Understanding grammatical gender: why your chair can be male or female

Steven Mike Voser
Steven Mike Voser
R
Remember sitting in Spanish class and wondering how jam can be a she? In this article, we take an in-depth look at grammatical gender and try to break it down for English speakers.
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Are you a native English speaker? If so, think back to your high school language classes. Do you ever remember sitting in French, Spanish, Italian, or German class, baffled by the idea that inanimate objects like chairs, tables, glasses, and plates could be either male or female? If so, you were definitely not alone. Grammatical gender, while very common in a number of languages, is something native English speakers struggle to wrap their head around. In this article, we’re going to take a closer look at grammatical gender, what it is and how it affects language, as well as some of the many languages in the world that use some form of gender system.

 

WHAT IS GRAMMATICAL GENDER?

Grammatical gender (also sometimes referred to as linguistic gender), quite literally, refers to grammatical systems that use gender to describe certain nouns. Essentially, grammatical gender is why the potato is feminine in Spanish (la papa) and the chair is male in German (der Stuhl). And while it may be a hard concept for native, monolingual English speakers to grasp, linguistic gender is actually a lot more common than you might think: Roughly half of all the languages spoken today have some kind of formal linguistic gender system. We’ll list some of these languages later on. For now, let’s take a closer look at linguistic gender, how it works, and how it affects the way a language is spoken.

 

HOW GRAMMATICAL GENDER AFFECTS A LANGUAGE

Grammatical gender simply means that nouns in a specific language are assigned a particular gender (like the potato and chair example we managed earlier). Some languages use only 2 linguistic genders, male and female (this includes French, Italian, Spanish, and more). Others, however, may use 3 genders; male, female, and neuter. This includes German, Polish, and Russian, for example. Some native African languages, like Fulfulde (native to the regions of modern-day Congo and Niger) for example, can have up to 20 different genders. In languages that have formal gender systems, the exact gender of a specific object directly affects the structure and order of surrounding words. In Spanish, for example, the gender of an object can affect the adjectives, participles, and pronouns that relate to that noun in a sentence. Here’s an example using the following sentence in Spanish:

  • The new table looks very nice in the kitchen.

Or

  • La mesa nueva quedó muy linda en la cocina.

Table, (or mesa) is a feminine noun. Hence, we can see that the pronoun following it (la) and the adjectives describing it (new, or nueva, and nice, or linda) are both feminine, too. Should we change this noun to couch, for example (sillón, male), the sentence would look like this:

  • El sillon nuevo quedó muy lindo en la cocina.

By replacing the female noun with a male noun, we can see that the pronouns and adjectives become male, too. Here is another example, and compare the following 2 sentences:

  • Mi primo siempre usa pantalones muy apretados (my male cousin always wears very tight pants), and;
  • Mi primo siempre usa remera muy apretadas (my male cousin always wears really tight t-shirts).

Again, we can see that the gender of the noun, first male (pantalones, or pants) then female (remeras, or t-shirts) changes the adjective describing it (apretado/a, or tight). This is something most native English speakers struggle with when they first start learning a new language with a gender system. Not only do they have to adapt to the idea that an inanimate object can be either male or female, but they also have to keep in mind how the gender of an item may affect the rest of the sentence they’re are trying to put together. This, combined with the fact that gender can also completely change the meaning of a noun (papa in Spanish can mean pope when it is masculine or potato when it is female), can really throw English speakers, too.

 

This, combined with the fact that gender can also completely change the meaning of a noun (papa in Spanish can mean pope when it is masculine or potato when it is female), can really throw English speakers, too.

 

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU HAVE MORE THAN TWO GENDERS?

As we mentioned earlier, some languages have more than just regular female and male gender nouns. German, for example, has both female and male nouns, which are preceded by an article that is either female (die) or male (der). However, it also has a third gender; neuter. And while it’s not unusual for a language to have more than two linguistic genders, what is really interesting about German is that plural nouns, regardless of their singular gender, are almost always preceded by the female definite article. Here are some examples:

  • Chair is a male noun in German (der Stuhl), car is neuter (das Auto), and coffee machine is female (die Kaffeemaschine).

In plural, however, all of these nouns are preceded by the female definite article (die): “Der Stuhl” becomes “die Stühle,” “das Auto” becomes “die Autos,” and “die Kaffeemaschine” becomes “die Kaffeemaschinen”.

 

WHICH LANGUAGES USE LINGUISTIC GENDER?

As we mentioned earlier, linguistic gender is really common in a variety of languages. Here’s a closer look at some of the languages that use linguistic gender.

 

INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES

It is very common in many Indo-European languages, including Latin, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, and German. English is obviously an exception, but that wasn’t always the case. Old English had a formal gender system much like German, grouping nouns into 3 genders. For example, brycg (or bridge) was feminine, wifmann (or woman) was masculine, and scip (or ship) and ealu (ale) were both neuter. However, this changed over time. By the 12th century, Old English had disappeared and was replaced by Middle English, Early Modern English, and finally the Modern English spoken today.

 

INDO-ARYAN LANGUAGES

Some Indo-Aryan languages like Punjabi, Hindi, and Romani use a standard linguistic gender system similar to that of Indo-European languages like Spanish and Italian. Bengali, on the other hand, has no grammatical gender.

 

Bengali, on the other hand, has no grammatical gender.

 

SLAVIC LANGUAGES

Most Slavic languages, like Polish, Russian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Slovak, for example, also use a three-gender system similar to German (with male, female, and neuter nouns).

 

SEMITIC LANGUAGES

Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic, and Hebrew (all Semitic languages) use linguistic gender systems with masculine and feminine nouns.

 

GERMANIC LANGUAGES

Germanic languages like Dutch, Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian, use common and neuter gender systems. In standard Dutch, for example, masculine and feminine have merged into what is now called a common gender. However, some Dutch speakers will still use gender-specific pronouns. Danish, on the other hand, has four gendered pronouns, but only two genders for nouns. Swedish is the same, with clear masculine and feminine distinctions for people and animals. Some dialects have also retained the use of gender for nouns, too.

 

BASQUE

Basque, the native language if the Basque Country, is a strange language in that it is almost unrelated to the many other languages of Europe. And while it does use a linguistic gender system, it is very different to that of other European languages. Basque (and other languages like Elamite, Georgian, and many Native American languages) reserve genders for nouns based on animacy. In these languages, the gender of a noun depends on whether it is an animate or inanimate.

 

MAKING SENSE OF GRAMMATICAL GENDER

In this article, we’ve set out to better understand linguistic gender, that thing that drives us English speakers up the wall whenever we try to learn new language. Hopefully, you’ve got a bit of a clearer picture of how grammatical gender works, where it comes from, and how it can affect a language. Unfortunately, I don’t have any tips to help you learn grammatical gender when learning a new language. In some languages, you might look out for specific pronouns or suffixes that can give away the gender of a noun. In Spanish, for example, most words ending in -a are feminine, while those ending in -o are usually masculine. But be careful; there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (like planeta, or planet, which is masculine despite ending in -a). Apart from that, all I can suggest is practice, practice, and more practice. So, happy practising!