As a team of professional translators that spend our lives immersed in languages, all too often we simply accept the rules of the languages we use without taking the time to question why. On a recent trip to Bordeaux – yes, it was wonderful, thank you – I was reminded of a question that often plagues early language learners, but is simply accepted later on…
Why, oh why would you complicate a language by giving every noun a gender?
For an English speaker, grammatical gender is one of the most bamboozling aspects of learning a new language, partly because it is often done in such arbitrary ways. For example, why in French is a window (une fenêtre) female, while a reading book (un livre) is male? And why would anyone introduce an added difficulty into a language that for all intents and purposes, doesn’t need to be there?
In this instalment of the Linguistica International blog, we’re going to see if we can unravel a few of the mysteries surrounding gender in language.
Grammatical gender for the categorisation of nouns
Every language assigns gender for animals, people or characters, but there are also many languages that use gender as a way of categorising nouns. This gender does not necessarily have to match up with the natural gender of the person or object being described.
Languages have many different ways of assigning gender. Some will be based on the physical characteristics of an object, while others are assigned according to cultural or even mythological views. Some languages base a noun’s gender on the ending of a word, as is the case in Spanish – but the real question, which actually proves very difficult to answer, is why?
Why assign a gender?
Grammatical gender is part of a broader phenomenon of noun classes which exist in many of the world’s languages. In fact, as an interesting aside, even the English language used to classify its nouns by gender, although English speakers stopped this practice during the Middle English period.
Noun classes have the role of dividing nouns into groups which often have different rules that apply to related pronouns, verbs, adjectives and even prepositions. In some languages, nouns are split between animate and inanimate objects, while others classify their nouns by size. Now that actually sounds like it makes pretty good sense, but to plunge you back into confusion, some classes of nouns can also be completely arbitrary, with nothing to connect them at all.
So why do arbitrary noun classes exist?
The answer is that even the very best linguistic brains don’t actually know. A lot of these noun class and gender classifications date back to a time before historical records began. As time has gone by, languages have changed, split off into multiple languages and evolved. So, what probably at one time began as a motivated distinction, for example, splitting nouns into animate and inanimate objects, went through changes that completely removed the original purpose of the distinction.
The result is lots of complicated vocabulary which is absolutely no benefit to those learning to speak and write the language!