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PhiNotPi's avatar

What are the advantages and disadvantages of a grammatical gender system?

Asked by PhiNotPi (12677points) September 5th, 2012

A grammatical gender system (I believe that is the correct term) is when every noun in a language is assigned to a particular gender, often masculine / feminine. Some languages add in a neuter gender, while others have genders unrelated to male/female. Languages that have this feature often require that verbs and adjectives (and other words) change to match the correct gender.

The genders in a grammatical gender system are not assigned to the objects, but are assigned to the words themselves.

English has three gender categories: masculine (he), feminine (she), and neuter (it); however, this is not a grammatical gender since verbs/adjectives do not have to change their spelling/pronunciation to agree with the gender of the noun. Also, the only nouns that are masculine/feminine are nouns that actually refer to something that is male or female.

Grammatical gender systems are incredibly common. They are found everywhere. This makes me wonder if there is an advantage to having one.

As far as I know, the main disadvantage of a grammatical gender system is the time taken by foreigners to independently memorize all of the gender assignments. It is important to point out that this disadvantage does not affect the native speakers of the language, only people who are trying to learn it as a second language.

Also as far as I know, the main advantage of a grammatical gender system is that it reduces ambiguity from pronouns.

However, I know that I must be overlooking something. Surely my above thoughts cannot account for the fact that grammatical gender systems have existed for thousands of years?

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36 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

Ask the ancient Greeks, or better yet, ask the even more ancient Mycaeneans. It happened a long time ago; who knows why?

JLeslie's avatar

I think it is much easier when there is not a gender system in a language. Sometimes the words seem to not make sense. For instance most nouns that end in O in Spanish are masculine, and nouns that end in A are feminine. The word dress is vestido in Spanish, and is masculine, but it is a garment for a woman. Sometimes words end in O, but are feminine. One thing I kind of like about the language is the masculine is what is used when there are mixed genders. For instance if there is a group of girl children you would use niñas. If it is a group of boys then niños. If it is boys and girls you use niños. I guess some people might look at it like the language is masculine heavy, but I look at it like the masculine is simply accepted to include all. Like the argument regarding using “men” in English to mean all people.

LostInParadise's avatar

One possible advantage is that by providing additional information, it may make it easier to understand someone speaking the language. If someone uses a feminine adjective, that might help determine what the noun being modified is if you did not hear it correctly Maybe that is why speakers of Spanish can speak so quickly. That and the fact that it is considered proper to slur together a word ending in a vowel with one beginning with a vowel, so that como esta usted? comes out sounding like como sta sted?

Ponderer983's avatar

@LostInParadise Plus they don’t need to identify the verb. In English, you have to say “I like…” The “I” is needed to be grammatically correct. However, in Spanish, you have the option of saying “Yo gusto…” OR “Gusto” meaning the same thing and people understand it.

I’m not sure how I feel about the situation. I remember learning Spanish and having to think about it more when speaking because of having to change a word to be either masculine or feminine. There are 2 ways to say the same word. I can see how it clarifies what you are talking about, but I don’t feel it’s necessary. English speakers don’t use it, and we get along just fine.

flo's avatar

Why is a table feminine and why is a dictionary masculine? As well the verb has to be plural if the subject is plural if I am not mistaken. How do people manage to memorize them all?

gailcalled's avatar

^^^In English there is always agreement of number between subject and verb.

The flowers are beautiful.
This flower is ugly.

In the Romance languages, you learn the noun with its determiner. They are always conjoint twins.
“Table” in French is la table and never just table.

And similarly with le dictionnarie.

morphail's avatar

Redundancy. As @LostInParadise says, if you miss the noun, you still have the gender information from the adjective and determiner, so you can narrow down the range of possible nouns. There’s always noise, and redundancy makes it easier for the message to get across.

gailcalled's avatar

Edit. I am really getting angry with spell-check. It sneaks in, like Sandburg’s Fog, *on little cat feet.”

Le dictionnaire.

flo's avatar

@gailcalled This is what I meant:
“We slashed the price of this item in half.” “We slashed the prices of these items in half” The word slashed stays the same in English.

Re. the gender why the need to assign a gender to an inanimate object? Added: I mean how is it determined that a table is a female?

flo's avatar

…..Let me just kind of back pedal. “The prices are slashed”, “The price is slashed”. Maybe it comes down to the same thing anyway?

morphail's avatar

@flo in your first examples the subject is the same in both sentences: “we”. The object is different. I think there are some languages where the verb agrees with the object.

flo's avatar

@morphail I understand where you point out ‘if you miss the noun, you still have the gender information from the adjective and determiner, so you can narrow down the range of possible nouns” But how often do we miss the nouns? Is it worth the trouble? I don’t know.

Someone please let me in on the secret about the gender of things. How is a table female etc?

morphail's avatar

@flo We miss parts of the message all the time. Redundancy is built in to language to compensate.

There is no secret about gender. Grammatical gender has nothing to do with sexual gender. It’s just a way of classifying nouns. English classifies nouns as well – for instance we use “which” for inanimate nouns and “who” for animate nouns.

flo's avatar

@morphail “We miss parts of the message all the time” I was expecting examples.

Re. “Which” for inanimate nouns and “who” for animate nouns. That corresponds with “Que” and “Qui” in French. See? It is clear cut, there is nothing to memorize. But why would a house, a table be with “La”, and other things be with “Le”? What do all the nouns that go with Le have in common? and what do all the nouns that go with “La” have in common? Nothing, that is what. French teachers say that you just have to memorize them.

morphail's avatar

@flo I’m not sure what sort of examples you’re looking for. It is generally accepted by linguists that language is redundant in order to compensate for noise. You might not notice any loss in the message, but that’s thanks in part to redundancy. Imagine I say “Je lis une bonne” and you miss the last word. But you know it’s feminine, so I’m not talking about livre or journal.

You seem to be looking for some logical reason why languages use grammatical gender? But there’s no reason to expect languages to behave logically. Languages are systematic, not logical.

PhiNotPi's avatar

One more thing that I just realized is that it is possible to understand English when it is being whispered. This removes all of of the voicing in the words, which causes a large amount of information in the words to be lost.

van -> fan
zip -> sip
bin -> pin
gone -> con

Even though these pairs (and others) sound identical when whispered, we are still able to tell them apart based on context and limitations as to when certain words can appear.

gailcalled's avatar

If you start losing your hearing due to aging, those initial consonants are often difficult to differentiate, even without whispering.

morphail's avatar

@PhiNotPi I’m not convinced that those pairs are identical when whispered. When I whisper them, I think I can detect more aspiration with the voiceless consonants.

flo's avatar

Another thing is Le/La are definite articles. So, we apply definite article when we are talking about indefinite articles?

@morphail in your previous post you practically stated it is logical, ” It’s just a way of classifying nouns.” and in your last post ”But there’s no reason to expect languages to behave logically. Languages are systematic, not logical.”

gailcalled's avatar

A definite article is not the same as an indefinite article, either in English or the Romance languages, German and probably most of the other commonly spoken languages.

The teapot is specific, therefore definite.

A teapot or an elephant is non-specific, therefore indefinite.

morphail's avatar

@flo no, it’s a system for classifying nouns. But it’s not logical – that is, there is no logical reason why certain nouns are masculine, feminine, etc.

@gailcalled indefinate articles can be used for specific references: “during class today, a student raised their hand” refers to a specific student.

And definite articles can be used for nonspecific references: “the tiger is a dangerous animal” does not refer to a specific tiger.

gailcalled's avatar

True; I was rushing (as were you with “indefinate articles.”)

“A student raised his (or her) hand,” please.

gailcalled's avatar

I still stand firmly behind the singular use of a pronoun to modify a singular noun, no matter what the minimum standards are. This may eventually evolve, but it is not yet used in elegant prose.

morphail's avatar

I don’t know about elegant prose, but it is certainly used in the prose of many of the most well-regarded writers of English. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, don’t use it. But it is grammatical English.

gailcalled's avatar

And eschewed by many others. We have a standoff here.

flo's avatar

@gailcalled Well of course but where does anyone state that definite and indifinite articles are the same?

@morphail Let me quote you: ”....there is no logical reason why certain nouns are masculine, feminine, ...” That has been my position, and yet you used the word “no” in your last post as if that was your position, and not mine.

And, “no, it’s a system for classifying nouns. But it’s not logical”
A system for classifying anything is supposed to be logical, just by definition. Classify these items according to x, y, z.

gailcalled's avatar

@flo: I am sorry but I continue to be confused by your answers. So I exeunt, stage left.

flo's avatar

Where does anyone state that definite and indifinite articles are the same?

morphail's avatar

@flo I’m not sure what we’re talking about now. My point is that there is no logical reason why “table” and “maison” are feminine and “plancher” and “journal” are masculine. It’s a system of classification, but it is arbitrary. If you are looking for a logical reason why certain nouns are masculine and certain nouns are feminine, I don’t think you will find one.

gailcalled's avatar

I remember first-year French:

La plume de ma tante est sur le bureau de mon oncle.

Le papier de mon oncle est sur le bureau de ma tante.

morphail's avatar

@gailcalled “So I exeunt, stage left.”

I see what you did there.

gailcalled's avatar

—If anyone does, it would be you-

I did get the Latin wrong, I now see. Exeunt is third person plural.

flo's avatar

@morphail Where does anyone state that definite and indifinite articles are the same?

morphail's avatar

@flo I don’t know why you are asking me this.

flo's avatar

@morphail What is the problem with asking you? The statement is either there or not right?

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