Since what point in time did noun classes in Indo-European languages become associated with the sexes?

I read that greek/latin used words that translate to "kind" to describe the noun classes (as we use "gender" today), so maybe the speakers of those languages didn't have the association that one noun class was masculine and one was feminine?

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    In Latin, Greek, modern German, and I suspect modern Slavic languages, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Commented May 3, 2021 at 17:51
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    @MichaelHardy in Polish we have 3 singlular (masculine, feminine, and neuter thought neuter seems to be vestigial) and 2 plural (masculineperson and nonmasculineperson to translate directly). At leas on primary school not linguistic level. Commented May 4, 2021 at 6:30
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    @MichaelHardy No need to suspect, all of Slavic languages have three mentioned genders. At least in singular, plural is a bit different story.
    – dosvarog
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 8:37
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    "Gender" itself originally meant "kind". It's related to "genus", "genera", etc. It shortly after picked up the sense of "sex" and that gradually became it's primary meaning as "sex" became more of a taboo word. Commented May 5, 2021 at 3:51
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    You are fighting an impossible battle. 1) You cannot impose todays weird and wonderful concepts on the past, which did not have them. It is a common error, and hysterical. If you want to know the past, get rid of todays notions and learn the past,. as it was. 2) "gender" is a concoction; an ideology; a collective, it does not exist in reality. Reality, a the level of every single cell, the DNA, is Sex. 3) since it is natural to separate the sexes, the answer is, right at the beginning 4,000 BC. Commented May 5, 2021 at 9:02

3 Answers 3


Short answer: the association between the grammatical genders and sociological genders happened very early in Indo-European, but it was an association rather than an equivalence and had many exceptions.

I read that greek/latin used words that translate to "kind" to describe the noun classes (as we use "gender" today), so maybe the speakers of those languages didn't have the association that one noun class was masculine and one was feminine?

That is indeed the origin of the word "gender" in the linguistic sense; it's cognate with "genre" and "genus".

However, from a very early point (thousands of years ago at the latest), two of the Indo-European genders were strongly associated with sociological gender in humans. In Latin, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, for example, names and words for individual people are almost always masculine or feminine based on the person's sociological gender.

(Exactly how early is still debated, because the oldest attested I-E languages, the Anatolian branch, only shows a two-way distinction between animate and inanimate. Some linguists believe Proto-Indo-European originally had this two-way distinction, and developed the masculine-feminine-neuter split later, after the Anatolian languages split off; other linguists believe Proto-Indo-European originally had the three-way distinction, and the masculine and feminine merged in Anatolian.)

It should still be noted, though, that this was more of an association than a strict rule. Grammatical gender was fundamentally a property of the word, rather than the person (or thing) it referred to, which could lead to "mismatches" that sound weird to English-speakers. In Ancient Greek, for example, diminutives tend to be neuter, so words like "child" (paidíon) were neuter regardless of whether the child was male or female (compare modern German Mädchen "girl", which is neuter for the same reason). And words that could refer to people of any sociological gender still often had a fixed grammatical gender: in Latin, "human" (homo) is always grammatically masculine, and "person" (persona) is always grammatically feminine.

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    This is much wider than just 'Mädchen' - in Dutch at least, all diminutives are grammatically neuter. I don't know of any exceptions.
    – Drubbels
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 8:34
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    @Drubbels The rule I was taught as an English-speaker learning German is that the suffix on a noun generally determines its gender, regardless of the gender of the base noun. So all diminutives formed by adding "-chen" become neuter; I'm guessing the same logic can apply to the Dutch "-je".
    – IMSoP
    Commented May 4, 2021 at 11:17
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    @T.E.D. Good question! My knowledge of Tocharian is very weak, and it doesn't appear in my usual reference books, but I believe it completely overhauled the PIE nominal system and lost gender marking as a result. That would make a good question to ask here, though!
    – Draconis
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 21:09
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    "Sociological gender" is a really trashy way to put it. What is wrong with "sex"?
    – fdb
    Commented May 7, 2021 at 16:23
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    To propose that the ancient Greeks; Romans; Indians had a "sociological gender" is a hilarious modern invention. Of course, they did have words for the concepts they did have: effeminate men; homosexuals; etc, but that did not suggest the modern concept of "sociological gender". You cannot impose modernism of past history. Commented Sep 23, 2021 at 6:20

The association was certainly firmly in place already during the time that ancient Greek and Latin grammarians were writing about grammatical gender, so the fact that genus can be translated as "kind" is probably not relevant in the way that you suggest.

Latin grammarians tended to lay significance on the fact that genus shares a root with the verb genero, "to beget, breed". This explanation is found in Priscian and Donatus (who quotes Varro), and Priscian concludes on this basis that masculine and feminine are the two primary genders (Vaahtera 237).

Another sign of the importance of semantics to the ancient conception of gender is that Latin grammarians often recognized four or five gender categories on the basis of the semantic reference of nouns: common nouns (nouns able to refer to male or female beings with no change in form) are often treated as a fourth gender, and epicene nouns (nouns able to refer to male or female beings, but with fixed grammatical gender for purposes of agreement) are sometimes treated as a fifth gender category. (These categories are also discussed in Greek precedents, such as Dionysus Thrax (Vaahtera 233)).



Some time after the middle of the 4th millenium BC. As discussed in this article by Luraghi, IE did not develop sex-based gender distinctions until the Anatolian branch split off, which is typically said to be in the mid 4000's BC. §5.2-3 of the article on the development of the differentiation of the feminine in later PIE. This is well before classical development of grammatical terminology where "gender" is related to "kind", and really is a consequence of how Aristotle set forth his epistemological framework (a matter better addressed on Philosophy SE).

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    I've also seen it suggested that the m/f/n system predated Anatolian, and m/f collapsed in Anatolian due to sound changes (in particular o>a, which makes the nominal paradigms extremely similar). Luraghi specifically dismisses this theory, but it seems worth a comment at least.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 18:34
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    @theonlygusti The fact that a noun has a feminine/masculine/neutral grammatical gender does not necessarily give it female/male/inanimate connotations. It isn't the case in French or German, for example. I'm not aware of any Indo-European language where this is the case other than English's vestigal traces of grammatical gender. Commented May 3, 2021 at 11:33
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    And the same word doesn't even generally have the same gender in different languages. Think of Moon (male in German, female in French) vs Sun (female in German, male in French). Commented May 3, 2021 at 11:45
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    @Gilles'SO-stopbeingevil', I don’t know how sound that research is, but I know of research that indicates that French associate more masculine attributes with bridges than Germans.
    – Carsten S
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 16:45
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    @Gilles'SO-stopbeingevil', this is probably the study of which I had heard: link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01068252 I have not read it, I cannot say anything about it’s quality.
    – Carsten S
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 23:34

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