Lera Boroditsky, call your office

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Dinosaur Comics for 3/9/2011:

(As usual, click on the image for a larger version.)

Just to avoid any hint of anti-Indo-European stereotyping here, the WALS world map of number of linguistic genders:

And for Sex-based vs. Non-sex-based Gender Systems:

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96 Comments »

  1. D said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 6:41 pm

    English has three genders now?

  2. Spell Me Jeff said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

    If you only look at pronouns, I we have M, F, and N. Sound vaguely like a "one drop" rule, though.

  3. Jongseong Park said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    Here's the explanation given in the WALS website for counting English as having a gender system:

    Our examples have involved agreement of the verb, but there are various other targets which may agree in gender, such as adjectives, determiners, numerals and even focus particles. Most scholars working on agreement include the control of anaphoric pronouns by their antecedent ( the girl … she ) as part of agreement. If this is accepted, as we do here, then languages in which free pronouns present the only evidence for gender will be counted as having a gender system. Of course, such languages with pronominal gender systems have a much less pervasive system than those like Russian. Including them, however, makes little difference to the overall picture, since they are rare (the best known example is English, which is typologically unusual in this respect); another is Defaka (Niger-Congo; Niger Delta, Nigeria; Jenewari 1983: 103-106).

  4. Mr Fnortner said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 7:55 pm

    It might be valuable to distinguish languages in which the gender actually corresponds to the sex of the entity and those in which gender is arbitrary. English would not be a gendered language under this method, which is what I believe the dinosaurs are driving at, and which most English speakers believe about their own language.

  5. dl said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 8:07 pm

    It's a little strange that japanese, danish, swedish, norwegian and italian are not represented. The maps seem to only have "native" languages, which is reasonable from a point of view. I wonder about Ingush (in the Caucasus) which has 5 sex-based genders.

  6. Eric said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 8:09 pm

    @Spell Me Jeff: not just pronouns, but adjectives. "Filipino man, "Filipina woman", "Philippine roads".

    The Google test for "Filipino/Filipina/Philippine x" turns up some amusing results: The Senate is clearly neuter. Recipes seem to be masculine. No one can agree on cows. I also tried for mangos, but that will have to be inconclusive for now as I can't tell the difference between (Philippine (mango exporters)) and ((Philippine mango) exporters).

  7. Valentine said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

    For anyone not familiar with Dinosaur Comics and troubled by the oversimplification of gender systems:
    T-Rex will probably have a deeper understanding of gender tomorrow.

  8. Brett R said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    If they're going to count the pronoun gender system, then English also has personal for relative who and non-personal for relative which.

  9. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 9:23 pm

    Does Czech count as three or four genders? There is masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter.

    So that I understand what's going on: Latin has three genders, because its five declensions only have to agree with three different adjective and pronoun forms, right? But in Czech masculine animate and masculine inanimate agree with different adjective and pronoun forms. That makes four genders, right?

    (It's not on the map)

  10. Kapitano said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 9:24 pm

    I've read the suggestion that the Mass (uncountable) vs. Unit (uncountable) distinction – common, AFAIK to all languages – is a grammatical distinction as opposed to a semantic one. Just like so-called noun-gender.

    Certainly there's no reason why iron filings should be mass, while unfiled iron is unit – any more than there's any reason why French cheese is masculine but Russian grandfathers are feminine.

    English, of course, has to be awkward and have nouns like Data, Cheese and Love, which are both Mass and Unit.

  11. Greg said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 9:42 pm

    The WALS site states that "The defining characteristic of gender is agreement: a language has a gender system only if we find different agreements ultimately dependent on nouns of different types. In other words, there must be evidence for gender outside the nouns themselves". Since count and mass nouns in English don't induce agreement in anything – the only morphological effect is whether or not the morphological plural -s is licensed or not – it's not a very good example of a distinction which you'd want to call gender.

  12. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 10:07 pm

    Where do Swedish and Danish come in? In their standard forms, at least, they have two genders, common and neuter. In Dutch, masculine and feminine are also merging, for practical purposes, into a common gender (een man, de man/een vrouw, de vrouw). The map shows nothing about them.

  13. wren ng thornton said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 10:58 pm

    @Kapitano:

    It's even worse than that. English has (sub)systematic ways of making many nouns both mass and count. For example, a lot of words switch from count nouns when discussing animals to mass nouns when discussing animal flesh (e.g., "chicken") whereas only a few have this as a lexicalized distinction (e.g., "cow"/"beef", "pig"/"pork"). Similarly, "water" is a mass noun when discussing the material, but a count noun when discussing bodies of water (e.g., glasses for drinking, rivers, oceans). Other non-count nouns —i.e., non-inflecting count nouns— can become count nouns when discussing similar aggregates (e.g., "fish" is non-count when describing specific animals, but count when discussing species).

    The English number system is a mess. No wonder native Japanese speakers have problems learning when to use our plurals vs not.

  14. Bill Walderman said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 11:49 pm

    "The English number system is a mess. No wonder native Japanese speakers have problems learning when to use our plurals vs not."

    If you think the English number system is a mess, you've obviously never studied Russian.

  15. J Lee said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 12:44 am

    Fun fact from John McWhorter: English is the only Indo-European language of Europe that lacks gender.

  16. Atmir Ilias said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 1:07 am

    The things in the nature are divided into two groups: masculine and feminine. Most things that represent masculine are generally the things that can not produce things directly from their body (even though they participate), or they do not ever change their forme, and most things representing feminine are generally the things that can produce other things from their body, including themselves , or they always change their form.

  17. Michael C. Dunn said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:04 am

    I seem to recall that one of the points Mark Twain makes in "The Awful German language" is that in German, "turnip" is feminine" while girl (he's referring to "Maedchen") is neuter.

  18. quim said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:07 am

    @Atmir: I won't discuss to what extend your distinction is actually applicable to the things in the nature, but please note that it is useless for learning gendered foreign languages.

    @dl: I also wonder about sex-based gender systems with more than three genders. Maybe the phenomenon Lucy Kemnitzer mentions about Czech is relevant?

  19. Nathan Myers said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:08 am

    If you think the Russian number system is a mess, you've obviously never studied Danish.

    (Take it away …)

  20. Anthony said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:49 am

    It might be valuable to distinguish languages in which the gender actually corresponds to the sex of the entity and those in which gender is arbitrary.

    I have been told (and I don't know if it's true) that in Hebrew, inanimate objects are feminine if you go into or through them. Does that count as a system where gender corresponds to the sex of the entity, or one where it is arbitrary?

    Similarly, George Lakoff states that Dyirbal(?) has 4 "genders", which correspond to particular categories, such that one can predict which "gender" a thing will be assigned without prior knowledge. (Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things)

    However, it seems that the gendered Indo-European languages with which I'm familiar don't have such nice neat patterns for assigning gender to inanimate objects.

  21. Yuval said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 3:16 am

    Wait till he finds out about synonyms that have opposite genders. To follow the moon example, Hebrew's yareax is masculine, while levana is feminine (and both are acceptable). A hermaphrodite moon?

  22. möngke said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:00 am

    Of course, in Slovene, Moon is both a boy (mesec) and a girl (luna). Hermaphrodite?

  23. möngke said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:01 am

    Whoops… didn't see Yuval's comment above. Obviously astronomical hermaphrodicy (?) is more widespread than Mr North would expect.

  24. Jarmila said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    @Lucy Kremnitzer (Czech language):

    Animate/inanimate has nothing to do with gender.
    In Czech there are four paradigmas for each gender (six for masculine). Each paradigm represents one way of declination (in the noun itself and in the belonging adjective).

    And in the languages where all the words have some gender we do not feel so strongly, that the thing is "man" or "woman". Sitting on my chair at my desk, I don't speculate, what is the relationship between them and what are her (the chair's) feelings to him (the desk) and vice versa ;-)

    [(myl) But, according to Lera Boroditsky and others, grammatical gender still affects your thinking through associative connections.]

  25. GeorgeW said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    @J Lee: "English is the only Indo-European language of Europe that lacks gender." Please explain.

    @Anthony: "I have been told (and I don't know if it's true) that in Hebrew, inanimate objects are feminine if you go into or through them."

    Hmm. How about 'house' (bait) ? I can go into or through mine and it is masc. in Hebrew. The sun (shimish) is feminine, but don't try to go into it without protective gear (remember what happened to Icarus).

  26. Lugubert said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:35 am

    On Swedish: There are two noun genders, neutrum and utrum, not systematically inanimate vs. animate. Singular personal pronouns have four genders. In some dialects, rests of a masc-fem differentiation in nouns are still occasionally found, with a corresponding difference in adjective inflection.

  27. army1987 said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:45 am

    Similarly, "water" is a mass noun when discussing the material, but a count noun when discussing bodies of water (e.g., glasses for drinking, rivers, oceans).
    I don't think I've ever heard “two waters” to mean “two glasses of water” (unlike “two beers”). I wouldn't be surprised to hear that in a restaurant order, but then that applies to pretty much any noun.

  28. army1987 said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    For what it's worth, Internet was originally feminine in Italian but more and more people (I think the majority, by now) use it as a masculine. (The fact that it starts with a vowel, ends with a consonant, and is usually treated as an article-less proper noun means that in many of the sentences it's used in you can't tell the difference.)

  29. Brett R said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    @ Greg "count and mass nouns in English don't induce agreement in anything."

    Choice of determinative must agree with countability, but obviously this is mixed up with number. Not sure if it also qualifies as gender.

  30. Colin Reid said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:54 am

    @army1987: it intrigues me how languages with non-semantic gender assign one to foreign borrowings. The languages German typically borrows from either have the same gender system or have a m/f system, so you'd think they'd just keep the original gender, but that's not what happens at all: for instance 'Job' (from English) is masculine, while 'Konto' (from Italian) is neuter. In some instances there is somehow a 'natural' choice for the gender based on the ending of the word (eg 'Computer' is masculine because it sounds like it should be), but most of the time I find the process quite mystifying.

  31. The Ridger said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:31 am

    "Fun fact from John McWhorter: English is the only Indo-European language of Europe that lacks gender." Please explain.

    Gender was part of Proto-Indo-European. All of PIE's descendants have gender. Old English had three genders: Masculine (e.g. engel 'angel'), Neuter (e.g. scip 'ship'), and Feminine (e.g. sorg 'sorrow'), and they had distinct declension patterns. Adjectives also had gender agreement, though mostly in the oblique cases (e.g., good in accusative is gōdne in masculine, gōd in neuter, and gōde in feminine). And obviously our pronouns are gendered in the third person.

    Most IE languages show simplification of the original system – commonly losing one gender. Some Scandinavian languages have "common/neuter" and the Celtic languages are mostly "masc/fem". But English has lost (along with most of the rest of our grammatical morphology) ALL gender-endings on nouns and adjectives. (Verbs never agreed for gender.) Thus, it's commonly said that "English has no (grammatical) gender".

    OTOH, plenty of English speakers use "she" in a sentence like "Russia is extending her boundaries", and for cars, boats, etc. Not to mention "it" for young children. I've even recently read this: "The child was left with its mother, never knowing its father. … That child, of course, was Harrison. And when it grew up…"

  32. Richard said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    I'm just wondering how many kinky sexual orientations T-Rex can come up with for the many Bantu languages with 15+ noun classes. Only 1 and 2 clearly refer to people I believe….
    Also, no one tell him what 1a/2a(or was it 2b?) stands for. Très taboo!

    (yes, I know there's a difference between Gender and Noun class. Don't ruin my fun)

  33. GeorgeW said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:51 am

    @The Ridger: I had guessed that McWhorter meant that English nouns are not marked morphologically for gender. But, I am not even sure that this is correct (prince/princess, major/majorette, etc.)

  34. magdalena said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:58 am

    About the "perceving objects through their grammatical gender" part. It's true that if I were to personify a spoon in Polish, I would give it a dress, as the spoon is "ta łyżka" (F), and a fork would be dressed like a boy ("ten widelec" – M) but this does not mean I perceive individual pieces of cutlery as having male or female characteristics. It's simply much easier to go down the route of grammatical gender = actual gender when asked to personify an object. I read bits of the article mentioned earlier by (myl), esp. with users describing a bridge as strong and towering if its Masc in their mother tongue, and elegant and light if its Fem, but what about a whole list of neuter nouns, e.g. in Polish okno (window), jabłko (apple), powietrze (air), cło (custom duty), dziecko (child) etc. etc.? In other words, I don't think users of a given language actually perceive nouns as having any gender-specific traits. It's only when asked to personify and / or choose adjectives, they will tend to use images or words that don't clash with the grammatical gender of a noun. I'm not at all sure that I'm making myself clear here.

  35. LDavidH said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    And to add to the confusion: in Albanian (an Indo-European language), there is a fairly large number of nouns that change their gender: masculine in the singular, feminine in the plural, with adjectives agreeing accordingly (e.g. mal "mountain", male "mountains"; fshat "village", fshatra "villages"). That must surely sound the death-knell to any theory of a natural connection between grammatical gender and physical reality?!

  36. The Ridger said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 9:08 am

    @GeorgeW – I think most linguists don't go as far as McWhorter. But there's an argument to be made that we don't have "grammatical gender", in that "prince/princess" don't do anything different with their verbs or adjectives, only their pronoun, and that only nouns referring to actual living things with different sexes have different "gender".

    Really, you can go either way.

  37. Wyrm said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 9:18 am

    With regard to McWhorter's comment, grammatical gender has been lost a number of times in non-European IE languages, at least one other time in Germanic (Afrikaans) and one case on the border of Europe (Armenian). Furthermore, Wikipedia indicates that there are Danish dialects with only one gender as well.

  38. Atmir Ilias said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    @quim: @quim: I’m interested on how our sensory perception picked up the features of the environment. I think that humans are born with a universal grammar.

  39. Wild Goose Chase said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    Why does Mexico have some dots representing "no gender?" Pretty sure Spanish has gender.

    [(myl) Mexico has quite a few languages besides Spanish. Use the web, Luke! There's no shame in being ignorant, but ...]

  40. GeorgeW said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:07 am

    @The Ridger: Yeah, there are those troublesome sex-based pronouns that must be explained.

    I find it interesting hearing progressive theologians use awkward circumlocutions to avoid ascribing sex to God (with he or she) while also avoiding de-personalizing with 'it.'

  41. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    In Scandinavian, beer changes gender when you pour it into a glass. In Swedish, for instance, ett öl (neuter gender) refers to a kind or quality of beer in bulk; en öl (common gender) is a glass of beer there on the table.

    Swedish still has a few words, mostly ending in -a, that are construed as feminine for pronoun purposes and there's a masculine ending, -e, for adjectives for male persons.

    I don't care to discuss Norwegian gender, which defies description.

    Out here where I live in Maryland "tree" is almost always masculine, probably from heavy German history. A tortoise is a "skill-pot" and a paper bag is a "toot".

  42. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:50 am

    It's interesting to see what happened to Latin third-declension nouns (mainly, those with accusative in -e or -em) as they made their way into Romance. The ones that were marked for sex (matrem, patrem, fratrem) obviously kept their gender, as did those that were likely to be in daily use (solem, noctem, panem), but others took on different genders in different places: mare (n.) is French mer (f.), Italian mare (m.), Spanish and Catalan mar (f./m.); artem (f.) is French art (m.), Italian arte (f.), Spanish arte (m. sing., f. pl.), Catalan art (f./m.); vallem (f.) is French val (m.), Spanish valle (m.), Italian valle (f.), Catalan vall (f.); pontem is mostly m., but f. in Portuguese. How would someone like Lera Boroditsky generalize from this?

  43. LDavidH said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    @Dan Lufkin: it's true that in Swedish, the definite adjective ending -e indicates masculine gender, as opposed to the general -a which can be used for any non-neuter noun. However, as a native Swedish-speaker I have to say that I never use the -e ending. In my idiolect (which happens to be very close to "Standard Swedish"), the masculine -e ending is simply not used, and I would say that it's generally seen as regional, old-fashioned or very poetical. Most speakers of Standard Swedish would not naturally use it.

  44. Dan T. said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    In "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish" (Dr. Seuss), "fish" is a count noun with plural form identical to singular. However, in "Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea" (Three Dog Night), "fish" is a count noun taking "-s" in its plural form.

  45. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    @LDavidH

    That's interesting about Romanian. I wonder if that influenced Romanian, which has retained the Latin neuter, but for the neuter of articles and adjectives uses the masculine forms in the singular cases and the feminine ones in the plural.

  46. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    Sorry, I meant 'interesting about Albanian'.

  47. Darrin said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 11:45 am

    @Kapitano "Russian grandfathers are feminine"

    Although dedushka declines in a pattern identical to that of feminine nouns ending in a, it is grammatically masculine: adjectives and (past-tense) verbs associated with it must be masculine in form ("moj dedushka umer v 95-om godu").

    It's a bit confusing because dedushka is diminutive of "overtly" masculine ded (overt in that gender is clear from the noun ending), and because there's biological gender involved. (I still can't keep track of which nouns "switch" gender when the diminutive is formed, and doubt I ever will…)

    For a (rare) example where neither diminutives nor biological gender is involved, consider put' (path); it declines like feminine nouns that end in soft-sign (a distinct pattern from masculine nouns ending in soft-sign), but is masculine (takes masculine adjectives and past-tense verb forms).

  48. Dominik Lukes said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 12:07 pm

    @Jarmila Czech is a good example of the fluidity of this situation. From the perspective of a student of the declension system, there are about a dozen paradigmatic models within four broad categories. From the perspective of agreement, there are three genders only.

    Most of the time, nouns are not associated with a gender but there are occasions where their genderedness comes to a fore. For instance, Czechs laugh when learners they make gender and agreement mistakes – far too much to be just a matter of pure declension mirth. And far more than they do at mistakes in verbal aspect which they mostly don't notice.

    There are some examples of gender stereotyping, many pejorative terms applied to men are of a feminine gender (e.g. bačkora = slipper). On the other hand, the word for person and personality are both feminine and it is ok to say "on je velká osobnost" = he is (has) a big personality".

    Introspectively, I can vouch that the gender of a noun can become resurrected in the right context. I still remember the shock when I discovered that the Owl in Winnie the Pooh and Piglet were both he. In Czech they are a she and it respectively following the noun gender. As a child I never wondered what Piglet's real gender was but it was still a shock to see it so strongly assigned. The same with Wind in the Willows where the Rat and the Otter are both subtly female following the noun gender.

    I remember attending one linguistics seminar where the subject of how to translate "Sister moon" was discussed in some detail (moon being masculine in Czech).

  49. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    I'd have been delighted if Czechs had laughed at my errors when I lived in Prague, rather than rolling their eyes and switching into English, never to return…

  50. Rodger C said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: Spanish nouns like arte aren't masculine in the singular. Nouns beginning with stressed /a/ change la to el by a phonetic rule. Hence el arte moderna .

  51. Boris said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    What hasn't been addressed and is interesting to me, is the T-Rex's assertion that genders of words don't alter the meaning. This seems to be true outside of cases where biological gender is involved. Any idea why it exists? Was there originally a system in which gender measured some gender-related quality about the noun that has been forgotten?

    In Russian, even where biological gender is involved for animals, there is not always a way to distinguish between male and female with the same word. Sometimes there is (lisa, which is generic for fox and is feminine, can be turned into lis, to talk about a male fox). Sometimes it's complicated (voron means raven and is masculine, but vorona, the feminine form, means crow). Sometimes there just isn't, more often for feminine nouns (cherepaha, turtle, is feminine. There is no masculine form).

  52. Kapitano said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

    @Greg "The defining characteristic of gender is agreement"

    Then you've just made a distinction between grammatical noun categories which have agreement, and those which don't – which doesn't look like a useful distinction to me.

    Besides, countability does have agreement, at least to some extent, with determiner.

    "in English [...] the only morphological effect is whether or not the morphological plural -s is licensed"

    Plural mass nouns occur all the time, with the sense of 'multiple types of' – eg. "The connoisseur has tasted coffees from all over the world, with milks from different animals and various sweeteners."

    The ambiguity comes in words like 'Cheese' which have mass and unit meanings. "He eats cheeses" could mean "He eats several blocks of cheese" or "He eats several types of cheese".

  53. Kapitano said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 1:36 pm

    @Darrin "Although dedushka declines in a pattern identical to that of feminine nouns ending in a, it is grammatically masculine: adjectives and (past-tense) verbs associated with it must be masculine in form"

    So the declinaton of dedushka is feminine, but the (dis?)agreement is masculine. That would seem to disprove the notion that grammatical gender is all about agreement.

  54. army1987 said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    I had always been sceptic about claims such as Boroditsky, but recently I've caught *myself* assigning a sex to an object exclusively because its grammatical gender in my mother tongue. (Specifically, I was surprised to see Microsoft Office's Clippy as “he” because I had always thought of it as a female, and I can't find any better explanation for that than the grammatical gender of graffetta in Italian.)

  55. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    @dl The atlas was NOT built by selecting languages, encoding them for all variables, and then looking at the resulting data (which would presumably results in a lot of redundant data anyway, since languages of a given family are overwhelmingly likely to share some features: if you have French, including more than one other romance language for gender would be somewhat redundant).

    What they did was that the authors for each selected language variable made a choice amongst the 6,000 languages they could pick that had the data available, and encoded that. It's interesting to note that Japanese is encoded for "Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns".

    The reason why these two particular features share the same selection of languages clearly hinges on the fact the same author worked on them.

  56. army1987 said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    @The Ridger:
    Indeed. I'm not convinced that having different words for “prince” and “princess” constitutes “having grammatical gender” any more than having different words for “man” and “woman” does, and I think nearly all languages in the world have them. (IIRC Japanese doesn't and you say "male person" or "female person" instead, but it does have different words e.g. for "brother" and "sister".)

  57. J. W. Brewer said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

    WALS has a third section (with both map and text) on "gender assignment systems": http://wals.info/feature/32. All three of the gender pieces are by Greville Corbett, whose book (called just "Gender") in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series is well worth dipping into for those interested in this sort of thing.

  58. army1987 said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    @The Ridger:
    Indeed. I'm not convinced that having different words for “prince” and “princess” constitutes “having grammatical gender” any more than having different words for “man” and “woman” does, and I think nearly all languages in the world have them.

  59. Gunnar H said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:52 pm

    Dan Lufkin said:
    "I don't care to discuss Norwegian gender, which defies description."

    I think it's relatively straightforward, isn't it? There are the standard three Germanic genders (masculine, feminine, neutral), with the masculine and feminine in the process of collapsing into one common gender (which follows the traditional masculine pattern), at least in Oslo-area dialects.

    Like in Swedish, Norwegian pronouns distinguish between natural gender and grammatical gender, so things aren't referred to as "he" or "she" ("han" and "hun" in Norwegian) just because they are grammatically masculine or feminine, but by different forms of the word "it" ("den" for masculine/feminine, "det" for neutral).

    Most words that have a natural male or female referent take the corresponding grammatical gender (with female-gendered words now most commonly following the common gender pattern), but there are some that take the neutral, such as "et mannfolk" and "et kvinnfolk" (meaning simply a man and a woman, respectively, but with a variety of subtle connotations depending on context), or "et avisbud" (paperboy/girl). In all cases I can think of, such examples take their gender from their final component, a word with separable and non-gendered meaning ("et folk": a people; "et bud": a message or a courier).

    Words that have no natural gender take their grammatical gender fairly arbitrarily (synonyms can have different genders, as can homonyms), though sound structure appears to have some influence (words ending in "-e" are more likely than others to be feminine, for example).

  60. Nagunak said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

    Not sure about Polish, but in Russian "the Moon" has two genders, depending on what time of the lunar month it is, in the beginning it is "mesyats" (M.) (also means month), and when it's full (or close) – "LoonA" (F.),

  61. Sbard said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    @Michael C. Dunn: That's true, but there's actually a bit of logic to it. "Girl" in German is, as you said "das Mädchen" which is in the neuter gender. However, in German "-chen" indicates a diminutive, and all diminutives are in the neuter gender. "Das Mädchen" is the diminutive of the now largely unknown "die Magd" (feminine) which would probably best be translated into English as "the maid" (as in an unmarried woman).

  62. Dan Lufkin said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 3:47 pm

    @ Gunnar H –

    "I think it's relatively straightforward, isn't it?"

    Yeah, it's straightforward enough when your name is Gunnar.

  63. Chris Travers said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    One interesting thing in Old English is the generic/specific distinction in gender regarding wif and wiifman. Wifman is masculine, and wif is neuter when used generically. However, both are feminine when used to refer to specific people. I'd like to see the dino wrap his head around that one ;-)

  64. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:34 pm

    Rodger C: el arte moderna. Well, no, actually it's el arte moderno, but bellas artes.

  65. Tadeusz said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:46 pm

    All this depends a lot on your criteria in description. Polish, which was mentioned here, can have from three to nine genders, depending on various frameworks, i.e., on different criteria. The assignment of gender in Polish is extremely complex, depending on both morphological and phonological features, with exceptions to general trends, obviously. I suppose most of that applies to Czech as well.
    You cannot say, actually, that the Moon can be masculine or/and feminine in Russian, because you refer to two different words. Each of them has different features. They are just as different as, say, "have" and "possess": you cannot say that HAVE is both regular and irregular in English. And, no, both księżyc, and, poetic, miesiąc, has the same masculine (inanimate) gender in Polish.

  66. John Walden said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    Is there a good reason why English mostly called the whole complicated business off?

  67. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:16 pm

    When I first learned French, some of my classmates were shocked that the default words for both 'dog' and 'cat' were masculine (albeit there were also feminine forms). It was obvious to them that 'dog' should be masculine and 'cat' feminine. So clearly there is in some people a tendency to sort objects in this way, even without the encouragement of grammatical gender. (Likewise, I think many people are perturbed when they come across a myth in which teh sun is female or the moon male. Can't you just see that it should be the other way round? And yet we don't normally say 'he' or 'she' when speaking of the sun or moon.)

  68. Matt McIrvin said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    For me the shocker was that in French, Death is always personified as a woman.

  69. VMartin said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:48 pm

    @magdalena

    I don't think users of a given language actually perceive nouns as having any gender-specific traits.

    And I would say that the gender might be pretty important on subconcious level of understanding. There is whole plexus of "mystical" interconnection between words. Processing of words in our minds mean many level processing – unconciously included imho. I would say in Slavonic/Latin/German language you are very well aware of the gender of nouns you hear or speak. If there were scholastic "internal language" in English you substituted "it" for all nouns, in German you have – der, die, das, des, den…


    It’s true that if I were to personify a spoon in Polish, I would give it a dress, as the spoon is “ta łyżka” (F), and a fork would be dressed like a boy ("ten widelec” – M) but this does not mean I perceive individual pieces of cutlery as having male or female characteristics.

    I like your example. Imagine a fairy tale for children. In Slovak:
    "Lyžička a nožík sa vybrali na vandrovku. Ona bola v bielej sukni, on v krátkych nohaviciach."

    Now "Ona/She" stands for the spoon (lyžička) , "On/He" for the knife (nožík). Obviously it is the gender of words in the previous sentence which make the next sentence intelligible. Actually the two senteces are connected via gender of respective nouns.

  70. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 5:49 pm

    It just occurred to me: does anyone know why Lera Boroditsky uses the masculine form of her surname rather than Boroditskaya?

  71. Rubrick said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 6:15 pm

    If you think the Russian and Danish number systems are a mess, you've obviously never studied INTERCAL.

  72. Kapitano said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:22 pm

    Rubrick: "INTERCAL"

    Compare Interlingua with Lojban.

    The former an unusable auxiliary language designed to be easily comprehensible to Romance polygots – exactly the people who need it least. And the latter, a consistent, logical, unambigious language…which probably no one can use properly.

    (Lingvo estas viruso de ekstera spaco.)

  73. Ellen K. said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    @Coby Lubliner: Probably because she lives, works, and went to University in the U.S. Thus, it's not surprising she'd use the same form that those born here would use.

  74. Doug said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    J.W. Brewer wrote:
    "All three of the gender pieces are by Greville Corbett, whose book (called just "Gender") in the Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics series is well worth dipping into for those interested in this sort of thing."

    Let me second that recommendation.

    The book addresses a number of the issues raised in this thread, including:

    What defines "gender." (Having words for "prince" and "princess" doesn't suffice; it's about agreement).

    Why he does count languages with only pronominal gender (like English)

    The animate & inanimate subgenders in various Slavonic languages.

    The assignment of loanwords to genders.

    General issues of gender assignment. (Contrary to the impression a dinosaur might give you, speakers of French & German do not appear to have to memorize each noun's gender. There are many (semi)regularities that help them predict gender from the phonological form of a noun.

    The same author wrote books on (and titled) "Number" and "Agreement", which are also interesting.

  75. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    @Jarmila and following (in relation to Czech genders and whether there are three of them or four):

    I'm not yet convinced that I understand whether masculine animate and masculine inanimate are two genders or one. I am only beginning to study Czech and believe I am making little to no headway, but isn't it so that pronouns and adjectives have different forms for the masculine animate and masculine inanimate? That's agreement, isn't it?

    Whereas — I think — there are broadly two (I think) different general ways to decline feminine nouns according to the sounds at the ends of the words, but the adjectives and pronouns relating to those feminine nouns don't seem to vary according to which declension the nouns belong to.

    I am really, really uncertain about this, because I am doing this on my own, and the textbook appears to be designed to be used in conjunction with a really voluble teacher who would explain a lot that the textbook leaves out. I keep having questions to google or to ask my closest Czech-speaking acquaintance, who is nine thousand miles away. But that's how it looks to me so far, staring aghast at grammatical tables and trying to figure out a shortcut for memorizing all these many many forms.

  76. marie-lucie said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 10:25 pm

    Doug: (Contrary to the impression a dinosaur might give you, speakers of French & German do not appear to have to memorize each noun's gender. There are many (semi)regularities that help them predict gender from the phonological form of a noun.

    Predicting gender is rarely a problem, regardless of the phonological form of the noun, because words are encountered not in isolation but within phrases and sentences. In English you can be asked to memorize lists of individual nouns, but in French or German those nouns will be accompanied at least by an article. English-speaking students have to be told to memorize the article as well as the noun, since they are not accustomed to pay attention to the article. Native speakers on the other hand have rarely heard nouns without articles, demonstratives, adjectives, etc which, singly or together, give ample clues to the gender of the noun. Only a few rare words can give rise to doubt.

    Matt McIrwin: For me the shocker was that in French, Death is always personified as a woman.

    I was shocked when I saw Ingmar Bergman's The Severnth Seal, in which Death was portrayed by a man.

  77. Atmir Ilias said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 1:51 am

    @LDavidH:

    "That must surely sound the death-knell to any theory of a natural connection between grammatical gender and physical reality?!."

    I think that the concept of plural is a feminine feature. Pertaining to more than one was maybe the primitive concept of the femminine feature picked up by humans. It was maybe the first specified meaning between a single object, a masculine feature, and more than one, a feminine feature.

  78. quim said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 1:57 am

    @Atmir: I think it will difficult to make your ideas scientific (i.e., to test them scientifically and get positive results).

    Anyway, you can understand my comment as follows. Independently of where grammatical genus comes from (you seem to have a theory on that, I don't have one) the fact is that different languages assign genus very differently to nouns. See the map!

  79. quim said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    Ooops! genus>gender. I need a cup of coffee.

  80. Valentine said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 4:25 am

    @Atmir
    Plural may be a feminine feature in Albanian (I know nothing about Albanian), but not an intrinsic feature of Language. Hittite had a few nouns ("dancer" is the one I remember) that were common/animate in the singular and neuter/inanimate in the plural. I'm in the camp that gender distinctions are almost purely grammatical, since there are so many exceptional cases to gender-realworldthing correspondence in every gendered language.

  81. mollymooly said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 4:52 am

    I, and I suspect many anglophones, tend to assume unfamiliar given-names ending in -a are feminine. The New York Times seems to have made this mistake in relation to Ireland's new prime minister Enda Kenny.

  82. quim said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 5:26 am

    @Atmir, @Valentine: number two (and in general even numbers) were considered "feminine" by the Platonics. Number three (and in general odd numbers) were considered "masculine". FWIW.

  83. quim said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    Oops again! The Pythagoreans, of course.

  84. Gunnar H said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 11:25 am

    @Dan Lufkin

    "Yeah, it's straightforward enough when your name is Gunnar."

    Sure, like most language features this is easier to wrap your head around and use correctly as a native speaker. I just don't think it's that hard to describe in general terms, so that it "defies description."

    Unless I'm missing something, the only feature of grammatical gender in Norwegian that is any more involved than in Swedish or German (for example) is the ongoing collapse* of feminine into the masculine/common gender class. And this process is easy enough to describe: Words that would traditionally have feminine gender can be treated as masculine, and some dialects usually or always treat them in this way.

    BTW, on a different topic, it occurs to me that contrary to what I indicated in my last post, there are any number of basic nouns referring to people that are neutral in Norwegian, such as "et geni" (a genius), "et orakel" (an oracle), "et barn" (a child), "et spøkelse" (a ghost), and "et menneske" (a human). I can't think of any that are feminine unless they refer specifically to women, though.

    * I should also probably mention that the extent and even existence of this "collapse" would be controversial in Norway, and some would argue that the vernacular Norwegian three-gender system is in fact spreading into the Danish-influenced (and traditionally two-gendered) high-prestige dialects of West-Oslo and surrounding areas. Without reference to longitudinal statistical data, statements about trends are merely subjective. This pertains more to the complicated linguistic history of Norwegian than to the current status of the feminine nouns, however.

  85. Darrin said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 11:31 am

    @Kapitano "So the declinaton of dedushka is feminine, but the (dis?)agreement is masculine. That would seem to disprove the notion that grammatical gender is all about agreement."

    Or equivalently, that it disproves the notion that grammatical gender is all about declension patterns.

    I'm not a native speaker of Russian, but everything I've read and was taught by native speakers strongly suggests that the grammatical gender of a noun (whether it has an "m", "f", or "n" after it in the dictionary) is determined by the agreement patterns, and not by the declension. Certainly both dedushka and put' are listed in dictionaries as being masculine.

  86. John Cowan said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    The traditional grammar of Latin agrees: poeta 'poet', nauta 'sailor', agricola 'farmer' are all masculine because they take masculine agreement, despite belonging to the first declension (whose nouns end in -a in the nominative singular), the overwhelming majority of whose members are feminine. The contrary is true of manus 'hand', which is feminine and second declension, and the Romance languages universally retain la mano or the equivalent.

    As for languages without a mass/count distinction, they are the classifier languages, including Japanese and Chinese. In such languages it is necessary to use a classifier with any noun preceded by a number, for instance, to specify the unit size. Where the unit size is obvious and natural, or even where it isn't any more, then the classifiers have to be learned individually: Japanese speaks of 'two cylinders of book', for example, because books were once scrolls and therefore cylindrical, even though they are now codices and therefore rectangular prisms. In Burmese, on the other hand, the classifiers are mostly meaningful: 'chicken' can take the classifier for 'basket of' but 'cow' cannot, simply because cows can't be carried in baskets but chickens can be and are.

  87. Dan T. said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 12:18 pm

    In the DC Comics universe, the personification of Death is female.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_%28DC_Comics%29

  88. Pau Amma said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    I'm not sure how reliable WALS is regarding gender systems. It claims (for instance) that Tagalog has 2 sex-based genders, but I could find none in grammar descriptions, and checking with native speakers confirmed my impression. (As someone mentioned above, calling a language gendered just because it has a word for "man" and another for "woman" is a stretch.

    (Sorry for the truncated comment above. Feel free to delete.)

  89. Doug said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    @Pau Amma

    The WALS chapter 30 text says "21 Austronesian languages figure in the sample, none with a gender system, apart from the curious exception of Tagalog, which has partially borrowed the Spanish system (Schachter and Otanes 1972: 197-198). "

    The reference is to this book:

    author: Schachter, Paul and Otanes, Fé T.
    year: 1972
    title: Tagalog Reference Grammar
    city: Berkeley
    publisher: University of California Press

    The same Paul Schachter appears to be the author of the Tagalog chapter in Bernard Comrie's book "The World's Major Languages."

    That chapter says "Gender marking in adjectives is restricted to certain adjectives borrowed from Spanish, which occur in two gender-marked forms, a feminine form ending in -a and a masculine form ending in -o: e.g. komika (f.)/komiko (m.) 'funny', simpatika (f.)/simpatiko (m.) 'pleasing', tonta (f.)/tonto (m.) 'stupid'.

    You might want to check those adjectives with the native Tagalog speakers you consulted. If they concur that these adjectives do show this agreement, then there is (marginal) gender in Tagalog.

    (OTOH if these adjectives are not numerous, then by the standards of Corbett's book they could perhaps be considered "overdifferentiated targets" not sufficient to define a gender distinction.)

  90. Extreme Grammar | theConstitutional.org said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 8:27 am

    [...] to the author for permission to post this, and to Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) for the [...]

  91. teucer said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 9:14 am

    Cory and Rodger, ghit counts suggest that "arte moderna" is used a little more than "arte moderno," but for less learned phrases (like "arte feo/fea") the masculine form predominates. Looking at another word that exhibits the same process with articles, "el alma humano" and "el alma humana" get approximately equal ghit counts. In both cases, using the wrong plural article (los artes, los almas) gets very few results.

    I would suggest that this means that Rodger has the right answer from a prescriptive perspective (and his answer matches what I was taught in school), and that "el arte moderna" is probably a more educated construction than "el arte moderno," but that while the change originates as the rule Rodger describes, those words are coming to be treated as masculine in the singular as described by Cory.

  92. David Marjanović said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 6:39 pm

    @army1987: it intrigues me how languages with non-semantic gender assign one to foreign borrowings. The languages German typically borrows from either have the same gender system or have a m/f system, so you'd think they'd just keep the original gender, but that's not what happens at all: for instance 'Job' (from English) is masculine, while 'Konto' (from Italian) is neuter. In some instances there is somehow a 'natural' choice for the gender based on the ending of the word (eg 'Computer' is masculine because it sounds like it should be), but most of the time I find the process quite mystifying.

    Very often the gender of the nearest native equivalent (in meaning or obvious cognacy) is used.

    Out here where I live in Maryland "tree" is almost always masculine, probably from heavy German history. A tortoise is a "skill-pot" and a paper bag is a "toot".

    Schildpatt, with [sχ], is Dutch for "turtle"; German is Schildkröte with [ʃ].

    Don't know about Dutch paper bags; northern German Tüte

    Is there a good reason why English mostly called the whole complicated business off?

    Yes: the Vikings came in and hacked it to pieces.

    Or rather, they settled in large numbers in Yorkshire, and the Old English and Old Norse genders for obviously cognate words often didn't line up. The compromise was to end the confusion by calling the business off. IIRC, I've read that Kentish retained a common/neuter system into the 19th century.

    Likewise, I think many people are perturbed when they come across a myth in which teh sun is female or the moon male. Can't you just see that it should be the other way round?

    There's actually good historical evidence that this is French influence on English; it was the other way around in Old English, as it still is in German (die Sonne, der Mond).

  93. David Marjanović said,

    March 14, 2011 @ 6:40 pm

    …uh… the other way around from what you say it "should be". That is, in Old English and German the sun is a she and the moon is a he.

  94. Chris Travers said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 9:07 am

    I personally suspect that the idea that genders are purely grammatical varies in applicability between languages. Old English, for example, has a number of rules whereby this breaks down.

    For example wifman is masculine and wif is neuter when discussing generic classes. However, when discussing specific individuals, both are feminine. I think this points to some interesting divisions that are to be held in mind by the speaker, namely between generic woman-classes and specific women. It also means that there are cases where grammatical gender is superceded by semantic gender.

  95. Pau Amma said,

    March 23, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

    @Doug

    Thanks for the elaboration. I checked with one native speaker and she never heard of simpatiko/a and komiko/a. She knows about tonto/a, but she would use another (ungendered) word instead, and couldn't say anything about gender agreement for tonto/a. She couldn't think of other -o/-a word pairs, except tio/a, and probing about other common kinship terms didn't bring up others.

    I did some ghit tabulating and came up with interesting and puzzling results. The complete results and discussion are available at http://community.livejournal.com/linguaphiles/5432246.html, but here are some highlights:

    - "stupid woman", using tonto/a to render "stupid", would be (depending on inflection and other grammar issues) "tonta babae" or variants of that, but the variants using "tonto" are actually more common, 29 to 19 overall. (For "stupid man", "tonto lalaki", there are 2 ghits each, but I'm not sure how meaningful it, because of the low count.)

    - "Filipino/a man/woman" ("filipino/a lalaki/babae" and assorted variants) shows a pronounced gender-related usage pattern, but it seems far more complex than gender agreement alone would make it. While "filipino lalaki" is overwhelming more common (-o/-a ratio is about 700), the -a/-o ratio for "babae" is only 1.44 overall, and it swings wildly (from 0.23 to 8.87) depending on the variant you look at.

  96. Jose Beltran said,

    May 18, 2011 @ 5:59 am

    @teucer

    Native Spanish speaker here. Nouns beginning with an "a" and which have stress in the first syllable use always (for euphony reasons) the masculine article "el". Two very clear examples are "agua" (water, feminine) and "águila" (eagle, feminine). You will always say "el agua limpiA" (clean water, feminine agreement), "el águila negrA" (the black eagle, feminine agreement).

    "Alma" is always feminine. "el alma humanO" is wrong, and sounds wrong to me.

    Regarding "arte", it is in a very interesting (and rare) category: The RAE (Dictionary of the Spanish Language Academy) classifies it as an "ambiguous noun", meaning that, sometimes, it will behave as masculine and, sometimes, as feminine (the same happens with the word "mar", meaning "sea"). Examples (taken from the dictionary):

    "El arte abstractO" (abstract art, masculine)
    "El arte decorativA" (art purely for decoration, feminine)
    "El arte bellA" (pure art, feminine)
    "El arte noble" (alternative form for pure art, masculine)
    "El arte poéticA" (poetry, poetic art, feminine)
    "El arte popular" (popular art, masculine)

    Here is the link to this entry in the online version of the RAE dictionary:

    http://buscon.rae.es/draeI/SrvltConsulta?TIPO_BUS=3&LEMA=arte

    It is not a question of a version or "arte" being more or less educated than another, or of "arte" being in the process of changing gender (well, it might be, but it doesn't feel like that to me) — it is a question of "arte" being masculine for certain adjectives, and feminine for others! In your example, the correct form is "arte modernO" — "arte" will be masculine when combined with "moderno" to make "modern art".

    So, with this word (and a very few others in Spanish), not only you have to learn that it has a gender, you also have to learn WHEN it is a boy or a girl! ^.^

    José Beltrán, amante del arte (lover of art, in this case "art" being masculine, which makes it slightly awkward, given that I am a heterosexual male ^.^)

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