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In many languages (unlike English) if translated literally, you would have people saying "the masculine case X," "the feminine case that," or "the neuter case this other." To make things even more confusing, some languages give feminine cases to things that should be masculine and visa versa (for instance genitalia). Some languages have even more gender cases than the set three I just mentioned. In most languages that have these divisions, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as far as why something is whatever gender-specific case it is. And if you use the neuter case (in essence eliminating gender cases), you'd probably get some strange looks, have people not know what you're talking about or be corrected (even if there was no gender cases to begin with they should know/ extrapolate your meaning). Yet, it seems even English isn't immune, we have people calling a car, boat, or plane a "her." On the other hand, when translating into English, none of the sense of the gendered-ness of the word is kept. Why?
(BTW, I know there are similar questions, but what I'm asking is slightly different and between the lines of some of the questions that have been asked before, and not been explicitly stated, and may bring some interesting conversation, so I ask it remain open)

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    I'm very unsure about "most." Where did you get that information? While it doesn't attempt to be a representative sample of all languages, the World Atlas of Language Structures Online seems like a good place to start when looking at how many languages have grammatical gender, and it shows a bit less than half in its database. – brass tacks Jul 1 '16 at 5:21
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    By the way, another chapter from the WALS, Systems of Gender Assignment, contradicts the idea that most languages with gender have "no rhyme or reason" for assigning certain nouns to certain genders. Some gender assignment systems are more complicated than others, but in all languages, the gender of the majority of nouns can indeed be predicted from other information (such as the meaning or structure of the word). – brass tacks Jul 1 '16 at 5:25
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    You'll get strange looks from people if you use the wrong gender because it's ungrammatical—just like if someone said in English "me have many furnitures in me home" for "I have many pieces of furniture in my home." People can probably understand the meaning fine, but it's not how fluent speakers of the language talk. – brass tacks Jul 1 '16 at 5:29
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    Regarding the WALS article, the languages selected in that article are cherry-picked, and have no validity in inferring anything about statistical patterns for languages in general. – user6726 Jul 1 '16 at 15:33
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Well, to answer the titular question, most languages don't have multiple genders. You could get away with saying that many languages have multiple genders, as long as you take 2 to be the lower bound on "multiple" (which in a certain sense, follows from what "multiple" means). A language can't have only one gender: the logic of gender means that nouns have to be split into kinds. If there aren't at least two, you don't have kinds.

There are two kinds of kinds: natural, and arbitrary. The former refers to systems where nouns are classified according to some meaning property, and the latter is the situation where nouns are divided arbitrarily. It appears, from a historical analysis of gender systems, that arbitrary gender systems derive from natural gender systems which have gotten sufficiently complicated that nobody can figure out the natural system anymore, so instead you just memorize things. There are not any attested absolutely arbitrary gender systems, but western European languages come pretty close. So whether most languages with gender fall into the "more or less arbitrary" subset depends on how you draw the dividing line between "mostly arbitrary" vs. "kind of arbitrary".

Languages have gender (which isn't just about sex) because it has (had) been useful to say things about the nature of objects. The most common and natural division is animate / inanimate (not masculine / feminine). And yet, there seems to be something attractive to having a male / female distinction.

English has almost freed itself of gender distinctions, but we do still have differences in pronouns. Some Kurdish dialects likewise have eliminated noun gender except that it is sort of possible to distinguish male and female human 3rd person pronouns. Indicating male / female on 3rd person pronouns is the most functionally useful way of exploiting gender marking (it provides the most discourse-relevant information), as opposed to arbitrarily deeming "glass" to be masculine and "cup" to be feminine. We're moving towards getting rid of the pronoun distinction, so just be patient and in a few more centuries it will be gone.

There seems to be some confusion over arbitrariness. In the architypical natural gender system, gender actually is assigned by rules that refer to semantic property. Since arbitrary gender systems derive from natural gender systems, there are often statistical traces of that rule system. With a sufficiently rich coding system and statistical software, you can always eke out some correlation between e.g. gender and real world properties.

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  • Can you please provide a reference for the idea that western European languages come pretty close to having "arbitrary" gender systems? I am not a linguist, but most sources I have encountered so far suggest that even in Western European languages, most nouns have a predictable gender. I linked beneath this question to the World Atlas of Language Structures chapter on Systems of Gender Assignment; it says "it has been shown that gender is always largely predictable." There are other sources online for specific languages such as French that seem to support this. – brass tacks Jul 1 '16 at 5:33
  • I think it comes down to a complete disagreement with Corbett. The referenced book only gives one (central) European language. Without providing rules for predicting, we can evaluate his claim. Mine is based on experience with French and Germanic. – user6726 Jul 1 '16 at 15:31
  • For French, there are several online resources that describe the gender of nouns as being at least 80% predictable. Just do a search on something like "French gender rules." This paper even says 90-98 percent. – brass tacks Jul 1 '16 at 16:41
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    If you're a native speaker of German, you can identify the gender of nonsense words when told they've been borrowed recently. A lot of gender is redundant; almost everything in language is backed up somewhere else. Redundancy is a design feature of life. And gender systems, especially elaborate ones like Bantu languages have, basically give one a hashing algorithm for all of life's entities; pretty good for pre-FORTRAN programming. – jlawler Jul 1 '16 at 18:11
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    @sumelic I think user6726 meant to say gender assignment is arbitrarily assigned from the semantic point of view, which is true for most European languages. – Alex B. Jul 2 '16 at 12:13
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At least in Russian I think there is some correlation.

Masculine things tend to be straight and stiff. Feminine tend to be round, soft and tricky. Neuter tend to be formless.

This is masculine: enter image description here

while this is feminine: enter image description here

This is masculine:

enter image description here

while this is feminine:

enter image description here

This is masculine:

enter image description here

while this is feminine:

enter image description here

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  • So other "straight and stiff" things like палка, клюшка, указка, труба, башня and many other nouns are ...? – Alex B. Jul 2 '16 at 12:06
  • I can't understand why on Earth блюдо/сервиз and короб became feminine. Since when?! – bytebuster Jul 2 '16 at 13:10
  • @bytebuster this is not короб, it is коробка, and короб is archaic, I never seen it in use. – Anixx Jul 2 '16 at 14:47
  • The pencil and pen example seems somewhat self-explanatory to me ("curvy" = womanly), though if I were King of All Language, I'd be tempted to mark all long, narrow, pointy, or otherwise phallic objects "masculine" (and likewise all containers feminine), but I don't see any suggestion of a masculine/feminine divide among the other pairs of items. In fact, to me, he glass seems feminine, and the catbird box masculine (relative to its wooden counterpart). I don't know. Can you elaborate on the differences you see? – Dan Bron Jul 2 '16 at 16:33
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    Gender assignment for inanimate nouns in Modern Russian is purely grammatical (based on morphology) and has nothing to do with semantics. Круг 'circle' is masculine whereas окружность 'circumference' is feminine. – Alex B. Jul 2 '16 at 23:07

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