Author Topic: Why is most Indo-European and Afroasiatic anguage distinguish male noun and fema  (Read 3045 times)

Offline giselberga

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Arabic, Icelandic, Russian, French, german, Spanish Language distinguish male noun and female noun
And Russian and Icelandic language distinguish adjective and verb from male and female
Why is most Indo-European and Afroasiatic language distinguish male noun and female noun?

Offline panini

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One answer is "because they can" (and likewise, Chinese, Korean and Quechua don't have sex-gender "because they can"). In the case of Afroasiatic, this distinction is sufficiently ancient that you can only say "that's how they've always done it", whereas in Indo-European there is a good case to be made that originally there was a simpler animate / inanimate distinction that morphed into a sex-influenced system. Of course you can always wonder why a language would grammatically distinguish animate vs. inanimate, or long thin things vs. artifacts, so at some point the answer has to be "because it is so".

Offline Audiendus

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I am interested to know how grammatical gender originated. How much is known about this? Do linguists have any specific answers?

Gender distinctions in adjectives and articles – especially for inanimate objects – seem, on the face of it, to introduce unnecessary complexity. The development of such distinctions must have had some advantage, but what might that be? Is there any psycholinguistic theory that might account for the presence of such distinctions in some languages but their absence in others?

Are there any general, psychologically-related criteria for the assignation of a particular gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) to a particular inanimate object?

Why are some nouns assigned the 'wrong' gender? For example, the feminine 'la recrue' (recruit) in French, or the neuter 'das Mädchen' (girl) in German?

Why do neuter nouns/adjectives in Latin and German, and neuter articles in German, always have the same form for the nominative (subjective) and accusative (objective) cases, whereas masculine and feminine nouns, adjectives and articles have different forms for these? Is this phenomenon found in other languages? The presence of this rule in languages as different as Latin and German, and the consistency of its application, suggest some strong underlying reason. Why has a subject/object distinction been found less necessary for some inanimate things than for others?

Did grammatical gender originate purely from the concept of 'male' and 'female', or are there other factors in play? When these languages were developing, do we have any clues as to whether speakers thought of inanimate objects as 'male' and 'female', or whether there was a different (non-gender) psychological distinction that was applied to both inanimate and animate things, but happened to coincide with gender in the latter?

I would be interested in any comments.

Offline Daniel

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There are a lot of questions packed into your comment, which would need to be addressed separately.

Gender marking in articles is generally a sort of historical accident that evolves over time, probably originally from separate words such as pronouns, then collapsing into adjective forms, then demonstratives, and finally articles. During that time, though, the system can generalize and regularize so that it becomes a real active part of the grammar, as opposed to just another historical accident in forms.

As for classification, this is a major topic in Cognitive Linguistics, and the go-to reference would be:,_Fire,_and_Dangerous_Things
There's been a lot more research since then, but you could start there. Lots of interesting "gender" (noun class) systems are found in the world's languages, sometimes not distinguishing sex at all. For example, Bantu languages just have "animate" as one noun class, along with about a dozen or so other categories based on various other properties of objects. More broadly there are connections to noun classifiers as in Chinese, etc.

As for your question about inanimate objects being classified as one gender or another, it's complicated. The older Indo-European system was a three-way contrast between masculine, feminine and neuter, but many inanimate objects were part of the masculine or feminine genders, not just neuter. (It is hypothesized that early Proto-Indo-European gender was split into animate vs. inanimate, not masculine/feminine at all.) The reasons for a particular inanimate noun being classified as masculine or feminine are varied. Sometimes it's by simple analogy based on the form of the word (e.g. endings in -a are typically feminine) or by semantic analogy to another word. Whether this all goes back to more direct cultural associations is an interesting question. On the one hand, different European languages today vary quite a bit in gender for many words, so there is at least a lot of shifting going on, even if they do go back to the some more direct system. On the other hand, a friend of mine did fairly well connecting his interest in mythology to arbitrary associations for particular words to memorize the gender of nouns in a German class, but I think that may have just been more of a strategy for memorization, based on arbitrary associations he came up with, rather than any deeper "truth" to what the words really mean (because you can imagine various explanations, for either gender, for the same words). Sometimes there do seem to be some patterns, so gender assignment isn't random, but it is conventional. Still arbitrary, but sometimes motivated, although not predictable. Other times there isn't much motivation at all, just various layers of historical analogy.
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Offline vox

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Quote from: Audiendus
Are there any general, psychologically-related criteria for the assignation of a particular gender (masculine, feminine or neuter) to a particular inanimate object?
I don’t know whether there are psychological criteria about non-derivative nouns but in French derivative nouns have their gender assigned by the suffix itself. So the gender assignment is based on formal rules for those nouns. For instance the suffix -ion attached to a verb base always assigns the feminine gender to the derivate nouns (la transformation, la constitution, la disparition...), -age attached to a verb base always assigns the masculine gender to the derivative nouns (le massage, le mariage, le passage...). There’s also a morphosemantic regularity for derivative property nouns: almost all the suffixes attached to an adjective base to form nouns of property assign the feminine gender to that noun (la rapid-ité, la patien-ce, la trist-esse, la blanch-eur, etc.). It doesn’t mean there’s no psychological explanation about the origin of gender distinction but clearly morphology plays a crucial role in the gender assignment for an important part of the lexicon. 

Quote from: Audiendus
Why are some nouns assigned the 'wrong' gender? For example, the feminine 'la recrue' (recruit) in French, or the neuter 'das Mädchen' (girl) in German?

The gender distinction doesn’t match 100% of the time with the sex distinction when it comes to animates. Personne, victime, girafe are always feminine, even when they’re used to refer to a male. I think it means that gender distinction has an ambiguous status: it’s semantically motivated for animates but it’s also a grammaticalized feature (which allows not to take into account the biological sex for the gender of few animates).

There are "transgender" inanimate nouns in French, but they’re very rare. Amour used to be feminine until the 17th century but later it became masculine under the influence of its latine origin. Now it’s masculine in singular and feminine in plural. Another interesting example is espace. It has both genders but its meaning changes: in masculine it means ’space, area’ and in feminine it means ‘a blank between two written words’.   
« Last Edit: September 23, 2019, 04:54:09 PM by vox »