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Grammatical gender
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Grammatical gender

In linguistics, grammatical genders, also called noun classes, are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words; every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be very few which belong to several classes at once. (Source of definition: Hockett, 1958, p. 231. See References section.) In other words, in a hypothetical example language that has grammatical genders masculine and feminine, all nouns belong to one of those two genders; in order to use the correct rule of declension for any noun and any modifier (demonstrative, adjective, article, etc.) affecting that noun, one must know whether that noun is feminine or masculine.

The term grammatical gender is mostly used for Indo-European languages, many of which follow the pattern just described.

Grammatical gender is distinguished from natural gender by the fact that grammatical gender requires agreement between nouns and the forms of modifiers (demonstratives, articles, adjectives, etc.), and sometimes even verbs, used in a sentence, whereas natural gender does not (but see below for a full discussion).

Table of contents
1 Noun classes
2 Indo-European languages
3 Other languages
4 Languages without gender marking on nouns
5 Personal names
6 Gender in other contexts
7 List of languages that do not use grammatical genders/noun classes
8 List of languages using grammatical genders/noun classes

Noun classes

Most Indo-European languages excepting English have a gender system with two or three classes. There are African languages (especially the Bantu languages) which have a higher number of classes. One doesn't use the term gender in that context, the term noun class is used and these classes are usually numbered. In a more general sense gender corresponds to noun classes, a term used in a different linguistic tradition.

Indo-European languages

In Indo-European languages, genders typically include feminine, masculine and neuter. Latin has these three, but in many of its modern descendants, such as French and Spanish, the neuter gender has all but disappeared, though a few words, especially pronouns with no clear gender such as "cela" in French, have been assigned by some grammarians to a neuter gender. In other languages, feminine and masculine have merged into a common gender, for example, in Danish. Other languages may group genders differently: Czech further divides the masculine gender into animate and inanimate groups; the Nostratic language, a theoretical language that gave rise to the Indo-European languages and other language families, is believed by its proponents to have had human, animal, and object as grammatical genders.

In common nouns, grammatical gender is usually only peripherally related to actual gender. For example, in Spanish, the word hijo (son) is masculine and hija (daughter) is feminine, as one might expect. This is called natural gender, or sometimes logical gender. Other times, there are elaborate (and mostly incomplete) rules to define a gender of a word. For example, in German, nouns ending in -ung (corresponding to -ing in English) are feminine, and car brand names are masculine. Words with the -lein and -chen ending (meaning smaller, younger) are neuter, thus quite unexpectedly the gender of Mädchen (little girl) is neuter. This is still arbitrary, and differs between cultures. The ancient Romans believed the Sun to be masculine and the Moon to be feminine (as in French, Spanish, Italian), but the Germans (and Germanic languages) express the opposite belief. The learner of a language thus must regard the gender as part of the noun, and memorize accordingly to use the language correctly.

In Indo-European languages that assign genders to all nouns, the genders often correspond roughly to declensions that govern the way the nouns are inflected. In Latin, for example, almost all of the -a stem nouns of the first declension are feminine; the main exceptions are a handful of nouns that identify typically male roles like nauta, "sailor," or agricola, "farmer." Likewise, almost all of the -o stem nouns of the second declension that end in -us in the nominative case are masculine; those ending in -um are neuter. Names of places and trees are feminine though, like ulmus, "elm," or Ægyptus, "Egypt." Most other Indo-European languages that have retained declensional systems have similar rules.

Other languages

Other languages have genders which are not analogous to sex, such as Ojibwe language, which distinguishes between animate and inanimate genders. As in the above examples, this assignment is largely arbitrary ("raspberry" is animate, but "strawberry" is inanimate).

Languages without gender marking on nouns

These languages can be divided into two subtypes. The first type still distinguishes gender, but the distinction is made on modifiers (adjectives, etc.), pronouns, and perhaps even verbs - but not on the noun. German would fall into this category, since most nouns give no clue as to their gender other than the forms of the article, determiner, and adjectives they must use.

The second type consists of those, like English, which have no concept of grammatical gender - thus the forms of modifiers used with the nouns, and of verbs, does not change according to gender: the word man is naturally masculine, and the word girl naturally feminine, but the form of the adjective tall used with both is still tall.

Welsh is unusual in that it does not conform cleanly to these boundaries. On the whole, gender marking has been lost, both on the noun, and, often, on the adjective. However, it has one unusual feature, that of initial mutation, where the first consonant changes to another in certain places. In Welsh, Gender can cause mutation, especially the soft mutation. For instance, the word merch means girl or daughter. However 'the girl' is y ferch. This only occurs with feminine nouns, masculine nouns remain unchanged after the definite article (eg. mab - 'son', y mab - 'the son'). Gender also affects following adjectives in a similar way, for instance 'the large girl' is y ferch fawr, but 'the large son' is y mab mawr.

However, as with English, even if a language has no concept of gender in nouns, personal pronouns often have different forms based on the natural gender of the reference, but this is not the same concept. Gendered pronouns vary considerably across languages: there are languages that have different pronouns in the third person only to differentiate between humans and inanimate objects, like Hungarian and Finnish. Even this distinction is commonly waived in spoken Finnish. Other languages, such as Japanese, have a wide range of personal pronouns to describe how they relate to the speaker.

It should be emphasized that languages that have no grammatical gender can have quite pervasive lexical marking of natural gender, which should not be confused with grammatical gender. A notorious example is the Esperanto suffix -in, which can be used to change, for example patro, "father" into patrino, "mother." This particular suffix is extremely productive (there is no atomic term for "mother" in Esperanto), leading some people to the erroneous assumption that it is a grammatical rather than a lexical gender marker.

Personal names

Personal names often have characteristic culture-specific forms that identify the gender of the bearer. For example, in an English-speaking culture, John (masculine) and Joan or Jane (feminine) are gendered variants on the Hebrew name of John the Evangelist. Again, this is natural gender, and not necessarily grammatical gender.

Gender in other contexts

Since gender in Romance languages is analogous to sex, the word gender has come to be used in place of sex in political or legal discussions of rights and practices regarding men and women and the relationships between them.

Also not to be confused with grammatical gender are the variety of gender-describing common names some tribal languages have for intersexuals.

List of languages that do not use grammatical genders/noun classes

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List of languages using grammatical genders/noun classes

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Two genders/noun classes

Masculine and Feminine

Common and Neuter

Animate and inanimate

Many Native American languages, e.g.

Three grammatical genders/noun classes

Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter

More than three grammatical genders/noun classes

Many African languages (e,g. the Bantu subgroup, Swahili, Zulu etc.; North Caucasian languages) In this case the "genders" are so numerous that they are usually called "noun classes" - especially since "masculine" and "feminine" is often subsumed in the category of person, either generally, or only in the plural, as in North Caucasian languages and some Dravidian languages