If you’ve learned a language at school in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably been subject to the bane of every language-learners life: grammatical gender. For native speakers of a gendered language, it’s a breeze! For foreign learners, however, you seem to become lost in a sea without rules; a land where everything and anything seems to come with a set of XX or XY chromosomes…
What is Grammatical Gender?
I’m glad you asked/are still reading!
Grammatical gender aims to
confuse classify certain aspects of a language into distinct groups. Usually, this falls upon nouns but it can also cause other parts of speech to modify accordingly. We don’t really see this in English, except for certain nouns such as waiter and waitress, where the suffixes have been inflected to denote natural gender. These nouns are usually (but not exclusively) inherited from another language, known in linguist-speak as a loanword. We also have pronouns that indicate gender inflection: he and she; him and her; his and hers. But that’s about it.
Compare this to a language such as German, that has all of the above and also a special way of classifying nouns into three categories: masculine, feminine and neuter. (Extra-special bonus fun point: all nouns in German are written with the first letter as an uppercase, but I have no idea why!) And no, there isn’t an obvious rule as to which noun gets which gender, and natural gender doesn’t always match with grammatical gender*; sorry! Bear this is mind when you think that there are at least three ways of saying “the sea” in German, and each is of a different grammatical gender:
- Der Ozean (masc.)
- Die See (fem.)
- Das Meer (neu.)
What’s the point?!
The most common question I can think of surrounding this linguistic aspect spawns from learners of French who ask, “Why do they have le and la whereas we only have the?” and it’s a very good question; why do we need this classification? I mean, we seem to get along fine in English with seemingly few gender classifications, so why do other language have to go and make it all so crazy?!
It’s estimated that a quarter of languages spoken in the world have grammatical gender as a defining point. The reasons for this are varied, and a few of these could be:
- The historic context – some languages haven’t changed very much in hundreds of years and may wish to keep their grammatical genders as heritage (bear in mind that Old English had such genders but they have all but disappeared, as explained above)
- To give life to objects, concepts or abstractions – sooo many times I’ve heard people refer to their cars as a “she,” despite having none of the biological aspects of a female… as far as I’m aware…
- To make things easier to understand
Yes, easier! Grammatical gender can clear up ambiguity very quickly. Here’s a (contrived) example in English:
Did you find my mascara and my nail file? It’s black.
Perhaps this sentence has never been uttered, but humour me. Which is black? In this sentence, it’s impossible to tell. Granted, we could just ask a quick followup question to verify which one the speaker is on about, but this exemplifies the point of having no gender markings on the nouns mascara or nail fail, or the pronoun it.
If we translate this into French, however:
As-tu trouvé mon mascara et ma lime à ongles? Il est noir.
The pronoun il matches the antecedent pronoun mon, indicating that the colour of the mascara is black and the nail file is not being referenced. Conversely, this sentence could be said:
As-tu trouvé mon mascara et ma lime à ongles? Elle est noire.
Notice how the pronoun has changed to elle to refer to the nail file? Did you also spot that the adjective has gained an e at the end? This is called agreement, and (similar to gender) can occur in many ways, according to gender, number, whether the object is animate… the list goes on!
So how am I going to remember all of this?
If you’re currently learning a language where gender plays a big role, then I’m afraid to say that there isn’t a quick fix. There are little hints to guide you along the way, for instance, most Spanish nouns that end in -ez will be feminine, and most French nouns that end in -isme will be masculine. You’ve probably guessed that most indicators to noun gender will be hidden in the suffixes. Nevertheless, it all comes down to one thing:
Remember, if you’re learning a romance or germanic language, the inflections and agreements are usually easy to remember and abide by the more you use the language. Although, you have my sympathy if you’re learning Polish; genders include
- Animate masculine singular
- Inanimate masculine singular
- Personal masculine plural
- Impersonal masculine plural
* It’s worthwhile to note that gender doesn’t have to be masculine, feminine, etc. It can also mean animate or inanimate in certain languages such as Basque, so try not to think of gender as a strictly male-female dichotomy, but more a variety of separating nouns according to attributes.