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Note to the Responder: This curiosity behind this question arose because of my (relative) proficiency in the Hindi language, but the answers need not be necessarily limited to it. I am a complete noob with regards to linguistics, so please bear with any amateurish remarks I may make in my ignorance.

I am a native Hindi speaker, which like many other languages, assigns a gender to inanimate objects. I am aware that people who are monolingually educated in a tongue which does not have these characteristics struggle to learn gendered languages, like Hindi and French, and I can understand why they might feel so.

However, maybe because I'm a native Hindi speaker, I feel like I effortlessly know the gender of any inanimate object I can think of, even with the noun in question not necessarily being of the Hindi language. (Context: In the northern part of India where I'm from, a sort of merged tongue of Hindi and English is spoken, known colloquially as Hinglish). As an example, let's say I take a few nouns from the English language, which I selected off the top of my head:

  • Betelgeuse
  • Spaceship
  • Earphones

I just intuitively know that Betelgeuse is male, a spaceship is female and the earphones are male in the Hindi tongue, while these nouns do not necessarily have an equivalent Hindi word. To some of my non-Hindi friends who are native in an agendered language, I am unable to explain why a spaceship seems female, because while it seems obvious to me (atleast linguistically), there seems to be no good reason for it being so, and no universal rules for assigning gender.

What linguistic or cognitive factors contribute to my ability to intuitively assign gender to inanimate objects?

I'm eager to learn from linguists and experts in language acquisition. While I've shared my experiences, I know there may be established theories and research on this topic. I welcome insights into the cognitive processes or cultural factors that influence gender assignment in languages like Hindi and French. If you know of relevant studies or resources, please share.

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    This is actually quite a good question. In many cases, morphological clues help (e.g., words ending in -o being masculine and those in -a feminine in Spanish); other times, especially with loanwords, an existing native equivalent provides a hint (perhaps Betelgeuse is masculine because the Hindi words for ‘star’ are masculine); or sometimes one gender is just generally the default. But sometimes, even though there doesn’t seem to be anything specific in favour of any particular gender for a new (or even fictitious) word, native speakers will overwhelmingly agree on one. Sep 24, 2023 at 11:51
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    German has three genders and native speakers are significantly more likely to agree on what the gender of nonsense words would be (or is, if you prefer -- gender is a slippery business and so is modality).
    – jlawler
    Sep 25, 2023 at 1:40
  • According to the WALS, every language with grammatical gender has very well-defined rules for determining the gender of a noun, and the rules are not very large (so nothing like Risch's Algorithm involved).
    – Fomalhaut
    Sep 25, 2023 at 2:53
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    Note that things do not have genders, nouns do. For example, what is the gender of “stone” in Latin? It depends on whether you call it lapis (masculine), rupes (feminine) or saxum (neuter).
    – Wtrmute
    Sep 26, 2023 at 3:39
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    @HolyKnowing. " but for languages where careful research has been undertaken, gender is always predictable from a set of assignment rules, for at least 85% of the noun inventory ". This is manifestly wrong.
    – fdb
    Sep 26, 2023 at 12:30

1 Answer 1

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This page gives some heuristics for predicting gender in Hindi. It doesn't purport to work 100% of the time, but a number of the rules are historically credible, and I have seen similar heuristics for predicting gender in other Indo-European languages. Your point about spaceship isn't entirely clear – the internet tells me the word is अंतरिक्ष यान which I think is masculine (following the above rule). Perhaps you have another Hindi expression in mind for "spaceship". Now, if you mean you have an intuition that "spaceship" is feminine in English, that follows a similar "rule" that one refers to ships as "she", suggesting feminine gender (though we don't really have grammatical gender in English).

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  • I think the meaning was that if they use the English word spaceship in a Hindi (or Hinglish) sentence, then they would assign (Hindi) female gender to it. My initial thought was that this might be due to bleed from actual Hindi words (similar to how I instinctively know that if I were to use spaceship in a Scandiwegian sentence, it would be neuter because the indigenous words for ‘ship’ are neuter), but all the words I could find for (space)ship were masculine, so that wouldn’t be it. Sep 24, 2023 at 21:56
  • Hindu नाव (nāv "boat") is feminine, as is the reconstructed root noun, but it seems that Sanskrit had two reflexes, fem. नौ (nau) and masc. नाव (nāva), which continues the full grade (I think) and has flipped gender; following wiktionary: ship
    – vectory
    Sep 25, 2023 at 11:11
  • I have a further question. My other language is Norwegian, and this is a gendered language like Hindi is. If we are able to intuit genders according to these historically credible rules, then why can they flip around dichronically? For example, "skip" and "båt", meaning "ship" and "boat", are neuter and masculine in Norwegian. But in German, it is the other way round. And it seems like any body part that's masculine in Norwegian, like shoulder or kidney, is feminine in German. This kind of thing seems to point to the possibility that what you're describing is not the full picture or something. Sep 25, 2023 at 14:09
  • @JanusBahsJacquet What do you mean? The Scandiwegian words for spaceship I know are romskip and (less common) romfartøy; both are neuter Sep 26, 2023 at 12:59
  • @Lorraine Exactly. I didn’t think of fartøj ‘vessel’, but the fact that skip is neuter is (presumably) the reason why spaceship would also almost certainly be treated as neuter. For example, imagine you’re describing something in a computer game, you might say, “Man flyr rundt i et sånt spaceship”, but I at least would never say, “Man flyr rundt i en sånn spaceship”. Edit: Oh, you meant the reference to masculine words – that was referring to the Hindi words for ‘ship’ I could find. Sep 26, 2023 at 13:11

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