5

In many languages where nouns have gender, adjectives agree in gender with the nouns they modify. But it would be possible to imagine a language where each adjective had its own gender, which it kept regardless of the gender of its noun or pronoun. Thus for example a feminine adjective could modify a masculine noun, and vice versa. Do any such languages exist? And even if they do, why are they so rare?

It is very easy to imagine an adjective having a fixed gender when it is actually formed from a noun in the first place. For example, in French the noun victoire (victory) is feminine, and the singular adjective formed from this noun can be either masculine (victorieux) or feminine (victorieuse). We could drop the masculine form and say both une femme victorieuse (a victorious woman) and un homme victorieuse (a victorious man). The quality of victoriousness would be understood to be feminine, and this would be indicated by the ending of the adjective meaning 'victorious', independently of the gender of the noun it modifies. We could also do it like this when an adjective isn't formed from a noun. There must be a problem with doing it this way. What is it?

  • You forgot about cases. Why not have it that way that when a language has, say, 4 cases like German, every noun would be used always in the same case, e.g. "man" always in the nominative, and "woman" in the genitive? And there are verb tenses, why should verbs change the tenses? Let every verb be used always in one tense. – Yellow Sky May 5 '15 at 16:06
  • 7
    Usually "gender" is used to refer to a system of agreement. In the system you describe, there is no agreement between nouns and adjectives that refer to them. So a linguist would not call such a system a "gender" system, unless there is some other type of agreement (for example, between nouns and pronouns, or between adjectives and adverbs). – ewawe May 5 '15 at 16:21
  • In some pedantic sense English has this, in that to some English-speakers, a few adjectives borrowed from French agree with the gender of their noun if it has one (some people refer to a man as "blond" and a woman as "blonde"). All other adjectives therefore "have gender" in the same sense that your example hypothetical "victorieuse" has gender, meaning that they don't agree with the noun's gender ;-) I'm not sure what the difference is between saying your example "is feminine" vs saying "it doesn't agree with the noun". – Steve Jessop May 5 '15 at 18:12
  • @sumelic - If some nouns are referred to as "he" and others as "she", that's a gender system. YellowSky - So you don't know. – h34 May 5 '15 at 18:13
  • 1
    Another example in French, we don't say that "rouge" is a feminine adjective just because it's the same regardless of the gender of the noun, and looks like it might be a feminine production since it ends with an e! I'm not disputing the question, I just feel that in order to have gender, an adjective has to do something more impressive than merely resist the gender of its noun. – Steve Jessop May 5 '15 at 18:26
5

The reason that where adjectives have gender it agrees with the gender of their noun is typically that the gendered adjectival form is made by merging the adjectival stem with a gendered demonstrative pronoun.

Gender is a typical category for nouns, not adjectives.

You can refer to Lakoff (Fire, women and dangerous things) with regards how gender-like categories develop in nouns.

With regards to gender in adjectives, the function is typically to indicate the dependent-head relation towards the noun and the gender typically evolves by merging with some sort of clitic pronoun, pointing to the noun/head.

e.g. in Indo-European languages (particularly the old ones), adjectives typically have the same declensions as the demonstrative pronouns. In Russian, you can see this process happening again - "krasivaja ženščina" (beautiful woman) comes from "krasiva+ja"(beautiful-F + this-F). In most other Slavic languages, this secondary suffix merged into the previous word fully (e.g. in Czech you have "krásná" from original *"krásna-ja").

While you can potentially find counter examples, this is the explanation why in majority of the cases it is the noun that carries the gender category, while the adjective that has to agree with it,

  • 1
    I find your initial assertion surprising. In Latin, almost all adjectives share a declensional pattern with a class (or two classes) of nouns, and not with pronouns. (eg very few adjectives have the pronominal gen. sg. in "-ius"). – Colin Fine Sep 1 '16 at 22:41
  • Latin grammarians considered Latin adjectives as just another class of nouns, one without inherent gender that pick it up from other nouns. Other than inherent gender, Latin adjectives behave exactly like Latin nouns, so Adjective wasn't on the original list of The 8 Parts of Speech. Its place was taken by Participle, of which Latin had plenty; that's slipped off the list since, though. – jlawler Jun 15 '18 at 23:53
10

The Beti-Fang subgroup of languages of Cameroon (and I suspect other related Bantu languages) have this property. Example languages are Ewondo, Fang, Ntumu, Bulu. Like most Bantu languages, there is a class system involved in agreement and singular / plural formation. Adjectives, which are pre-nominal, have a lexical class, but demonstratives and numerals, which are post-nominal do not have any lexical class. The agreement properties (NP-internal as well as subject agreement on verbs) of the NP are determined by the first class-bearing word, which would be the noun if there are no adjectives, but the adjective (first adjective) if there are. Alas, I can't put my hands on examples at the moment, but I will insert examples when I get them.

[Edit] Some examples, from Ntumu. Numerals refer to the class number, and nouns have a prefix reflecting their lexical class. Demonstratives are post-nominal; [ém-boro ny-í] "this-1 person-1", [é-boro b-á] "those-2 people-2", [ʌ́-nló !w-í] "that-3 head-3", [mí-nló !m-í] "those-4 heads-4". Possessive pronouns are post-nominal; [ém-boro wɔ-m] "my-1 person-1", [é-boro bâ-m] "my-2 people-2", [á!-bɔ́ dâ-m] "my-5 leg-5", [má!-bɔ́ dâ-m] "my-6 legs-6". Numerals are post-nominal; [bi-tɔ bí!-bɛ́ŋ] "two-8 chairs-8", [mʌ-kɛ́ mʌ́!-bɛ́ŋ] "two-6 leaves-8". "All" is post-nominal; [boro bʌ́!-sʌ̂] "all-2 people-2", [mi-nkwɛ́n mí!-sʌ̂] "all-4 crops-4", [ʌ-jwi á!-sʌ̂] "all-5 (the) banana-5" (i.e. the whole banana). Wh-modifiers are postnominal; [m-boro m-bé] "which-1 person-1", [boro bʌ-vé] "which-2 people-2".

Here are some adj+N examples. In these, there is a class-agreeing prefix on the noun which I gloss as "AGR" (it is also used in N of N constructions), and there is a fair amount of phonological complexity to its realization but basically the AGR prefix plus the noun's lexical prefix can't be more than one syllable. Given citation nouns [fâm] "male-1", [bʌ-fâm] "males-2", [e-lé] "tree-7", [bi-lé] "trees-8", we have [e-tun ʌ́+fâm] "short-7 AGR-7+male-1", [bi-tun bí+fâm] "short-8 AGR-8+male-2" [e-tun e+lé] "short-7 tree" [mʌ-yab m+élé] "tall-6 AGR-6+trees-7", [bi-tun bí+lé] "short-8 AGR-8+trees-8". I think this is enough to show the general pattern that the agreement pattern is controlled by the NP-initial adjective, and it can cause deletion of the lexical class prefix of the noun.

The noun ([ʌn-sîn] "enemy-1", [bʌ-sîn] "enemies-2") governs post-nominal agreement as expected in [ʌn-sín ʌ́!m-bé] "which-1 enemy-1", [bʌ-sín bʌ́!-vé] "which-2 enemies-2", and also subject agreement on the verb in [ʌn-sin a-ku] "enemy-1 fell-1" (sorry, no tones in this section), [bʌ-sin ba-ku] "enemies-2 fell-2". But when there is an adjective, the class of the adjective controls the agreement pattern: [a-yab ʌ+n-sin da-ku] "tall-5 AGR-5+enemy-1 fell-5" ("a tall enemy fell"), [mʌ-yab mʌ+sin mʌ-ve ma-ku] "tall-6 AGR-6+enemies-2 which-6 fell-6" ("which tall enemies fell").

True, more needs to be said about the details, but the point is that in this set of languages, adjectives do have lexical class, and can actually control agreement.

  • What NP-internal elements show agreement with the first word? – ewawe May 5 '15 at 16:41
  • 1
    I found some discussion in this paper. Apparently the adjective class is very small, and it looks like it is probably closed: www2.hu-berlin.de/predicate_focus_africa/data/… – ewawe May 5 '15 at 16:49

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.