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In English and every language I speak or know well, masculine gender is unmarked, and feminine is marked, for any human referent. Is there any known language where this is the other way around? (Take for example los ricos in Spanish, "the rich". Is there any language in which this would naturally be the equivalent of "las ricas"?)

(Possibly also interesting would be languages where female might be the unmarked gender for non-human referents. If anyone knows of one, please do tell. For example the weird use in standard Arabic of the feminine singular pronouns for all plural inanimate referents, like "the films I saw", al aflaam, al-lati ra'aituha.)

I'm aware that there is at least one invented feminist language (Laadan) but I'm only interested in natural languages.

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    Why do you think in English feminine is marked?
    – Anixx
    Nov 4 '15 at 14:01
  • I don't know quite what you're aiming at with the question, but I'm talking for example about how "actor" is either a generic thespian or (traditionally) only male, with "actress" being the marked female form, until women started self-consciously taking up "actor" for themselves too.
    – RLG
    Nov 4 '15 at 14:08
  • An interesting side fact: there are many parallels in Indo-European languages to the Arabic use of feminine singular agreement with neuter plural nouns. In some varieties of Ancient Greek, a singular verb was generally used with a neuter plural subject. [...] Nov 4 '15 at 21:58
  • In Latin, feminine singular nouns and adjectives of the first declension take the same nominative ending (-a) as neuter plural nouns and adjectives of the second declension. In German, the plural-inflected forms of adjectives and articles are often identical to the feminine singular forms. Nov 4 '15 at 21:58
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    What about widow and widower? Is that not an example of the male being marked and female not being marked?
    – Baz
    Nov 5 '15 at 12:42
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Yes, there are such languages.

Here's an excerpt from the annotation to Heidi Newell's „A Consideration Of Feminine Default Gender“ (2005):

Languages with gender assignment must also deal with ambiguous and unknown gender.
The gender used for an unknown or ambiguous gender is the default gender.
In some languages all nouns must be assigned a gender.
If the gender is unknown or ambiguous, however, then the language defaults to one of the existing genders.
In the great majority of the languages with such a system, the default gender will be either the neuter (if it is available) or the masculine gender.

“While the use of the feminine is possible, it is nevertheless the masculine which occurs in most languages reported on”.
Some examples of this exception are Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, Mohawk in North America, and Welsh in Britain and it is on these languages I concentrate.

In Maasai demonstrative pronouns use a feminine default,
Mohawk uses a feminine default gender in personal pronouns,
and Welsh in cases where a non-referential overt subject is needed, the feminine form is used.

Scroll down the page for View/Download link (PDF).


Further reading: Gender of mixed groups defaulting to masculine – how common?

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    So if I can sum up what I read in the thesis, 1) Mohawk has a relatively robust system of default female, 2) Maasai uses it in a limited few cases with humans (a verbal noun agrees with its agent, and if the agent is uknown it defaults to female), and 3) Welsh only uses a default female in cases like the "it" in "it is raining", which is not so germane to my purposes.
    – RLG
    Nov 5 '15 at 13:20
  • @RLG yes, if I understood your Q correctly. The logic is the following: default grammatical gender (GG) make only sense if an object is unknown. This only occurs for pronouns, not for nouns (as they have their own certain GG). However, pronouns may have different roles in different languages. An therefore, you are to decide if a certain example is useful for your research or not. The way you described it, Welsh may not be the best match to this purpose. On the other hand, you may still consider Welsh since it is the only European language in a list, and may be well-perceived by your readers.
    – bytebuster
    Nov 5 '15 at 13:56
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In the vast majority of (if not all) languages that have a grammatical gender assignment with the Masculine/Feminine distinction, the masculine is the unmarked gender. But the system of markedness is going to be much more complex as genders proliferate. For instance, in Czech verbal agreement masculine is the unmarked gender with respect to feminine and neuter but feminine is the default with respect to neuter. Also, the masculine inanimate is marked with respect to masculine animate (at least where agreement is concerned). As Corbett pointed out in Gender: markedness is not a very good category to apply across all of gender across all language.

It is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of languages, including English, do not have grammatical gender - http://wals.info/feature/32A#2/25.5/148.2. In English, the gender is lexical or semantic (e.g. the distinction between he/she, actor/actress) in contrast to a language like Finnish which does not have even these distinctions.

However, there is also the cultural default, which in most contexts skews strongly towards the masculine. E.g. the cultural expectation that a doctor or boss is a man. This is salient even in cultures where grammatical gender exists and most statements are gender marked. It is impossible to perfectly disagregate the role of grammatical markedness from that of the cultural semantic default, for instance in 'los ricos', grammar plays a role but it is also guided by culture. Another example is the English he/she debate where clearly the supposed grammaticality of the he-default did not withstand a cultural challenge (and was indeed itself a result of an earlier cultural challenge from the other direction).

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  • Thanks. I'm writing a column on why some people prefer "first woman president", others prefer "first female president" and many others still find both highly unsatisfactory, so this is very much to my point.
    – RLG
    Nov 5 '15 at 13:01
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In Irish:

a pheann / his pen  
a peann / her pen 

So peann is lenited when demonstrating male ownership.

In Scottish Gaelic:

When addressing a person:

a Mhórag! / Morag!
a Dhòmhnaill! / Donald!

Female names are lenited, while male names are lenited and slenderised with Dòmhnall becoming Dhòmhnaill.

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  • Sound changes like this could be argued to go either way - I wouldn't think their sufficient evidence of either gender be unmarked.
    – curiousdannii
    Nov 5 '15 at 13:31

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