Origin of gender for things

By Pacis puella, in 'Other Languages', May 4, 2014.

  1. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    I've never found it logical to give a gender other than neuter to things, and I wondered how it came about. How could people have felt at some point that this or that object like a pot or a shoe was more feminine or more masculine? Perhaps for some things there could be some mental associations, even far-fetched, through some resemblance with some female or male organs/functions/supposed qualities, but certainly not for all... Why would the moon be more feminine than the sun or vice versa, etc.

    But I've just thought now that maybe at the beginning people didn't think about "genders" at all, that different categories of words developped, each category following a certain pattern of declension and agreement with adjectives, without this being regarded as "gender", and that only later people noticed the patterns and labelled all nouns whose pattern resembled that of the noun for "woman" "feminine"*, all those whose pattern resembled that of the noun for "man" "masculine", and the rest "neuter".

    What do you think? Or do you know theories on how grammatical gender came about?

    *Though the noun for "woman" in Old English is neuter... Unless there's another one I don't know, or it became neuter later for some weird reason... The hell, all this isn't logical.
    Last edited by Pacis puella, May 4, 2014
  2. Iohannes Aurum Technicus Auxiliarius

    • Technicus Auxiliarius
    In English, named ships and many personifications of countries are feminine.
  3. Laurentius Man of Culture

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Antium
    Cause the Moon has lunar cycles, lol. By the way they say it is about who is more powerful, and that in some northen languages, where the Sun is less powerful, the Moon is masculine and the Sun feminine.
  4. scrabulista Consul

    • Consul
    Location:
    Tennessee
    The moon (luna f.) receives light the sun (sol m.) gives it.

    See Ovid Metamorphoses Book I. ll. 419-21 especially.

    ...fecundaque semina rerum/ vivaci nutrita solo ceu matris in alvo/ creverunt faciemque aliquam cepere morando.

    "And the fertile seeds of things, nourished by the lively soil, grow to take another shape by delaying, as in the mother's womb."
  5. truks Member

    This is something I've often wondered about, too. You might want to check out an excellent book which looks at gender systems in languages (ancient and modern) throughout the world called Gender by Greville Corbett (published by Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics). The final sections deal specifically with some of the questions you ask, and there's a very long bibliography. :)
    Last edited by truks, May 5, 2014
  6. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    Hahahaha... Possible that it played a role where it's feminine...
    That's the case in Old English.
    Looks interesting. Thanks, if I can find that somewhere...
  7. Ealdboc Aethelheall Civis Illustris

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Germania Inferior
    Do you mean 'that wif'? The word is neuter in Dutch (het wijf) and German (das Weib) too. When I took a course in Gothic at uni, the lecturer once said this was because a 'wif' would originally have been a subordinate woman and hence someone you could 'count', in the same manner as you could farm animals (in Dutch and German, though not in Old English, 'hen', too is neuter; so is the word 'rund' (Dutch)/Rind (German), which refers to a cow, bull or calf). Interestingly, the word 'wif' has not even been attested in Gothic. :)

    Old English does have a feminine word for woman; 'hlaefdige' - literally 'she who kneads the dough'. This word would only have been used for high-ranking women, however - a lady, queen, or the mistress of a household. The word 'wifmann', which ultimately evolved into 'woman', was also sometimes used and could have either the masculine or feminine gender.

    One source translated the Latin below as follows:

    Gif hwylc wif hire wifman swingth and heo thurh tha swingle wyrth dead and heo unscyldig bith faeste se hlaefdige vii hear.
    Si mulier aliqua ancillam suam flagellis verberavit et ex illa verberatione moriatur, et innocens sit, domina vii annos jejunet.

    Example taken from Bosworth and Toller.

    NB - in Southern Dutch and German, too 'Sun' is feminine and 'Moon' masculine.
  8. Laurentius Man of Culture

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Antium
    It seems that in German too.
    Ealdboc Aethelheall likes this.
  9. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    As Ealdboc said. ;)

    Not surprising, as they're from the same language family.
  10. Laurentius Man of Culture

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Antium
    Ah sorry guys, didn't notice the NB.
  11. Imber Ranae Ranunculus Iracundus

    • Civis Illustris
    It's believed that Indo-European had only an animate vs inanimate gender distinction, as was the case in Hittite, and that the masculine feminine distinction developed later, probably by a process similar to what PP described. The neuter gender would be the remnant of the old inanimate gender, which differed from the animate in that it didn't distinguish nominative from accusative with the -s/-m case markers in the singular and could only be pluralized with a collective suffix -a which likewise didn't distinguish nominative from accusative and was syntactically singular. These characteristics mostly survived in Latin and Greek, and the last point explains why neuter plural nouns may have singular agreement with verbs in Greek.
    I think that theory is disproved by the Semitic languages, for most of which (including most saliently Arabic) the sun is feminine and the moon masculine. The Arabian peninsula is hardly known for its lack of sun.
    Laurentius likes this.
  12. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    I read somewhere that that - a was the same as the one in feminine nouns af the kind abundantia, malitia...
  13. Laurentius Man of Culture

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Antium
    Ah I didn't know, thank you! And sorry for the wrong info.
  14. Imber Ranae Ranunculus Iracundus

    • Civis Illustris
    That's one theory on how the feminine developed, which to some extent would explain Greek and Latin's predilection for having feminine abstract nouns (at least when they're derived from other parts of speech).
  15. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    I read that neuter plural borrowed from the feminine, though, and not the contrary - if I remember well...
  16. Imber Ranae Ranunculus Iracundus

    • Civis Illustris
    I guess we're talking about two different, albeit related, theories then.
  17. Pacifica grammaticissima

    • Civis Illustris
    Location:
    Belgium
    This is what I read. I don't know if I misinterpreted it somehow, but "In a sense, the Romance languages regressed to an ancient state of affairs when feminine singulars evolved out of Latin neuter plurals" seems to mean that what happened was that it came from feminine to neuter and back to feminine.
  18. Lyceum Member

    Location:
    Oxford/Athens.
    Originally Indo-European had an animate (M+F) and inanimate distinction (N). This isn't that hard to get around really, even as late as Latin one still finds adjectives terminating into two endings. The development of a gendered system is slightly different in each daughter language iirc but has a lot to do with various phonological and morphological changes. The answer is certainly not the kind of hippy "because the moon is a goddess, wow!" you get on blogs. Sihler's comp grammar sort of tackles this I believe and if you can manage to get through some of "Studies on the Collective and Feminine in Indo-European" by Nehri and Shuhmann it might help. There are decent articles there by Luraghi and Melchert.

    It would take ages to summarise here so I can't write anything much right now, sorry.
  19. Iohannes Aurum Technicus Auxiliarius

    • Technicus Auxiliarius
    Japan is very much temperate, but it has a solar goddess and a lunar god.

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