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English (as most Indo-European languages) has a gender-neutral third person pronoun, it, but it is typically not used for people; if one wants to be gender neutral, one is often stuck using he or she.

Is there group of languages which make no distinction between gender in third person pronouns, and has no "gendered" pronouns?

That is, instead of saying "Talk to him." they would instead say "Talk to that/it." If they wanted to make a distinction between gender, they would need to define the subject/target rather than use a pronoun, e.g. "Talk to the man."

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Your "most languages" is entirely wrong. I suspect you are limiting your purview to Indo-European languages. –  Colin Fine May 13 at 23:16
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@ColinFine You are entirely correct, I am Indo-Europeally biased. The question's wording has been corrected. –  IQAndreas May 13 at 23:17
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Its worth noting that english does have the singular they for this purpose. For example, "if a customer comes in then give them a free sample". People wrongly believe that it is a new usage but it has existed since at least the 14th century. Its only appropriate for an uncertain or generic person though so its not exactly equivalent –  Richard Tingle May 14 at 8:08
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As has been noted, there are many languages that meet the condition. In my language, Yoruba, He came, She came and It came all translate to O wa. –  afaolek May 15 at 11:10
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@user58955 The wikipedia article contains several references to that fact. However they are book references so I can't link to them directly: "The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43146-8. pp. 493–494." and "A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521848374. p. 178." –  Richard Tingle May 15 at 12:05

11 Answers 11

The World Atlas of Language Structures has a feature about gender distinctions in personal pronouns. According to it, there are at least 254 languages without gender distinctions and even 2 with gender distinctions in 1st and 2nd, but not 3rd person pronouns (Iraqw and Burunge).

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Even Farsi (an Indo-European language) has no gender - either grammatical or in the pronouns. –  Francis Davey May 14 at 10:20
    
Interesting. Is this a well-known typological universal (a stochastic entailment hierarchy)? –  user3503 May 16 at 15:11
    
Armenian (also Indo-European) has no gender distinction in third person personal pronouns, which made translating the title of the movie "He and She" a bit difficult ("նա և նա") –  Armen Tsirunyan Jul 13 at 20:05

There are many such languages. Examples include Turkic languages (as kiyoshigaang's answer mentions), Uralic languages (such as Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian), spoken Mandarin and Cantonese, and doubtless many others. Languages which lack grammatical gender generally will usually lack gendered third-person pronouns specifically (although there are exceptions to this, such as English).

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Gendered pronouns were only introduced into Chinese in the 20th century (and, as you said, the distinction is only made in writing). –  200_success May 14 at 6:27
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I have a friend who grew up in Estonia under the Soviet Union. She originally read the Bible in Estonian. It wasn't until after the wall fell and she was finally able to be in contact with Christians from other countries that she realized that in all gendered languages, both God and Jesus are generally considered male. So yeah, Estonian is certainly one of those languages. –  Jenny D May 14 at 6:37
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Japanese is another language that lacks grammatical gender, but still has gendered third-person pronouns. (Technically, I think Japanese just considers everything a noun, not a pronoun, but it still counts.) –  user3564 May 14 at 14:42

Turkish doesn't have gender in third person pronouns. For example, if one says "Onu, okulda gördüm.", it can interpreted either "I saw her at school" or " I saw him at school".

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Just what I was looking for! Are there other languages with a similar root as Turkish which share this trait? –  IQAndreas May 13 at 23:06
    
TKR tells almost all the languages which are similar to Turkish. I can't say much about Uralic languages, but Turkic languages lack grammatical gender and gendered third-person, as far as I know. –  kiyoshigaang May 13 at 23:15

North Indian Languages, eg. Hindi/Urdu (Indo-European). Even though there are gendered nouns, there are no gendered pronouns. Even first (मैं) and second (तुम-informal/आप-formal) person pronouns are gender-neutral. All nouns are gendered, though. For example, a table (मेज़) is feminine while a pen (कलम) is masculine.

  • वह आदमी है। (He’s a man.)
  • वह औरत है। (She’s a woman.)
  • वह कुर्सी है। (It’s a chair.)
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IMO just saying "Hindi/Urdu" would have been better than mentioning "North Indian languages". If you meant to make a statement about Indo-Aryan languages as a whole, you're flat-out wrong: Marathi, for instance, has a three-way gender distinction in its third-person pronouns, while Bengali has no gender distinctions at all. –  Anubhav C May 14 at 14:35
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Anubhav Chattoraj: I had Hindustani, Bhojpuri, Bengali, and possibly Punjabi in mind—and I meant exactly what I wrote—North Indian Languages, not Indo-Aryan Languages. Thanks for the heads-up regarding Marathi. Hindustani, Bhojpuri, and Bengali all have genderless pronouns. The example was to illustrate the possibly unique position of Hindustani (vis-a-vis Bengali and in contrast to tri-gendered Sanskrit, for example), that has bi-gendered nouns but non-gendered pronouns. –  Alex C. May 15 at 5:00

In the Finnish language we do not have separate words for him/her but instead use the word "hän" to refer to a person of either gender. For finns learning English it can be a challenge to understand that when you refer to a third person you'll also need to specify their gender.

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Spoken Sinhala has "eya" which is used in place of the English "he"/"she". It also has gender specific words but in the spoken language I've never heard them used. Some native Sinhala speakers have difficulty separating "he"/"she" in English and use "he" for females with or without auto-correcting to "her". I believe that in written Sinhala there is gender distinction for third person pronouns.

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Indonesian Language is. We don't use any third person pronouns. For example, we can use "Dia memakai sepatu" or in English "He/She is wearing shoes". So the word of "Dia" is sometime biased, between "He" or "She". And for your information, Indonesian Language or in simply most people say "Bahasa" is so interesting. It has no any specific intonation to describe the homophones. And the grammar is so simple. If you want to study about Bahasa, I will tech you then :)

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“Dia” is a third person pronoun, isn’t it ? –  Nicolas Barbulesco May 15 at 15:47
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Maybe what he meant was that "We don't use any gender in third person pronouns"? Because it's true that "dia" is a third person pronoun and gender neutral. And, AFAIK, there's another one, "ia". But, again AFAIK, "ia"'s usage in daily conversation is very uncommon (commonly used in literature), and I also don't know the differences between their usage (I found some, but no trusted sources). –  Konayuki May 15 at 18:05

In Hungarian, ő means both "he" and "she", and also "it".

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This seems like a good answer, but can you expand it with some examples? Answers that consist of only a single sentence are discouraged on SE. –  robert May 15 at 22:11
  • Georgian lacks gender specific third person pronouns:

    • ის (is) covers "he", "she", "it"; and also "this".
    • იგი (igi) covers "he" and "she".
  • Mongolian is another language that doesn't specify gender in third person pronouns:

    • тэр (ter) is a deictic / demonstrative meaning "that", and is covers "he", "she", and "it".
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This is what, apparently distinguishes the old world languages from the new.

In Swahili, a language whose origin is shrouded in mystery, there is no such gender distinction. In fact there is no 'gender' at all in its grammar but rather class distinction. Its grammar posses 8 classes and 1 class is to distinguish living things but not plants which fall in another class.

Example, 'kaja', an act of coming, could mean 'he came' or 'she came' of if the context was about a bird or a dog then it would mean the dog came or the bird came.

The other 7 classes go into an elaborate distinction of objects and concepts.

A similar languages would be Sanskrit, of which almost all the European languages are founded on which had 16 classes, but it is not a living language anymore.

This distinction of classes is not merely the addition of a single word in the sentence such as he or she like in English but rather modifying the entire sentence with the class key word in such a way that every word in the sentence denotes the object being spoken about.

The language also has pre-fixes and suffixes just like any other but it also has inter-fixes interspersed between words as well as size distinction.

Example, 'mtu' is a person, 'jitu' is a superlative, a very big person and 'kijitu' is a small person.

And best of all these distinctions are merely simple syllable. In fact the entire grammar of the language is based on them.

I hope this helps.

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Be careful about the old vs new world distinction. Finnish or Hungarian (or even Turkish) could hardly be classified as new world languages. –  Dominik Lukes May 14 at 8:15
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Nor is English "founded on" Sanskrit (they almost certainly both have a common ancestor, but that is a different thing). –  Francis Davey May 14 at 10:19
    
Nor does Sanskrit have "sixteen classes". It has three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter). –  Anubhav C May 14 at 14:40

Adding to the list of individual languages here, Adyghe (Northwest Caucasian) has a third person a 'that' used for 3rd person, and Quechua languages do so too, e.g., pay 's/he' in northern varieties.

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