Gender vs. Noun Class: same or different?

Apr 8, 2011 by

Some familiar Indo-European languages like German, French and Russian have gender systems: in those languages nouns belong to one of two or three classes (or types). Typically, such gender systems are based on the natural gender/sex of the referent, so that nouns denoting males are masculine, nouns denoting females are feminine and nouns denoting (some) sex-less objects are neuter. However, many nouns for sex-less objects in these languages belong to either masculine or feminine gender (for example, the word for ‘letter’ is masculine in German and feminine in French, while the word for ‘book’ is masculine in French and feminine in Russian). In fact, some Indo-European languages (including for example Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian) lost the Proto-Indo-European neuter gender completely. Thus, all nouns in French are either masculine or feminine.

The importance of gender as a grammatical category is in that other elements such as articles, demonstratives, adjectives, verbs and sometimes even numerals show formal, grammatical agreement with those gender categories on nouns that they “go together with” (more technically, are predicates or modifiers of). For instance, in German definite article shows up as der with masculine nouns (der Mann ‘the man’), as die with feminine nouns (die Frau ‘the woman’), and as das with neuter nouns (das Kind ‘the child’). Similarly, in Russian the form of the demonstrative and the form of the past tense verb change in accordance with whether the subject is masculine (Etot mužčina upal ‘This man fell’), feminine (Eta ženščina upala ‘This woman fell’), or neuter (Eto ditja upalo ‘This child fell’).

In addition to the abovementioned languages, similar gender systems are found in Scottish Gaelic, Latvian, Hindi and Icelandic (all Indo-European), Berber and Amharic (both Afroasiatic), Abkhaz (Northwest Caucasian), Kannada and Tamil (both Dravidian), Seneca (Native American) and other languages.

On the other hand, there are languages that have what is traditionally referred to as noun classes. There can be as few as 4 and as many as 20+ noun classes in a given language. Some noun class languages include: Dyirbal and Nunggubuyu (both Aboriginal Australian), Chichewa, Lingala, Shona, Swahili, Zulu and Fula (all Niger-Congo), Ingush (Northeast Caucasian), Ju|’hoan (Khoisan), Yimas (Papuan) and others. Like with gender systems, noun class systems divide nouns into groups which (often but not always) have some semantic coherence. But unlike grammatical gender systems, noun class systems typically do not involve the biological sex of the individual (although in Dyirbal nouns for males are of noun class I and nouns for females of noun class II). Note that unlike genders, noun classes are usually numbered rather than named. Other semantically motivated categories for noun classes include shapes, sizes, materials, origin (natural vs. man-made objects), animacy (humans and animals vs. other objects), abstractness etc.

And the similarities between gender systems and noun class systems do not stop there. As with gender systems, the crucial thing about noun class systems is that other elements (demonstratives, adjectives, numerals, verbs, etc.) show agreement with nouns in the noun class. Take Swahili, for example. The noun toto ‘child’ is of noun class 1 (as indicated by the prefix m-) and the numeral agreeing with it appears with the prefix m-, while the verb agreeing it appears with the prefix a-. In contrast, the noun kitabu ‘book’ (a loanword from Arabic) is of noun class 7 (as indicated by the prefix ki-) and both the numeral and the verb agreeing with it appear with the prefix ki-:

mtoto mmoja anatosha ‘One child is enough.’

kitabu kimoja kinatosha ‘One book is enough.’

So if one takes a comparative perspective, should we treat gender systems and noun classes systems as the same thing? The answer is probably. In fact, some linguists even use the same terminology for both types of phenomena. For example, the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures online calls both gender systems and noun class systems “genders”; in contrast, some other scholars use the term “noun classes” for both phenomena.

While the latter use of terminology may seem preferrable (after all, natural sex of an individual or the lack thereof may be viewed as one type of semantic property that is important for dividing up the nouns in a given language), but using the term “genders” for both sex-based and non-sex-based systems (the way WALS does it) has its merit too. After all, the original meaning of the word gender is that of ‘type’ or ‘class’, as it derives from the Latin word genus ‘descent, family, type, gender’ and is cognate with the Greek word γένος (genos) meaning ‘race, stock, kin’. This original meaning is still apparent from the use of the word genus (plural: genera) as a taxonomic unit in biology.

In fact, the use of the term gender to distinguish male and female characteristics is very recent and was introduced by the sexologist John Money in 1955 (Money’s distinction is between biological sex and gender as a role). Before that, it was uncommon to use the word gender to refer to anything but grammatical categories, and even after Money introduced the new meaning, it didn’t become widespread until the 1970s, when feminist theory embraced Money’s distinction between biological sex and the social construct of gender. Thus, in that pre-Money use of the term, genders may very well refer to other, non-sex-based systems of classifying nouns.


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