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Imagine if every French speaker suddenly agreed that nouns were one of 'animate' and 'inanimate', or 'chocolate' and 'strawberry', or 'A' and 'B' instead of 'masculine' and 'feminine'. The language could go on being used identically to how it was before.

Given this it's not obvious why their grammatical genders are 'masculine' and 'feminine' in the first place. Are these just arbitrary labels applied by ancient linguists to the different noun forms after they came into use, or were the words we use for different grammatical genders generated naturally (and perhaps obviously, to them) by people who spoke the language?

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    Note that in the Northeast Caucasian (Nakh-Dagestanian) languages a similar system of genders (usually 3–6 of them) is called ‘classes’ and they are named by the consonant used as an agreement affix: “y-class, b-class, d-class”, etc. Also, in the Bantu languages where there are up to a dozen classes, they are named simply by numbers, “class 1, class 7”, etc.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 6:01
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    It is in fact entirely obvious why it's masculine and feminine: it's because grammatically it behaves exactly like a man or a woman subject would in its place. It requires the same conjucations and the same pronouns and shares the same morphology (eg word endings). Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 13:06
  • The etymology of mās is ultimately uncertain, far as I know. In this view, it seems the question pertains to the Latin stack (incl. Greek), inasmuch as there may be history behind the grammatical nomenclature.
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 8:06
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    @RobbieGoodwin (1/2) I think it's a very safe assumption. For one thing, the comment "it seems the question pertains to the Latin stack (incl. Greek)" indicates that vectory is talking about something from Latin or Greek. I did not previously know that mās was a word, but I knew that the word "masculine" comes from Latin masculus, which could plausibly be derived from mās plus the diminutive suffix -culus (and indeed, that is the etymology that Wiktionary gives).
    – DLosc
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 22:49
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    @RobbieGoodwin (2/2) The accent in mās is a macron, which is sometimes used in Latin spelling to distinguish long vowels from short vowels. You will notice that Wiktionary spells the word as mās in the article text.
    – DLosc
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 22:49

4 Answers 4

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The names currently used for French are inherited from Latin, which had three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. (Some ancient grammarians added "common" and "epicene" to this list, for both Latin and Ancient Greek.)

Since the vast majority of words for male humans were masculine, and the vast majority of words for female humans were feminine, these were the most obvious labels to choose. There are a few other rules of thumb for what gender a noun will be—types of trees, for example, are almost always feminine in Latin—but none of them were as consistent and useful as "words specifically for men are masculine and words specifically for women are feminine". So those names stuck.

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    @cmw Correct — according to WALS feature 31A, 75% of languages with noun classes have a sex-based gender system. (WALS isn’t always reliable for individual languages, but this aggregate value seems reasonable.)
    – bradrn
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 7:18
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    @RobbieGoodwin Well, whether it's a tautology depends "masculine" is understood to mean "the gender that a word for a male human has", or whether it's understood to have some pre-existing meaning that came to mean "referring to men" because of its association. Even if the former, it can be made non-tautological by rewording it as "There is a gender such that the vast majority of words for male humans have that gender, and so that gender is referred to as 'masculine' ". Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:43
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    @RobbieGoodwin Yes, as Acccumulation put it, the vast majority of words for male humans fall into "category 1", and the vast majority of words for female humans fall into "category 2", so we decided to name those categories masculine and feminine. The language's structure predates the labels we put on it.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:56
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    @AML I see; I'd recommend asking that as another question ("why do sex-based gender systems arise?") but in this case it's theorized to have to do with Proto-Indo-European animal husbandry.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 2:16
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    @AML On that "German" example: it's really just a matter of linguistics at that point. There's no non-linguistic "reason why" Mädchen is neuter and Frau is feminine aside from form. Likewise, in Latin, why is baculum (stick) neuter but truncus (trunk) masculine and arbor (tree) feminine? You can come up with ad hoc explanations, but the answer is much more dependent on analogies and word-form than anything else.
    – cmw
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 3:36
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Imagine if every French speaker suddenly agreed that nouns were one of 'animate' and 'inanimate', or 'chocolate' and 'strawberry', or 'A' and 'B' instead of 'masculine' and 'feminine'. The language could go on being used identically to how it was before.

All words are more or less arbitrary labels. Regardless of what you call the French morphological genders, if the language goes on being used identically to as it is currently, we would see that:

  • When the subject of a sentence is the first-person singular pronoun referring to a female speaker, or the name of a single female person, a predicative adjective takes the same form as when the subject is a singular noun belonging to the same class as eau or bière.

  • When the subject of a sentence is the first-person singular pronoun referring to a male speaker, or the name of a single male person, a predicative adjective takes the same form as when the subject is a singular noun belonging to the same class as arbre or thé.

  • There are many pairs of words where the one belonging to the eau, bière class denotes a female person of some kind, while the one belonging to the arbre, thé class denotes a male person of that kind (or a generic person of that kind). For example, voleuse belongs to the eau, bière class and means "female thief". Voleur belongs to the arbre, thé class and means "male thief" or just "thief". Aside from derivationally related pairs like these, there are words with unrelated forms but coordinate meanings that form such pairs, such as sœur "sister, female sibling" (belonging to the eau, bière class) and frère "brother, male sibling" (belonging to the arbre, thé class). We don't find any such pairs where the noun denoting a female kind of person belongs to the arbre, thé class and the noun denoting a male kind of person belongs to the eau, bière class. There are a small number of words belonging to the eau, bière class that can denote a male or female person equally, such as personne "person", but most words denoting types of persons are not like personne.

  • Nouns for animate beings (living creatures that move around and seem to have some agency) and inanimate objects (non-living things that don't seem to have any agency) are frequently found in either noun class. Given this, it seems it would be purely arbitrary to call the French noun classes "animate" and "inanimate".

  • In contrast, as illustrated by the first three bullet points, there are many contexts where the noun classes have a strong correlation with whether a person is male or female. Given this, it is not purely arbitrary to refer to the French noun classes as "masculine" and "feminine". This does not necessarily mean that every noun in the masculine noun class refers to or is associated with male beings, or that every noun in the feminine noun class refers to or is associated with female beings.

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    Now I need to know which genders chocolate and strawberry are
    – No Name
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 16:51
  • "All words are more or less arbitrary labels." Technically true, but when we reuse or words or derive new words from old ones, there's usually a metaphorical reason, and that's not arbitrary.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:46
  • However, there are exceptions, too. When physicists came up with the flavors up/down/strange for quarks, these were just arbitrary choices.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:49
  • @Barmar I'd say that most metaphorical applications are arbitrary, but not random.
    – cmw
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 22:27
  • @cmw Yeah, but it's not arbitrary like the original words. Deciding which metaphor to use is arbitrary, but given that choice the words are somewhat forced.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 3:30
2

The defining property of grammatical gender/noun class is agreement.

With that in mind, unlike the other answers I would say that instead of looking at nouns to explain their names, we ought to look at the behaviour of words that agree with nouns - that is, adjectives and determiners.

In particular, adjectives can be used to describe pronouns that themselves lack any gender or class (in Indo-European, this is generally the first and second person in either the singular, dual, or plural).

So, we can now consider someone addressing a variety of people or objects and assigning them adjectives e.g. "you are large". If the speaker is speaking French we quickly see that male humans receive one set of adjective forms, whilst female humans receive the other, whilst for all other categories of objects some take one and some take the other. Gender is the only one that reliably predicts the adjective form, and so it is natural to name those adjective forms (and by extension, the class of nouns that take that adjective form) masculine and feminine.

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    I don't see what any of this has to do with language acquisition. You are right that determiners are relevant and they cover the pronouns that agree so I've edited that in. The reason I discuss adjectives specifically is that, unlike determiners, they can be made to agree with things that lack grammatical gender themselves (e.g. second person pronouns). As such they give us a way to diagnose how grammatical gender relates to objects in the real world without relying on how it relates to nouns
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 11:48
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    also petit/petite is marked in Parisian French. The final -e may be silent, but the -t is pronounced in the feminine and silent in the masculine. Regardless, provided there exist some adjectives with distinct masculine and feminine forms the proposed test can be applied, no matter if there are plenty of adjectives that don't distinguish gender
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 11:49
  • lastly, questions that ask "why" are generally going to be difficult or impossible to source so I'm not sure it's a reasonable objection to make in general, but if there are some specific claims you feel ought to be supported by a citation I'll do my best to dig one out
    – Tristan
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 11:51
  • Well, French was a long time ago for me. On the other hand, adj. jeune, n. le/la jeune might be a better example in my view, except that German der Junge for comparison is literally the boy and petite is tendentially associated with girly characteristics at least in English. Most interestingly, ancien(ne), /*ɑ̃.sjɛ̃/, /ɑ̃.sjɛ.n/ sounds like ablaut to me. Whereas, given le beau, la belle, f. /-t/ is considerable, cp. elle est moins bête, Biatch. There's clearly circular reasoning, a bit of Whorf with respect to language awareness.
    – vectory
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 20:45
-4

The Question denies itself.

Choose a well-recognised language and list 50 common nouns, with their genders.

If that list makes the reasons for gender assignment obvious, extend it to 100…

If on the other hand, a list or 50 - or 500 - nouns fails to make the reasons for gender assignment obvious, does it not necessarily reveal the assignment as broadly random?

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  • I'm trying to ask how the names for the different grammatical genders originated rather than how nouns were assigned to one gender or another. I suppose I'm also asking in a roundabout way if this is even a meaningful question in linguistics, or if it is a question for another field.
    – AML
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 21:39
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    Rhetorical questions are best avoided here. This is a Q&A site, not a forum. Better state it directly. You can change you answer. (But without "Edit:", "Update:", or similar - the answer should appear as if it was written today.) Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 22:29

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