masculine, feminine, neuter…

There  is probably no other feature that has done more to discourage English speakers from learning another language than grammatical gender.  There might be a lot of verb endings to memorize, and noun cases may take some getting used to, but when most people encounter gender in the noun system of a language, they seem to see it as a roadblock like almost no other.

It’s not that it’s so intellectually challenging to make the words and endings match up with the appropriate “gender”.  The problem seems to be psychological.  People usually get hung up wanting to know what is it about a table, for example, that makes German speakers see it as masculine (der Tisch), but makes Spanish speakers think it’s feminine (la mesa), and Greeks think it’s neuter (το τραπέζι).  The answer is: nothing.  It’s all one big misunderstanding.

Way back when ancient Greek and Latin intellectuals were thinking about grammar, they realized every noun in their respective languages could be put  into one of three sets.   They saw that the word “man” followed a grammatical pattern that was representative of tons of other words.  Similarly, the word for “woman” followed a different pattern, but one that another ton of words shared.  And they noticed that all the rest of the nouns could be put together in a third group, and some other word, maybe the one for “child”, could represent it.

The grammarians could have called these things Groups 1, 2, 3 or used the word “class” or almost anything else.  But since in social relations, men and women were obvious, natural, and highly differentiated categories, they came up with the idea that since the word for “man” represented a huge group of nouns, all the nouns that behaved grammatically like the “man”-word could be referred to as “masculine”.  The word “woman” represented another group, so following this line of thinking, the nouns that acted like the “woman”-word would of course be “feminine”.  And that third group could only be “neuter” since that was the only natural opposition to “masculine” and “feminine” there was left.

So you see, the origin of “gender” in grammar had nothing to do with any natural gender at all.  Those guys had no idea what kind of trouble they were going to cause us!

English used to have all three genders for its nouns, but for a variety of reasons, we got rid of it.  Afrikaans got rid of grammatical gender too.  Dutch and the continental Scandinavian languages only have two genders because masculine and feminine collapsed into one: they have a “common” gender and a neuter.  To round out the closest relatives to English then, German, Icelandic, Faroese, and Yiddish all maintain three genders.  Latin had all three, but all of its daughter languages except Romanian got rid of neuter.  Most of the other, more distant relatives of English maintain some gender system.

If you want to start learning a language, say Spanish since so many speakers are moving not just to the U.S. but to Georgia specifically, here’s a hint to maybe make it a tad easier.  When the book or the teacher starts talking about “gender”, try to think of it only as a specialized technical term and forget about the common definition.  Amuse the teacher, say “masculine” and “feminine” at the right times, but don’t think much about it otherwise.  When you learn your vocabulary, learn the word for “the”, which is either “el” or “la” in Spanish, together with the noun.  That way you’ll always know which category, which “gender”, a noun belongs to and you’ll be able to match up the endings on adjectives without first puzzling about whether the noun is “masculine” or “feminine”.  In other words, instead of learning that some nouns are “masculine” and some are “feminine” and then flipping a coin, learn “el hombre” (the man) as one concept, and “la casa” (the house) as one concept.  Learn all your nouns that way.  After all, kids who grow up speaking Spanish (or German, Bulgarian, etc.) don’t first learn that a noun is “feminine” or not, they learn that the people taking care of them are “la mamá” and “el papá”.

About David Rutland

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