I seem to recall hearing and reading that certain Slavic languages including Czech treat animate nouns as something like an extra gender. Even Wikipedia in some places counts more than three genders for some Slavic languages (or used to, I will have to check for the current state of play).

For instance here is one such quote from Wikipedia:

Another example is Polish, which can be said to distinguish five genders: personal masculine (referring to male humans), animate non-personal masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Is this the case or is it more complex than that? I think I've heard it described as having three and a half genders too. How is this like and unlike gender and is it sometimes described as being another gender outside linguistics circles or do I have even that wrong?

(Note that I'm specifically asking about nouns so please don't submit answers about pronouns)

  • 2
    I wouldn't call "animate" a gender, since I believe it's generally on a separate axis from masculine/feminine. "Noun class" is a more general term, of which gender is a subtype. – Alek Storm Sep 21 '11 at 23:08
  • @Alek: If you flesh out your comment it would make a suitable answer. It raises an interesting question about the difference between noun classes and genders in Indo European languages too. – hippietrail Sep 21 '11 at 23:21
  • I've gone ahead and also asked the broader question – hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 0:34
  • So should this be closed as a special case (not quite a duplicate) of the broader question? – Aaron Sep 22 '11 at 2:33
  • 2
    In bulgarian there is a human/non-human distinction in masculine. Cardinal numbers before masculine human words use a special form: "трима полицаи" (three policemen) <-> "три вълка" (three wolves). – martinkunev Feb 6 '15 at 19:04

(Amended per comments)

AFAICT, in Czech, the animate/inanimate distinction is considered as a kind of “sub-gender” specification for the masculine gender. Usually you need to distinguish only m/f/n, but in a few cases, the masculine gender needs to be differentiated to animate/inanimate.

Masculine animate nouns have the singular accusative different from the singular nominative (e.g. man: nom muž, acc muže) while inanimate nouns have accusative identical to nominative (e.g. castle: nom hrad, acc hrad). This is the difference native speakers use to recognize noun animacy (and choose the correct declension paradigm). Furthermore, there are differences in singular dative and locative (e.g. mužovi vs. hradu), and plural nominative (e.g. muži vs. hrady).

The most important aspect affected by animacy is the third-person plural past verb form: the inanimate nouns are treated almost like feminines, e.g. muži byli (“men were”), while hrady byly (similarily to ženy byly = “women were”).

We have four declension paradigms for animate masculine nouns and two for inanimate masculine nouns, however, they are usually listed together and mixed (“pán, hrad, muž, stroj, předseda, soudce”, where hrad and stroj are those inanimate). So, in general usage, the animacy is definitely not on the same level of importance as gender.

As for the “assignment” of animacy to nouns, it is generally true that animate nouns correspond to live beings, while abstract concepts and non-living entities correspond to inanimate nouns. But there are exceptions to this rule. Plants (e.g. strom = tree) and collective nouns (hmyz = insect) are inanimate, and a non-living, yet human-like snowman (sněhulák), or a by-definition-deceased nebožtík are animate.

Then we have several classes of nouns which may be used either as animate or inanimate. Some of them according to the speaker’s style choice: Nouns ending with -tel or -ec (e.g. ledoborec = icebreaker) can use ledoborci vypluli, or ledoborce vypluly (choosing the noun variant and then the corresponding verb inflection), similarly with a few other small sets of nouns.

Then there are nouns which are animate or inanimate according to the specific real-world meaning, e.g. sběrač, which might mean a gatherer (a person gathering something), or a pantograph (a device collecting something), and according to the meaning, it is animate (“sběrači měli plné košíky” – “gatherers had their baskets full”), or inanimate (“sběrače měly poruchu” = “collectors were broken”). An interesting word in this regard is robot (you might be aware that it is originally Czech, invented by Josef Čapek for his brother’s theatrical play R.U.R.): it might be either animate (humanoid, intelligent robots), or inanimate (dumb machines, e.g. a kitchen robot).

For some nouns, you can also use animate declension expressively, e.g. (“dám si ruma” = “I’ll have a rum”, even though rum is normally inanimate, so “dám si rum” is the basic usage).

  • Just to clarify, while the assignment of m/f/n gender can be arbitrary for any particular noun, I take it that the assignment of +/- animate is not arbitrary and strictly reflects the animacy of the thing referred to by the noun. Can you confirm this is correct? – hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 20:03
  • 3
    @hippietrail Not completely. While it is generally true, there are many cases and even classes of nouns where this is not exactly so. E.g. plants (strom = tree) and collective nouns (hmyz = insect) are inanimate, and there are special cases like an animate sněhulák (= snowman). And we have cases where you could use animate declension even for generally inanimate nouns, e.g. for nouns with -tel and -ec suffixes (you may use both ledoborce vypluly and ledoborci vypluli). I guess there is nothing having no exception. ;-) – Mormegil Sep 22 '11 at 20:28
  • Wow those exceptions are amazing for me and you should cover them in your answer. Can you verify that they're definitely lexical though? Might two synonyms have different animacy though they refer to the same object? For instance Spanish gender is lexical but in English when we call a ship "she" it is not lexical. – hippietrail Sep 22 '11 at 20:33
  • 2
    @hippitrail, FWIW, some have actually posited that in some languages the animate/inanimate distinction is sometimes better understood as human/non human which evolves into rational/irrational, social/asocial etc. The snowman, the gatherer/pantograph and the robot fit in quite well. – Alain Pannetier Sep 23 '11 at 8:44
  • 1
    @m93a: You are most probably right, I removed the sentence. The distinction apparently comes from later (1944–1948 PSJČ contains only the animate version, 1966 SSJČ contains both). – Mormegil May 17 '17 at 19:53

It all depends on what you include in your definition of "grammatical gender." Let me esplain. No, there is too much; let me sum up: Grammatical gender or noun class is a grouping of nouns that are morphologically marked in the same way. What morphological changes do these words suffer when I want to say x? Gender is separate from case, though, which is the morphological markers that tell how a noun (and adjectives, et al) function in a sentence.

Like you said, Polish has essentially five noun classes, but it's really three components that make up this grammatical gender: gender (masculine, feminine, neuter), personhood (personal, non-personal) and animacy (animate, inanimate) -- but personhood and animacy only affect the masculine gender resulting in what looks like five noun classes, the ones listed in the question.

Note that "grammatical gender" is not necessarily related to gender/sex in the real world -- and grammatical animacy does not always match real world animacy either. These terms are used only to designate classes of words that take certain inflections. Of course, there is usually a lot of semantic overlap between grammatical gender and real world sex and gender roles.

It's all in how you name things. For most Indo-European languages, I think it's easiest to group gender, personhood and animacy together into the idea of "gender" or "noun class." In fact, some hypothesize that PIE originally distinguished between animate and inanimate nouns, then the animate group distinguished between masculine and feminine. It explains the masculine/feminine/neuter paradigm.

Other languages address things like gender, animacy and personhood in different ways: Navajo uses word order to rank animacy of nouns in a sentence. Japanese uses a different existential/possessive verb for animate or inanimate nouns. Arabic marks gender on pronouns, which means in the 2nd person, the form changes depending on who you're speaking to. Animacy affects ergative languages in different ways, depending on where the language draws its line in the hierarchy of animacy.

  • 2
    To me, gender and animacy would only need to be called "grammatical" specifically when they "not necessarily related to gender/sex in the real world". The term for when they are necessarily related is "natural gender" and I guess "natural animacy". For instance English has natural gender in its pronouns but does not have grammatical gender at all. – hippietrail Sep 23 '11 at 11:38
  • 1
    Of course the language has ways of referring to real-world gender. But words forms don't change because of it. You don't use a different plural form for "girls" and "boys" -- they both have the same marker. You don't use a different adjective either: "young girl" "young boy". And you don't use a different verb form: "The girl dances." "The boy dances." – mollyocr Sep 23 '11 at 18:32
  • As far as I'm aware "grammatical gender" is a technical term in linguistics with a specific definition, as such it shouldn't depend what my definition is (-: Anyway here is the Wikipedia article on the topic. – hippietrail Sep 23 '11 at 20:15
  • @hippietrail What about a "ship" being referred to as "she"? One can argue that it's an isolated case with historical explanations (that I'm not aware of) but it doesn't change the fact that it's arbitrary, thus not natural. In other words it's "not necessarily related to gender/sex in the real world". So, can we argue that English does have grammatical gender? – cyco130 Nov 10 '13 at 8:00
  • 1
    No that's not grammatical gender. In English you can call a car "she" or any kind of ship "she", but in a language with grammatical gender each word has a gender, so each different word for a different kind of ship has a gender. So in English some people might associate a gender to a class of things, they never associate a gender to a specific word. Grammatical gender is arbitrary, it is not natural. That's what what makes grammatical gender different to natural gender. English does not have grammatical gender. – hippietrail Nov 10 '13 at 8:23

I'll consider Russian because it's the one I know better.

The Russian language has the animate/inanimate distinction, but it's rather a noun category than another gender. Russian has only 3 genders: Masculine, feminine and neuter. Such distinction affects the nouns' inflection when they are in the accusative case. The nouns, in this situation, follow this scheme.

I'll only treat about the accusative singular (Otherwise the answer gets too long):

enter image description here

  • The masculine is the only one that has actual changes concerning the animate/inanimate:


  1. Студент -> СтудентА (= Student)
  2. Учитель -> УчителЯ (= Teacher)


  1. Дом -> Дом (= House)
  2. Музей -> Музей (= Museum)
  • The feminine goes to the accusative:
  1. Машина -> МашинУ (= Car)
  2. Тётя -> ТётЮ (= Aunt)

    ...but it has an exception for nouns ending with -ь:
  3. Мать -> Мать (= Mother)
  • The neuter doesn't change:
  1. Окно -> Окно (= Window)
  2. Море -> Море (= Sea)

I am not sure this is what you were looking for, but I hope it helps.

  • It is incorrect to say that in accusative singular the noun becomes genitive. A noun can be either in accusative or genitive. – Anixx Mar 5 '13 at 16:30
  • @Anixx I didn't say that a noun becomes genitive. Where do you see that? – Alenanno Mar 5 '13 at 16:31
  • You said "I only treat about the accusative singular" but in the table we can see Genitive, Accusative and Nominative. What the table shows? – Anixx Mar 5 '13 at 16:32
  • @Anixx The quote you posted means that I only speak about nouns that are found in an Accusative singular position. If I had to treat each case, my answer would be long. The other cases are treated because a masculine noun in an accusative singular position is conjugated using the Genitive endings. – Alenanno Mar 5 '13 at 16:35
  • This is what is wrong. A noun in accusative singular always has accusative singular ending, not genitive ending. – Anixx Mar 5 '13 at 16:36

I've never heard about distinction between personal and non-personal masculine/feminine as separate genders, however it's quite interesting to learn that people from outside can see it that way.

The example from the Wikipedia is a bit doubtful, because it gives as an example the nouns with other endings, and those decline in other way. But taking as example words with the same ending:

  • kot - a cat, widzę kota - I see a cat
  • płot - a fence - widzę płot - I see a fence

However, if we have a surname "Płot", there will be:

  • Widzę pana Płota - I see mr. Fence

So, some nouns decline in the other way for animate and non-animate nouns. This is, however, not called in Polish grammar gender.

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.