When does a thing become a person, in any language. When is it correct grammar to refer to a thing as a person?

  • 3
    that has very little to do with language and all with sociology, philosophy and all that jazz. Maybe there's a little sapir-whorff going on that perputates certain societally ingrained behaviour, but that would be to be determined after the fact. – vectory Jun 11 '19 at 16:01
  • 1
    A thing becomes a person, grammatically, whenever you treat it as one. It is ordinary in folk tales for animals to talked about as though they were people. – Greg Lee Jun 12 '19 at 0:18
  • Greg Lee has it right. It is also common world-wide to think of "people" as "people like us", i.e, same culture, same language, same likes and dislikes, same religion, same mythology, etc. Everybody else doesn't count; you can kill or enslave them ad libitum. – jlawler Jun 12 '19 at 18:29
  • Note that in the NSM THING and SOMEONE are independent semantic primes. They're both core concepts. – curiousdannii Jun 13 '19 at 12:00

It depends on the language, really.

Many languages have a distinction between "animate" and "inanimate" baked into the grammar, but they don't all draw the distinction in the same place. For a few examples:

  • In older Swahili, gender #1 (m-) is used for most people. Animals use gender #9 (N-), and "irregular" people (defined by a specific characteristic, including disabilities like blindness, but also height) use gender #7 (ki-).
    • In modern Swahili, this distinction is vanishing, with all humans and animals shifting into gender #1.
  • In Ancient Greek, all words for adult humans are grammatically animate, but small children are grammatically inanimate.
    • In fact, the word for "living being" in general (ζῷον zôion) is grammatically inanimate, and includes not just humans and animals but also paintings and sculptures.
  • In Classical Latin, all words for humans and animals are grammatically animate, but so are the majority of all other nouns. The neuter gender (descended from the PIE inanimate) died out completely in later Latin, which is why the Romance languages don't have it.

And the lines aren't necessarily sharp and strict, either: look at English, where it's valid to call an animal or infant "it", but equally valid to call it "he" (or "she"), and there's a convention of using "she" for ships and other large vehicles.


In addition to Draconis' nice answer, there are things considered animate in Latin, trees have the natural gender feminine, even when the word form suggests masculine, e.g. populus "poplar".

  • 2
    But do we have any evidence whether Latin speakers considered things with masculine or feminine gender to be animate? – Colin Fine Jun 12 '19 at 15:51
  • Hmmm... we have evidence that Latin speakers wre aware of the difference between grammatical gender and natural gender, and going by natural gender means something. I'm not an expert in Ancient Roman Religion and mythology, there might be a reason within the belief system for the natural gender of trees. – jk - Reinstate Monica Jun 12 '19 at 15:58
  • Related question on Latin Language: latin.stackexchange.com/q/10939/183 – jk - Reinstate Monica Jun 13 '19 at 15:46

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