English and Gender(s)

JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 1:53 pm GMT
"So 'inanimate' and 'animate' are genders, too?"

They certainly could be considered genders - though neither one is a sex of course. And tThat's the problem with the term "gender," it can create confusion because it's too closely associated with sex. If we were hardcore linguists we'd probably opt for "noun class" or some such terminology instead.

"In German, it's 'das Schiff', thus neuter!"

Yes, "ship" is neuter in English but often gets referred to as "she" - particularly if you're a sailor. The same sometimes happens when a man refers to his favourite car:

"Yeah, that old Buick Regal has lots of miles on her, but she still goes like stink."

When discussing gender, I usually put this aspect of colloquial English to one side.

But this tendency to allocate female qualities to favoured inanimate objects and thus make them feminine might help to illustrate how apparently illogical grammatical gender can get started in a language.
Sander   Thu Sep 15, 2005 2:59 pm GMT
I think that genders in German are easier to learn, because they use different prepositions for all three genders.Dutch on the otherhand uses the same preposition for male and female words.This is very confusing for learners.
JJM   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:09 pm GMT

"All along you were suggesting it was the objects themselves that determine gender choice."

No, that was not what I was suggesting at all.*

BUT - you are absolutely right. I've quickly gone back through my postings and that's the way it seems to have come out or could be interpreted.

Sorry about that.

I assumed that, as this is a language forum, we were talking about language not metaphysics. So yes, when I claimed an object in French had to be inherently masculine or feminine, I did not mean the object in and of itself. I meant our "word picture" (linguistic perception of the object).

* Though this is possible in some languages (not French of course). Objects (that is to say, inanimate things) will always be neuter in English (ignoring the colloquial use of "she" for ships!). Living things are more problematic (which is why English comes close to passing, but fails, the "natural gender" test).
Bardioc   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:32 pm GMT
Did you mean things like ''zur'' = ''zu der'' und ''zum'' = ''zu dem''?
Here, the article is merged with the preposition!
Candy   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:33 pm GMT
JJM, don't worry, you didn't offend me - I like a good argument! ;)

<<It's fruitless to argue the relative merits of one language's grammar over another's. There is just no objective way to approach this.>>

Couldn't agree more. The Germans I teach often complain that English has 'too many' tenses and that they find them hard to learn.* Still, they accept that the tenses are just part and parcel of learning English, just as 'der, die, das' is part of learning German. There's no point complaining about it (well, whinging is always fun, but...!) Sometimes when I speak German, I feel I can't be specific enough about time or intention, but that's just the way it is. (I can't help but think in English and try to translate into German, which is not ideal I know). Germans manage to communicate perfectly well without all the tenses that English has - they find other ways to express it. There's no point arguing that English grammar is 'superior' to German, or French grammar is 'superior' to Japanese, or whatever.

* I should point out that all my students are business people who need English in their jobs - usually techies, marketing experts, and so on - not people studying English for the love of the language.
Candy   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:39 pm GMT
I guess Sander meant pronouns (and articles) not prepositions??
Sander   Thu Sep 15, 2005 3:44 pm GMT
Yeah ,Sander meant that ... /:-)
Bardioc   Thu Sep 15, 2005 4:12 pm GMT
What, pronouns (and articels) or prepositions?
Cro Magnon   Thu Sep 15, 2005 4:35 pm GMT
Sometimes I wonder how the Germans keep their genders straight. AFAICT from my VERY limited knowledge of German, there is no way to tell the difference except for the article used. And I really wonder about Swahili, as I've read that it has some insane number of "genders".

OTOH, maybe they wonder how English speakers keep our spelling straight.
Sander   Thu Sep 15, 2005 5:18 pm GMT

'der,die,das' (and 'die' for plural)
Guest   Thu Sep 15, 2005 11:48 pm GMT
son essai, son sac, sa voiture, sa voix

In French, people usually don't distinguish "his" and "her" in terms of meaning. I was wondering they might feel something strange when they use English.
Uriel   Fri Sep 16, 2005 4:52 am GMT
No, it IS a quirk. An idiosyncracy. A downright weirdness. And the fact that other languages have it too doesn't make it less of one.

By the way, "quirk" is not an insult, so you don't need to get all defensive. English is overflowing with quirks as well.

And yes, grammatical gender is for all intents and purposes arbitrary -- as you pointed out, the same term can be feminine in one language and masculine in another, even when the two languages are closely related, and none of them reflect any conceptual reality.
JJM   Fri Sep 16, 2005 6:36 am GMT

Sorry, no, it's not a quirk: it just seems that way if you are a non-native speaker learning the language or if you are not aware of the history of the language.

By the way, I know "quirk" is not an insult but it does suggest a peculiarity of behavior, an idiosyncrasy or an unpredictable or unaccountable act or event.

Grammatical gender is none of these so it's not a quirk.

"...none of them reflect any conceptual reality."

Not NOW perhaps but they certainly once did - or they wouldn't be a part of the language.


Yes, this use of a reflexive third person possessive in Romance languages is indeed a major difference those languages have with Germanic ones.

English speakers learning French often have trouble grasping son/sa/ses because these possessives carry no inherent identification of the "possessor's" gender.

And I know that his/her/its can be tricky for French speakers learning English - it's hard to comprehend that the possessive must not only show possion but also identify the gender of the possessor!

As you well know, when such a distinction IS necessary in French (because the phrase might not clearly reflect who owns what) we resort to "son sac à lui/à elle."

I've often found this useful for explaining to French speakers how English his/her/its functions.
JJM   Fri Sep 16, 2005 8:36 am GMT

Furthermore, I would think it could be even more confusing if you're learning German.

You not only have to know the gender of the "possessor" but you also have to know the gender* of the "possession"!

der Mann/seine Frau

die Flasche/ihre Fabrikation

* And case: Die Frau mit ihrem Hündchen
greg   Fri Sep 16, 2005 7:43 pm GMT
Pour info (NOTE POUR LA CENSURE : la langue française est souvent citée dans cette discussion), le français possède un système de 3 genres grammaticaux pour les substantifs : féminin, masculin, neutre faible (féminin OU masculin). En revanche le système de ***MARQUAGE*** des genres des substantifs est limité à 2 marqueurs : marqueur féminin et marqueur masculin.


Genre grammatical féminin (sexe féminin ou non-sexué)> marqueur féminin.
Le marqueur peut être limité à l'article : <la maison> (opp. <le salon>).
Possibilité de double marquage (article + terminaison) : <la maisonnette> (<le *..........ette> est impossible, à ma connaissance).

Genre grammatical masculin (sexe masculin ou non-sexué) > marqueur masculin.
Le marqueur peut être limité à l'article : <le serment> (opp. <la dent>).
Possibilité de double marquage (article + terminaison) : <le milliard> (<la *..........ard> est impossible, à ma connaissance).

Genre grammatical neutre faible (sexué MAIS sexe indéterminé OU pluralité des sexes) > marqueur féminin ou marqueur masculin.
1/ Marqueur féminin.
Le marqueur peut être limité à l'article : <la troupe> (opp. <le groupe>).
Possibilité de double marquage (article + terminaison) : <la sentinelle> (<le *..........elle> est impossible, à ma connaissance).
2/ Marqueur masculin.
Le marqueur peut être limité à l'article : <un écrivain> (opp. <une putain>, désolé, c'est le seul que j'ai trouvé...).
Possibilité de double marquage (article + terminaison) : <le syndic> (<la *..........ic> est impossible, à ma connaissance).
Le genre grammatical neutre faible avec marqueur masculin s'appelle ***MASCULIN GÉNÉRIQUE*** en français.
Phrase délicate comportant du masculin générique : « Blessé dans un accident de voiture où il vient de perdre son père, un enfant doit subir une opération chirurgicale d'importance. Aux urgences, LE médecin déclare qu'il ne peut l'opérer parce que c'est son fils. »
Question: pourquoi LE médecin peut-il dire cela ?
Réponse: parce qu'IL (LE médecin) est la mère de l'enfant.

Le français possède un 4e genre grammatical pour 3 mots seulement : le neutre fort (inanimé, DONC non-sexué, NI masculin NI féminin). Le marqueur du neutre fort est le masculin quand le mot est au singulier. Quand le mot est au pluriel, le neutre fort est marqué par le pluriel.
<Un amour maternel> vs <mes premiÈrEs amours>.
<Un vrai délice> vs <les délices exaltantEs>.
<Un orgue centenaire> vs <les grandes orgues>.
NB : la règle d'alternance masc. sg. / fém. pl. pour les 3 neutres forts est en fait plus compliquée que ça, mais la détailler prendrait du temps...