English and Gender(s)

JJM   Wed Sep 14, 2005 9:12 pm GMT
And, much as Adam can driv me nuts, he's right: English has three genders.

Oh, and Uriel: in Spanish and French, inanimate objects cannot be male or female (ie, have a sex), though they certainly can be masculine and feminine (ie, have a gender).

Indeed, this is why English has "gender." A table has no sex (it cannot be male or female) but it can have a "gender" (neuter - which is not a sex).

For any language to actually mirror "natural gender" it would have to have at least four classifications:

living thing male

living thing female

living thing indeterminate

inanimate thing

English doesn't do this; it uses neuter for all inanimate things (truth, table, cheese) but also for a lot of living things that quite clearly have a sex (dog, horse, baby).
greg   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:43 am GMT
Bravo pour la censure M. Je-n'assume-pas-mes-actes ! Mais ce serait peut-être plus efficace de censurer les insultes plutôt que les thèmes linguistiques...
Uriel   Thu Sep 15, 2005 6:45 am GMT
<<<You're all thinking in English so, you're confusing gender with sex of course and you're therefore judging French by your own language biases. >>>

No, I'm not confusing anything. I nevert thought that the French attributed an actual sex to the table, JJM. I'm aware that it's an arbitrary linguistic quirk.

<<<Any native French speaker knows that a table is feminine even though they also know it's not female. The French two-gender system does not make that language any more complicated than English for a native speaker. >>>

No, it doesn't. It makes it more complicated for the NON-NATIVE speaker.
Guest   Thu Sep 15, 2005 7:18 am GMT
Actually, in French, it's not really the object that is feminine or masculine but the form of the word itself. "La table" (table), but, "le bureau" (I know it's really a desk). For a chair - "La chaise", but also, "le fauteuil". The ground - "le sol", or, "la terre", or, "le terrain", depending on context.

Yes, the grouped words have slightly different connotations but the point is, it's normally the way the word sounds and sometimes its function that determines gender.
JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 9:38 am GMT
"I'm aware that it's an arbitrary linguistic quirk."

All this may certainly appear arbitrary but of course it is not, nor is it a quirk.

The gender system of noun classification makes for some interesting theorizing, not least being: why?

I think there are anthropological "clues" in other languages. For example, some native languages in North America have two noun classes: animate and inanimate. However, while all living things are classed as animate, so are some non-living things eg, "rock." This has religious connotations of course; the spirits in the surrounding natural world, etc. But it also hints at how Indo-European languages may have originally developed their gender systems.

Interesting too is the loss of the neuter gender in the evolution of many modern Romance languages from Latin. We can in fact often determine that a noun used to be neuter in Latin if it appears as masculine in one Romance language but feminine in another. A good example is "la leche" in Spanish and "le lait" in French for "milk" (lac, lactis).

And there's the oft-quoted "Fräulein" and "Mädchen" ("girl" in German) which always elicits that old "how-can-a-girl-be-neuter" reaction from English speakers. There is nothing arbitrary going on here; the diminutive endings "-lein" and "-chen" simply demand the neuter gender.

English, though certainly nearer to "natural gender" than most other Romance and Germanic languages, is still full of a number of inconsistencies that keep its system one of "grammatical gender."

A dog will be an "it" even though there is no doubt it must be either male or female. But it can also become a "he" or "she." However, a "doctor" can never be an "it." There's some sophisticated grammatical gender distinctions being made here in English about living things.*

* This distinction would appear to be one of the reasons for the age-old use of "they" as a singular pronoun to replace words like "some one" or "anybody" or "anyone."
JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 9:46 am GMT
"Actually, in French, it's not really the object that is feminine or masculine but the form of the word itself."

I wouldn't entirely agree with this but I do agree that word form is generally an important determiner of gender. I do think that French speakers will innately ascribe an intrinsic feminine/masculine (but not female/male) quality to objects.

That's why it's not uncommon to hear a French speaker whose command of English is a bit shaky coming up with lines like:

"I like your house; she is very modern."
JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:00 am GMT
"It makes it more complicated for the NON-NATIVE speaker."


No doubt about that!

I have always found the best way is just to surrender and not fight the problem. A good sign that you're really getting comfortable with another language is when you hear something like "nouveau maison" and you instinctively know it just does not "sound right" without even thinking about it.

A good joke about the importance of gender.

An American goes to Paris. At the Arc de Triomphe he hails a cab, jumps in and shouts to the driver, "Le tour!"

Off they go, all over Paris from Notre Dame to Père Lachaise. They end up at the Opéra. The American, now getting frustrated, yells, "No, no! Le tour! Le tour!"

And they're away again, this time north to Montmartre and a dozen other famous spots before ending up at the École de Guerre. By now exasperated, the American grabs the taxi driver and points at the Eiffel Tower screaming, "There! There, dammit! Le tour!"

"Ah," replies the driver, "LA Tour!"
Guest   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:09 am GMT
For a person yes, but not for an object. It works for "I like your mother; SHE is very nice".

As for "I like your house; she is very modern", it is unusual and the French speaker is translating "la maison" directly from French and that's why "she" is being used. But with that level of English, he/she would know better to use "it is very modern". Anyway, "le" is normally used here for foreign nouns, so "he is very modern" makes more sense thus "le house".

Regardless of the image an object brings to mind, a French speaker will almost always know to use feminine for a word ending in -ion (station, information, nation, situation, location), masculine for -ment (gouvernement, soulagement, arrangement... and other such abstract nouns)...

I normally think of the sound of the word, NEVER the quality of an object because an object has no gender. A table isn't feminine nor is the moon. If the noun refers to a person then yes, I think in intrinsic feminine/masculine qualities, such as "une actrice", "un acteur", "une femme", etc.
Candy   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:09 am GMT
<<All this may certainly appear arbitrary but of course it is not,>>

It may not seem arbitrary to you, but I'm afraid it appears extremely arbitrary to me. For example, the words sun and moon. In German it's 'die Sonne' (feminine) and 'der Mond' (masculine), but in French 'la lune' and 'le soleil', the other way around. (And yes, obviously I'm aware that French is a Romance language and German isn't). Why should the Germans say 'der Euro' when it's 'die Mark' and 'das Pfund'? How is it that not arbitrary? Some river names in German are 'der', some are 'die'. Logic? In the part of Germany where I live, people say 'die Cola' - in other areas, it's 'das Cola'. Logic?

<<You're all thinking in English so, you're confusing gender with sex of course and you're therefore judging French by your own language biases. >>

That's a rather patronising comment, especially the 'of course' part. Nowhere in my posts do I use the word 'sex', but 'gender'. I'm perfectly well aware that German speakers don't think of a table (der Tisch) as 'male'. or attribute any 'male' characteristics to it.
I for one am extremely grateful that English no longer has this ridiculous system.
Guest   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:23 am GMT
The best example I can think of why an object isn't thought of in terms of gender, but merely by the sound of the word, is the English word "face".

The face is "le visage", "la figure" or "la face". As you can see this one object can be described with words of masculine and feminine genders.
Bardioc   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:45 am GMT

Before stating that something is ridiculous, start thinking! Why, do you think is there such phenomena in many languages, even in languages not related to each another? There must be a reason why these language have gender and not abandoned it during the time? To my mind, one reason is, that gender in a language makes it easier to use pronouns to refer to frequently referenced words in a certain text. It's like one processor having only three and another processor having 16 pointer register. You can access more things just by reference (by using pronouns) rather than repeating the noun itself. For that reason, it is best if gender is distributed arbitrarily among the nouns. Note that there are languages (Bantu languages) having about ten to twenty classes and words related to the nouns must take the appropriate class prefix respectively. This is not exactly what gender is like in IE languages, but may also very difficult to grasp for a learner.
Bardioc   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:49 am GMT
Correction: Instead of ''words related to the nouns'' it would be better to write: ''words modifying the nouns''
Candy   Thu Sep 15, 2005 10:53 am GMT
It IS ridiculous, in my opinion. The fact that lots of languages have gender (I mean, for God's sake, English used to) doesn't automatically mean that it makes sense. OK, I should have stated it was ridiculous only IMHO - maybe I was too dogmatic - but I assumed that was obvious (my mistake). I'm sure I find lots of things stupid or ridiculous that you don't and vice versa.

I'm a native English speaker. Nothing anyone posts here will convince me that assigning gender to inanimate objects is anything other than arbitrary and pointless. You clearly disagree. Your prerogative, but don't post messages accusing me of not thinking.
Bardioc   Thu Sep 15, 2005 11:20 am GMT

I did not say that you're not thinking, but that ONE should start thinking before saying or writing.

Please reread my post thoroughly. I gave a good reason why it is not ridiculous to have a gender system within a language. The advantage of it may not be easily seen by people speaking a language without that feature.

A second reason would be easy derivation of new words by keeping the noun and just altering the gender.

I also stated why assinging gender to (inanimate) objects arbitrarly does make sense!

As told by somebody else, there are also some language related reasons
why e.g. nouns denoting females or males become neuter if added a deminuitiv suffix. It's not only ''das Mädchen'', ''the little girl'' but also
''das Bübchen'', which means ''the little boy''. Ok, it's not highest possible level of speech!

It's also not good to exclude that you'll get convinced on something right before you really got aquainted to the topic.
JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 11:23 am GMT
"I for one am extremely grateful that English no longer has this ridiculous system."

But if English HAD completely retained this system, what difference would it make? As a native speaker, you'd be no less advantaged.

There are lots of things about English that seem "ridiculous," "pointless" and appear illogical to non-native speakers.

I maintain - and you've admitted - that your stand here is based purely on your own bias.