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Dico asked in Society & CultureLanguages · 8 years ago

What Is the Linguistic Purpose of Gender in Languages?

French has it. Latin has it. Greek has it. Why do some languages have gendered nouns and adjectives? From a pragmatic standpoint, looking at the point of language as being to communicate ideas, does gender contribute to this, and if so, how? Or is it purely a cultural or artistic feature?

4 Answers

  • tl;dr
    Lv 6
    8 years ago
    Favorite Answer

    The BA from the suggested Y!A link was quite useful, but let's try to get you an answer you can use.

    I went over to wikipedia and did some reading [1], the salient portion suggested the following three *possible* uses of gender:

    [1] In a language with explicit inflections for gender, it is easy to express the natural gender of animate beings.

    Example, English has two words: Stallion and Mare, although not all modern speakers are familiar with the distinction, and we often fall back on "male horse" and "female horse" respectively.

    Built-in gender classification means we can use the same word and simply change the gender affix. Unfortunately I cannot provide you with an example from a language with gender.

    [2] Grammatical gender "can be a valuable tool of disambiguation", rendering clarity about antecedents.

    Like many other holdovers from "classical" grammar (hello "perfect" aspect--I think you mean "complete"), the term "gender" is misleading; often erroneously tied to "sex" simply because that is a common class for nouns in many languages that have gender, but gender comes from Latin, where it simply means "kind" or "type". Actually, we are dealing with noun types, or "classes".

    Inflecting languages use agreeing affixes (case/declension) to clarify the relation of different elements in an utterance or phrase, noun class is simply an additional affix that can agree, thereby introducing more redundancy (and clarity) into the signal.

    For example, an English speaker might say "We need a /bor/."

    Because English does not have noun classes, outside of context, it is unclear whether the speaker means "a boar" (animate animal) or "a bore" (inanimate hole made in something).

    I imagine languages with classes for animacy/sexual gender would not have a similar problem.

    [3] In literature, gender can be used to "animate and personify inanimate nouns".

    Or story-telling, not just literature. This one is a bit weak, but legitimate nonetheless.

    Also, I will suggest a fourth of my own:

    Genders are a boon if you speak a "phoneme poor" language and have a lot of words that are homonyms of each other. Assigning "classes" to your nouns means that all phonemes can do double duty, or "multiple "duty". This is getting a bit technical, so I'll attempt to give an example:

    Let's say your language has the following "classes" for nouns:




    to-hot/flammable things

    This means you can turn one basic phoneme, or morphemes into four different words without confusion, as so:

    ga-do (male horse)

    du-do (female horse)

    ren-do (any four-legged table)

    to-do (a motorcycle)

    And the same can (or could) be done with any morpheme, thereby multiplying their use. Many languages use another scheme--tones, to increase the "reusability" of their morphemes.

    Side note:

    While answering this, I thought of this rather famous (in linguistic circles...?) example:

    Dyirbal odd noun classes [2].

    Incidentally, a glance at the language phonology suggests that it would have a relatively low syllable count, supporting my above theory.

    Just for the heck of it, I checked here [3], and was very pleased to see examples from the section "The Nominal Classes" that mirrored my theoretical example quite closely.

  • 8 years ago

    Most European languages have it, English has lost it. Maybe you could consider languages in which nouns which are homographs but of different genders have different meaning - the gender is what makes the meaning clear

    e.g. In French [ which of course has it, from Latin]

    un tour turn, tour, trick

    une tour - a tower

    un moule - a mould

    une moule - a mussel

    un livre - a book

    une livre - a pound [weight or money]

    un voile - a veil

    une voile - a sail

    le physique - your physical appearance

    la physique - physics

    and so on

  • 8 years ago

    I finished typing up a response, only to do a bit of research and find that a very similar question was asked here on Y!A and answered much more eloquently than I could put it.

  • Andrew
    Lv 6
    8 years ago

    Where did the concept of grammatical gender come from? Why do so many languages still have it?

    Good answer here on Google.

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