If you know a foreign language, you’re probably familiar with grammatical gender. But why do we have them? A why do genders in English exist?
If you grew up as a native monolingual English speaker, grammatical gender is probably one of the most difficult topics to wrap your head around when learning a foreign language. No doubt you’ve asked yourself why is it that in French, for example, a téléphone (phone) is masculine and a voiture (car) is feminine.
Gender-specific nouns are found in numerous languages including German, Italian and Spanish. In fact, classifying nouns by gender is not unusual at all. Around half of the world’s languages spoken today feature some kind of gender system, English was one of them!
Until the 1200s, Old English had grammatical gender no different to modern German whereby nouns were grouped into three genders. Instead of using articles “the” or “a”, Old English had a masculine article “se” and a feminine article “seo”. The sun, for instance, was feminine, so it would be written sēo sunne. If you referred to the sun, you would even say “she”.
During this time, if you stood on a brycg (bridge – feminine) looking out to sea, you may have glimpsed a wifmann (woman –masculine, oddly enough) on board a scip (ship – rather interestingly, neuter). You would probably then realise you had been drinking too much ealu (ale – also neuter.)
These gender distinctions began to disappear in Northern England in the 1100s, around the time of William the Conqueror and had vanished entirely by Chaucer’s day. Historical linguists aren’t entirely sure why this happened, but Professor Anne Curzan suggests that genders were lost because of the language mixing that went on in during that time. Between the 700s and the 1000s, Vikings invaded Northern England where peasants lived. The two groups spoke different languages: Old English and Old Norse causing many people to be bilingual and fluent in both languages. Both Old English and Old Norse had gender, but sometimes their genders contradicted each other. As a result, it is suggested that in order to simplify communication, gendered nouns disappeared.
Ever since English has used only natural gender: he refers to a biological male, she to a female, and it to more or less everything else. There are a handful of well-known exceptions such as ships, countries, and certain organisations, which can sometimes take the feminine pronoun she. This usage is considered an optional figure of speech and is advised against by most journalistic style guides
With animals, it is usually used. However, when the sex of the animal is known it may be referred to as he or she particularly when expressing an emotional connection with the animal such as a pet.
Blond vs. blonde
A few nouns still retaining their gender have survived in English such as the word blond which derives from the Old French word “blund”. It literally means “a colour midway between golden and light chestnut”. “Blund” is typically thought to have come from the Latin word “blundus”, which was a vulgar pronunciation of the Latin “flavus”, which means “yellow”.
The French origin of the word “blond” is how we get the added “e” on the end when using the feminine form. “Blond” first appeared in English around 1481 and was later reintroduced in the 17th century; and has since gradually replaced the term “fair”, in English, to describe yellow hair.
“Blond” isn’t the only hair colour that has alternate spellings based on whether it refers to male or female hair. The word “brunet” also shares that distinction. The spelling is “brunet” when referring to a man’s hair and “brunette” when referring to a woman’s hair.
Another often misspelt word is fiancé vs. fiancée. The former being a male engaged to be married; the latter, with the extra ‘e’, is a woman engaged to be married.
Some aspects of gender usage in English have been influenced by the movement towards a preference for gender-neutral language. It has become common in academic and governmental settings to rely on gender-neutral language to convey inclusion of all sexes or genders (gender-inclusive language) rejecting a binary definition of male and female entirely.
Instead of the default use of the masculine, he when referring to a person of unspecified genders, using the neuter they as a third-person singular is chosen. Feminine forms of nouns such as authoress and poetess are also seen to be politically incorrect.
Gender systems are particularly popular among Indo-European languages, for instance, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese (and Arabic – a Semitic language) have two genders each, while German, Russian, and Polish have three. Chinese, however (similar to Japanese, Thai, and Korean) has no linguistic genders at all – hence the tendency for some Chinese native speakers to say “he” or “she” indiscriminately when speaking in English, whether they are referring to a man or a woman.
Beyond Three Genders
Grammatical gender is not just about calling something masculine, feminine, or neither. Gender originally meant ‘kind, sort, genus’. In other words, a gender system reflects the way we class the nouns around us.
Certain African and Aboriginal languages have as many as twenty genders or noun classes all triggering different agreements in associated words. The second gender of Ngangikurrunggurr, an Aboriginal language spoken in north-west Australia, is specifically for hunting weapons, and the ninth is reserved for dogs. Dyirbal, another Aboriginal Australian language, famously places “female humans, water, fire, fighting” in the second of its four genders while most other animate objects, including male humans, fall into the first category.
Linguists theorise that Proto-Indo-European, the forerunner of most of the languages spoken in Europe, classified the world in a similar way, firstly into “animate” objects, such as people and animals, and “inanimate” objects, such as stones and plants. The animate objects were then further refined into “masculine”, “feminine”, and “neuter” (neither) – classifications which survived into Latin and then remained, merged, or disappeared depending on the characteristics of the daughter languages (such as English) that eventually developed.
Over to you!
Did you know the difference between blond and blonde? What do you think about grammatical gender? Do you think English would be better with more gender nouns?
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