This is a thing that I have been thinking about for a while. I know that PIE did not have gender distinction in verb forms, and its presence in modern Slavic languages must be an innovation.

If I am correct this phenomenon occurs exclusively in the Slavic family (I still have in mind only IE languages). My questions are:

  • What is the probable origin of it, how did it develop within the Slavic group ?
  • Do any IE families or languages besides Slavic contrast between masculine and feminine verbs forms, even in the slightest degree ?
  • Are there any universal lingustic processes that may lead to that ?

I want to emphasize that I am only concerned about the verb.

Of course any references to articles, books etc. will be very welcome.

  • 2
    I can't say anything about Slavic languages, but often enough a gender-inflected participle will show up in a periphrastic verbal construction and require gender agreement with something, usually a subject. In Latin, for instance, the passive perfect forms of most verbs are periphrastic and involve participles with esse. This is how the perfect tense in Hindi developed its ergative character, because it originally was a periphrastic construction.
    – jlawler
    Aug 14, 2015 at 18:43
  • Grammatical gender (GG) is a property of a noun, not of a verb. GG of verbs do agree with nouns, so for most languages having GG it has little sense to research a verb's GG with no conjunction with the associated noun. There are controversial hypotheses about the origin of inflected forms, one of those is that the bound morphemes (e.g. endings) originally used to be free morphemes, but became agglutinated during the course of language's development. Aug 15, 2015 at 2:32
  • Until I read these answers I just didn't realise that the past polish verb forms are etymologically participles, hence the gender distinction. Now it is all clear.
    – czypsu
    Aug 15, 2015 at 5:38

2 Answers 2


Slavic verbs in past tense are simply periphrastic participle constructions.

Našel jsem literally (etymologically) means "the-one-who-found-it I-am". And as any normal particple, it agrees in gender with subject. In Russian, the copula is omitted usually; in Polish, it was fused with the verb (suffix -em for 1p sg.), in languages like Czech or Serbian, the copula is still there. In the languages I know (for example, Russian) L-participles are not an active language feature anymore (not used independently), however some of them were moved to the category of adjectives and can be used independently: e.g. Russian gniloj "rotten" which is now an adjective as opposed to the "real deal", the real participle (in the modern language), sgnivšij with a different suffix.

So it's not something unusual. If I'm not mistaken, French "Passé composé" dinstinguishes genders as well: Je suis montée vs. Je suis monté etc., because etymologically, it's the same thing.

  • 1
    Right. Just a comment about the history: verbs have almost certainly been gender-dependent in Slavic languages from the very beginning. However, it's true that there's some evolution. For example, transgressives en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transgressive_(linguistics) are forms of infinitives or participles that used to be common in Czech/Slovak but have largely disappeared. The transgressives are past ("having sat down" as one word) or present ("[while] seeing", one word) and gender-dependent although the gender forms differ "less" than the surviving main forms of verbs. Aug 15, 2015 at 6:13

In some Iranian languages (maybe Indic as well), the past tense construction involves a verb that is etymologically a passive participle, agreeing in gender with the verb's object rather than its subject: e.g.,

Pashto mā xǝza lidǝla "I saw a/the woman"

The literal translation of this sentence would be something like "the woman was-seen by-me", since the pronoun is an oblique 1sg. pronoun, the nominative form being .

  • 2
    Isn't it a part of something called partial ergativity ? If I remember correctly there was a development of a special syntactic structure in passive past tense. I think that modern Hindustani also shares that phenomenon.
    – czypsu
    Aug 15, 2015 at 8:01
  • 1
    Maybe so. I'm not an expert, but from what I have read, this phenomenon only occurs in the past tense: present-tense verbs in Pashto agree with their subject and are not inflected for gender.
    – user8017
    Aug 15, 2015 at 8:04
  • 1
    It developed from a stylistic custom in old indo-iranian languages of putting the subject and object in different syntactical patterns in past tense than it would be usually done in present. Anyways, as I stated before, I have to check again, I might have confused something.
    – czypsu
    Aug 15, 2015 at 8:09

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