example, regularization of irregular forms such as the strong verbs common in Indo-European languages).

    Furthermore, aspects of a language that may have been important to its speakers a thousand years ago may no longer be useful to the speakers of its modern version or daughter languages, but those features may still exist, linguistic relics as it were. So the fact that a native speaker can't give you a good explanation of what those features are for doesn't necessarily tell you anything. There are features of your own native language (English, I presume?) that you couldn't explain the purpose or origin of, if asked.

    I've been out of touch with linguistics for several years and some of my old knowledge is rusty, so I'm sorry for not being more specific. But I'm glad this forum is here, and look forward to more of thise topics.
    Last edited: May 13, 2007
  9. Delvo Registered Member

    I'm quite aware of the fact that the reasons for features of languages have nothing to do with planning, but I've never said or implied that that was the case. And the lack of planning doesn't mean that there aren't reasons, or causes and effects, or some kind of background story explaining how these unplanned things happened... just like there are explanations for snow falling and food burning in the oven and grass being green, regardless of those things also not having anything to do with planning. I don't know where this "design" stuff you're infusing comes from, but infusing it is getting us nowhere because it doesn't belong here or have anything to do with anything in this thread.

    However, languages are functional entities, and function is preserved when they evolve (there's no such thing as a language people can't communicate in), while functionless features are free to get dropped and often do because people tend to speak minimally and not waste effort. (Notice how often the deviations from "standard" English that become popular among some English speakers are simplifications, and that they're never complications.) So usually one complexity is traded off for another: get Latin's ease of sentence construction and you get its hassle of picking the right one of each of the countless forms that each word can come in; get English's simple word formation without all those versions to pick from and you get its need to build longer, more highly structured sentences with added descriptive phrases to convey the same meanings.

    And that's the catch with genders. They don't communicate anything in particular. A language without them isn't missing any functionality that it would need to pick up somewhere else in the langauge. There's no trade-off, no balance in which non-gendered languages need some other complex feature in order to work without the genders or gendered languages can afford to be simpler somewhere else because of the genders.

    So, how did they get there? Did they or the original thing from which they descend once actually matter to the function of communication?
  10. Liege-Killer Not as violent as it sounds Registered Senior Member

    I think I may have misunderstood where you were coming from in some of your comments. To me, the fact that a language has such a feature almost automatically means that feature has (or once had) some purpose. Otherwise, it would never have been there. It seemed unclear to me from your comments whether or not you agreed with this, since you were questioning it so strongly, and I wasn't really sure where you were coming from. Re-reading it all now, I see how you meant your comments -- as a serious inquiry into the origins of gender, not as an attempt to dismiss it. My apologies on that. It is clear to me now that you are at least as knowledgable on the subject of language as I am, a fact which I welcome. Also, I was probably just being generally defensive, since I've been in many discussions in which people actually do hold to the idea that language is an "invention" consciously planned out by a few ancestral geniuses.

    Anyway, back to the main question. I've been doing a little reading and have a few thoughts.

    I believe that it did. I'm not sure how strong a case I can make for it, but I can think of ways in which it might be useful. Let's put aside the common male/female/neuter system for a moment and consider some of the other gender systems out there. The most basic is animate vs. inanimate (see interesting side note at bottom). There are 4-class systems with animate, inanimate, edible, and other objects. There are other languages with up to 16 different genders denoting categories such as hunting weapons, metal objects, dogs or other domesticaed animals, objects that are dangerous, etc. Some of the categories can be a little strange to our sensibilities. But I think the important point is that these categories, at some point in the history of the language, reflected things that were important in the environment in which its speakers lived, and the things that were important to their survival and well being.

    Think about a hunter-gatherer society that speaks a language with a simple animate/inanimate distinction. One hunter says to another, "hey, look at that! Behind you!" In English, that doesn't tell us much. But if the pronoun "that" is inflected for gender, and it indicates an animate object, then that could be useful information. After all, it could be a lion creeping up on you. On the other hand if it's inanimate, you're probably a little safer not engaging your flight-or-fight instinct and wasting energy. You may ask why the first hunter didn't just say "look, there's a lion behind you!" But that puts limits on the language; it makes it almost necessary to use the actual noun every time instead of being able to use pronouns (which are themselves an aide to speaking minimally, as you said). Also, it could be an unfamiliar animal and the hunter might spend precious time struggling for the right noun; in that case a quick "look at that (animate object)!" might be the best choice.

    If you don't find that convincing, then perhaps I didn't choose a good enough example. But that's the kind of thing I have in mind for the early function of gender.

    Another possibility, not inconsistent with the above, is that the functionality of gender was largely a social functionality. It expressed how a particular social group understood and categorized the world, and that expression, in and of itself, may have had some usefulness in helping the members of the group to bond and to share the same worldview. This could have been much more important in earlier "primitive" societies in which survival depended upon group cooperation.

    SIDE NOTE: It is thought that Indo-European had a two-gender system (animate vs. inanimate). But most of its daughter languages have the more familiar male/female/neuter. It has been theorized that the original animate class morphed into male and the inanimate class split into two, female and neuter. Kind of shows you how women were viewed in past times, doesn't it?
    Last edited: May 13, 2007
  11. Terra Registered Member

    history with it's male over female (dominance) has much to do with that.
  12. valich Registered Senior Member

    Do you notice any difference between a male and a female? Why should this difference NOT be reflected in a language? Keep in mind that it is only within the last century that the concept of equal rights has come of age, along with the concept of "gender neutral."

    As a side thought, why do we refer to physical constructs like mountains, boats, automobiles and even guns as being feminine, i.e., we often say, "She's a real beauty."
  13. Billy T Use Sugar Cane Alcohol car Fuel Valued Senior Member

    I think what you suggest is to a large extent correct, but add:

    When written language was developed, some of the aspects (intonation etc.) of oral language were not encoded. Thus gender became even more useful, and even in gender poor language like English this utility still survives in the pronouns his and her, etc.. For example: They were arguing and she hit him. Without gender you do not understand the action. In more complex languages, the mating of adjective to nouns is facilitated by having gender. In English this is accomplished almost exclusively by adjacent placement, but not always so in many other languages, which can make the correct connections via gender. I imagine that sometimes gender saved a scribe’s or stone cutter's ass when he forgot to adjacently write / chisel in a modifier next to its noun, but could still add it in later. Many languages with rich gender are quite free with their word order.

    Slightly off subject, but the conjugation of verbs in English is very simple also - There is one African language that has more than 256 different forms of even the simple verbs. For example, "he, she, dog, rock injured her, him, dog, house." would have different forms of "injured" (16 in this example just in the simple past tense as it depends on the class of the “doer” and on the class of the "done to") I for get how many "classes and tenses" there are. Amazingly, the kids learn and use that language without even knowing what a complex grammar they have mastered! This often comes to my mind when someone is telling me that blacks are of genetically of lower IQ. It also supports Chompsky's position in that with this complexity, a child may utter a gramatically correct sentence he has never heard several times each day.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 17, 2007
  14. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    As I mentioned earlier, as far as I know Chinese has been genderless for as long as its speakers left written records.
    We men reserve our deepest love for artifacts of technology that enhance our power. Until recently vehicles and weapons were the greatest power enhancers, and we loved them so much that, at least in English, we spoke of them as women.

    This is not universally true in languages with grammatical gender, and perhaps not even commonly true. In Spanish, cars, trains, ships, airplanes, guns, cannons, and tanks are all masculine nouns.
  15. spuriousmonkey Banned Banned

    Finnish doesn't distinguish between he or she.
  16. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Russians refer to boats/ ships as "he".
  17. spuriousmonkey Banned Banned

    Famous book: Das Boot.

    neither male or female.


    Het schip.

    same thing. Het equals Das.

    But boat in Dutch is "de boot" and not "het boot", except if it is a small boat, "het bootje".

    in Finnish it is neither of course. Just "boat". Nothing in front.
  18. Oli Heute der Enteteich... Registered Senior Member

    Not a gender of the noun itself, rather - "look at the car, she's a beaut"
  19. spuriousmonkey Banned Banned

    Of course gender can be variable:

    look at my penis, it's small and shriveled because I am impotent.
    look at my penis, he is standing proud like a flagpole on a national holiday with the glans waving gently back and forth.
  20. bob hardin Registered Member

    Mandarin has no genders, but the Chinese have a gender-based metaphysics

    Just an odd fact to add to the mix. As someone said earlier, Manderin Chinese has no genders. Even "he" and "she" are the same pronoun. Nevertheless, Chinese folk metaphysics, which evolved into Taoism, divides everything in the universe into "yin" (female) and "yang" (male). Water is female. So is darkness, passivity, emotion, wetness, and cold. The sun is male. So is light, action, logic, dryness and warmth.

    This is the obverse of the idea that gender-based languages do not entail a gender-based world view. Here we have a gender-based world view that is not reflected in the language.
  21. Fraggle Rocker Staff Member

    For "gender" to refer only to masculine and feminine (or masculine, feminine and neuter) is a relatively new paradigm. In earlier languages (and languages still spoken by people who live in the older ways), nouns are divided into several categories that didn't always include physiological gender. Hittite, for example, had four genders for people, animals, other things, and abstractions.

    In Tamil, a Dravidian language (unrelated to the many Indo-European languages of the region), there are two genders: rational (humans and gods) and irrational (everything else.)

    Chinese does not have genders as we use the term, if only because it has no inflections in which gender might be expressed. But it divides nouns into categories (for lack of a better word) that take distinct measure-words. "Four tables" take the measure-word for large flat things: si jang juo. "Four cows" take the measure-word for farm animals: si tiao ju. "Four books" take a unique measure-word that's used only for books: si ben shu. "Four people" (when described respectfully) take a uniquely respectable measure-word: si wei ren. Most other common nouns like wagons take the common measure word: si ge che. There are several more measure-words but I don't remember them all.
  22. Olinguito Registered Member

    Not quite correct: “he” in Mandarin is while “she” in Mandarin is . However they are both pronounced the same – .

    If you want a language in which “he” and “she” are the same, try Finnish: the pronoun hän can mean “he” or “she” depending on context.
  23. billvon Valued Senior Member

    We've lost most genders in language, but we have kept some (i.e. "blond" vs. "blonde," "fiance" vs "fiancee", "him" vs "her.") These harken back to an earlier time when gendered nouns were common in English. We lost most of these around the 12th century, probably due to influences from other languages (Norse) on English.

    Agreed; as is a lot of language. Look at verb conjugations. How does that add any meaning?

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