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roundsquare's avatar

Why are there genders for different nouns?

Asked by roundsquare (5507 points ) July 2nd, 2010

In languages like German there are different genders for nouns. There are masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. How would a language develop like this naturally? Or did this not develop naturally (which I would consider even less likely)?

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9 Answers

rts486's avatar

We don’t really have them in English, everything is neuter. But German has masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. When I lived in Germany, my Germany girlfriend explained it as a cultural thing that dates back during pre-Christian days. During the pagan times most objects had a spirit or god associated with it: trees, stars, rocks etc. These spirits were either masculine or feminine, or if the object had no spirit it was neuter. It was a royal pain for me because there was no rhyme or reason for what the gender is. In German the direct and indirect articles, and the adjective endings are determined by the nouns’ gender and case.

marinelife's avatar

All of the romance languages decsended from Latin contain gender for nouns. Latin has masculine, feminine and neuter nouns.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

I like @rts486 s explanation of the “spirit” behind the object. What amuses me is how the gender of modern objects are assigned. For example, the French word for “chainsaw” is “tronconneuse” and is assigned the feminine gender. What is feminine about a chainsaw?

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

Because language is inextricably linked to social norms and organization – a binary gender system has been central to many societies, historically, and language both reflects it and promotes it.

gailcalled's avatar

Ancient Greek also had the three genders. Why is farmer (agricola) feminine? Why is la table feminine and le crayon masculine. Why is σπίτι (house neuter)?

sleepdoc's avatar

I would be interested if anybody can find what the earilest language that had the gender articles and the earlist not to. Most of the old languages that I know anything about follow this rule. I would say since many of the languages we have now, are descendants of those languages, they just retained this. Although it is really a pain to remember them.

roundsquare's avatar

@rts486 Very interesting. I wonder though, since Hindi also has genders (as far as I know). Although hinduism is polytheistic, I don’t think they ever assigned a spirit/god to each item, though I could be wrong.

@Simone_De_Beauvoir If that is the reason, I would be a bit surprised. In German, “small girl” is neuter. In addition, most words seem to have arbitrary genders, which seems a bit hard to fit into your theory. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised it that were at least part of the answer.

@sleepdoc I agree, it must be a hold over from the history of the language. But I guess I’m
wondering where it comes from originally.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@roundsquare What I wrote about…that isn’t about specific words or specific meanings…it’s about an overall quality of language as a structural tool – societies create gender categories and language is part of societies…in cultures where there are more than two genders or more than two sexes allowed, so to speak, there are words to reflect that.

morphail's avatar

English used to have three genders, it lost them in the Middle English period. German, Greek, French, Old English, Hindi, etc have grammatical gender because Proto-Indo-European had grammatical gender.

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