Grammatical gender and noun classification

Target audience: beginners.

Grammatical gender will be familiar to those of us with exposure to a language such as French or Spanish, each of which distinguishes between two classes of nouns: masculine and feminine.

In its most basic sense, grammatical gender is about nouns being assigned to different categories, which the rest of the language is then sensitive to in some way. These categories relate to the social category of gender in some languages (notably, many European languages).

But grammatical gender can be used in ways not closely linked with gender in its social sense. Etymologically, gender < genus ‘type’.

Other ways of classifying nouns:

  • Animate vs inanimate (e.g. Ojibwe)
  • Rational vs non-rational (e.g. Tamil)
  • Dyirbal’s four-category system (lakoff1987women: 93, after dixon1982where):
    • bayi: (human) males; animals
    • balan: (human) females; water; fire; fighting
    • balam: nonflesh food
    • bala: everything not in the other classes
    • Note: “If some noun has characteristic X… but is, through belief or myth, connected with characteristic Y, then generally it will belong to the class corresponding to Y and not that corresponding to X” (lakoff1987women: 94)
  • Bantu noun classification systems, e.g. Swahili (see Wikipedia entry).

Grammatical gender categories always have some semantic basis (i.e. basis in the qualities of the nouns). But any gender/noun class system has exceptions, arbitrariness, non-semantic factors (no matter what, nouns ending in -chen are neuter in German)

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