If you are new to language learning, the concept of grammatical gender may be new for you.
While in English, things are referred to as “it”, or gender neutral, that is not always the case in other languages. Many languages employ the use of grammatical gender and it can change several things about the word, it’s function, and sentence structure.
For instance, in German the word for “bridge” is feminine. In English, if you refer to a bridge one would say “it is strong”. However, in German you would say the equivalent of “she is strong”. The same concept is applied to masculine nouns while neuter nouns are referred to as “it”.
This phenomenon can be seen in many European languages: German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, and the list goes on. While this may be a difficult concept for English speakers to grasp, grammatical gender helps to organize a sentence and avoid confusion when talking about multiple objects or their relation to a person.
Grammatical gender, expressed in two or more genders, can be a nightmare for language learners. English speakers, whose language doesn’t use gender, often have a hard time learning, understanding, and applying this concept.
While it can be learned through discovering patterns, pairing the word with the articles as you learn them, and simple repetition, it is interesting to note that children have an incredibly easy time mastering this idea.
The best way to approach grammatical gender is learning the nouns with their articles. In your vocabulary or on your notecards, including the article or gender will undoubtedly allow you to learn and memorize these together.
Most Indo-European and Slavic languages employ the use of grammatical gender. While the origins of this concept are largely unknown, the gender of nouns are so deeply embedded into the structure and classification of nouns it is generally understood that grammatical gender evolved with the language itself.
The occurrence of grammatical gender dates back to pre recorded history and once established, it was passed down to new speakers and modified over time. It is theorized that genders and classifications originally differentiated inanimate and animate objects and as the languages evolved and split off, some kept the noun classes while others did not.
Historians assume that once the idea was implemented, its applications helped to organize the language and identify multiple objects in one grouping, and there was no logical reason to remove this. The agreement of prepositions, adjectives, cases, and grammatical gender proved to be a useful distinction in a complicated sentence.
Differences across Languages and Effects on our Perception
Grammatical gender is, unfortunately, not uniform across languages. While a word in German may be feminine, it may be masculine in Spanish, and neuter in French.
This presents another problem for language learners; it is easy to get confused and apply the incorrect gender if you have studied or are fluent in another language.
An interesting idea and exploration in linguistics is the subconscious effect grammatical gender has on its native speakers. There are characteristics associated with masculinity and femininity when applied to people, and these are unconsciously expanded to objects of the same gender.
While this may seem strange to native speakers that do not use grammatical gender, it can be seen across many languages.
For example, let’s look at the word “bridge”. Die Brücke, in German, is feminine. In Spanish the term is masculine: el puente. When native speakers are asked to associate adjectives with the word, the results are startlingly different.
Spanish speakers gave the word “bridge” the following characteristics: strong, big, towering, sturdy.
German speakers attributed the terms elegant, fragile, peaceful, and slender to the same word.
These descriptions were unprompted and the speakers were not aware of how the words they attributed would be used in the study. Speakers were simply asked to give adjectives they thought fit the word and the results clearly showed the role of gender in their language.
The adjectives they listed in relation to the words were subconscious and derived from their language structure. These contrasting qualities can be seen across languages that attribute genders to their nouns.
In another example, German and French speakers were asked to describe the word “key”. Note that this word is masculine in German while feminine in French.
German speakers used the words “jagged” and “strong” to describe a key while the French used words like “delicate” and “tiny”.
It is also important to note the difference between grammatical and natural gender. English uses natural gender, as speakers assign the appropriate pronouns to women, men, and animals according to their gender. Because natural gender is used, it it widely guessed that at one point English had some sort of gender and case system that eventually disappeared.
Confusingly enough, languages that have grammatical gender often use natural gender as well. It is unfortunate to note, however, that the grammatical gender does not always match the natural gender. For instance, in German, the word for “girl” is gender neutral. When referring to a girl, instead of using the equivalent pronoun, German speakers would use the word “it”.
Languages that evolved similarly or from the same route language have comparable genders and agreements within their adjectives and prepositions.
Spanish and Portuguese have near complete agreement across their gendered noun, as they are both Romance languages and descended from Latin. German and Dutch have comparable gender assignments as they are both in the Germanic language family. If you were to compare German and Spanish, however, you’d see that there is less agreement in gender assignments.
These languages not only evolved separately, but also in environments that were very different.
The concept of grammatical gender is a hard one to grasp for speakers of native languages that do not have the same structure. It unfortunately doesn’t make it any easier when the gender contradicts the word itself. Luckily that doesn’t happen too often.
The contrast between the genders of the moon and sun across languages present another interesting concept. In countries like Italy where it is quite hot, the sun is considered masculine. Seeing as the heat can be defined as “strong” or “powerful”, it makes sense that their perception of the sun would be masculine.
In northern countries, like Germany and Scandinavia, the sun is noticeably cooler and less powerful. In these areas, the sun is a feminine word and is attributed feminine characteristics.
This is a clear example of the relation between language and the perception of the world around us. Our language defines the objects we see, experiences and feelings we have, and our surroundings. These have a close correlation, as what we see and do could not be described without language, and language would have no use without perception of the world around us.
We are limited by our surroundings in the creation of language; unnecessary words and concepts that are useless to a culture are rarely explored in the language.
There has been some exploration in the idea that gendered languages can result in unintentional, and sometimes intentional, sexism.
In German, for instance, job titles are gendered. When referencing a teacher, the male form is der Lehrer and the feminine is die Lehrerin. This is true with all titles that can be applied to a person; doctor, student, driver, shopkeeper…the list goes on.
This can provide unintentional and subconscious assumptions. This provides a tricky situation when hiring or selecting someone to do a certain task within a work or school setting.
With the subconscious applications of certain adjectives to gendered nouns, this extends to women and men in their fields. Though we have largely moved away from overall gender stereotypes and prejudices, some argue that it is built into our languages and cultures.
It is interesting to note that English developed alongside the Indo-European languages and included grammatical gender in its structure. Some time between the 12th and 15th centuries, the grammatical gender all but disappeared. Today, it is only seen in pronouns. Lucky us right? Not necessarily.
If learning a new language wasn’t difficult enough, grammatical gender throws in a new concept that complicates and undoubtedly lengthens the time required to become fluent. It does take some serious brain bending to fully understand and use the concept.
This is not a reason to give up or avoid gendered languages; consider the amount of irregular verbs and rule-breaking that occurs in English! Countless countries have their students learn English – there is give and take in the language world. Unfortunately for us language learners, each language has its quirks that make it both difficult and unique.
Grammatical gender does, however, give you an opportunity to see the world in a similar way to native speakers. The gender of nouns and their associated adjectives have built and molded the minds of native speakers. Learning their language, and their genders, can help – or force – you to see these objects and concepts in a new light.
What do you think? Doesn’t that fascinating insight make learning all those articles a lot less tiresome? Please let us know in the comments below.
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