Non-natural grammatical genders in Indo-European languages:

  1. What is their origin (assuming that there is a single origin, if there are many origins)? Or what are the origins?

    1. How and for what purpose did they develop?

At a glance, there doesn't seem to be a point in differentiating the inflection for adjectives and verbs related to the moon and the sun, for example.

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    "How did it develop?" may be a better way to phrase "Why was it invented?" since that implies intention, and that's not typically how languages change. Also, you may need to clarify what you're asking about: there are answers below to both "Why does PIE have more than just masc/fem ("natural") genders?" and "How are nouns assigned to specific noun classes?" or "Is there pattern to arbitrary gender assignation of nouns?"
    – mollyocr
    Sep 26, 2011 at 16:02
  • From recent questions I posed here on similar themes it seems there was originally a natural animate vs inanimate distinction which became abstracted to a grammatical system and coverage beyond animacy to sex. Which of those two changes came first I don't know though. Sep 26, 2011 at 16:43
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    What do you mean by "non natural" case endings?
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 24, 2016 at 3:59
  • In Portuguese, non-natural genders are quite often (though not always!) predictable from vowel endings. Consider the natural case: menino "boy", menina "girl", menino bonito "pretty boy", menina bonita "pretty girl". So -o is masc. and -a is fem. Then you have non-natural gender in nouns like cadeira "chair", which is fem., and banco "stool", which is masc. (cadeira bonita, banco bonito = beautiful chair/stool). I think it's conceivable that this is one mechanism by which natural genders spread to arbitrary nouns: phonetic similarity/analogy. Jun 19, 2017 at 13:00

9 Answers 9


If you're talking about why there is such thing as a neuter gender at all, I mentioned in my answer to this question that many believe the masculine/feminine/neuter paradigm of so many IE languages is derived from PIE first distinguishing between animate/inanimate nouns, then the animate noun category began to distinguish between masculine/feminine (link).

If you're talking about why certain nouns are part of specific genders, I too would second the recommendation of Lakoff's Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (link). It's a really interesting exploration of hierarchical cognitive models using some case studies as a guide.

EDIT: Here's is Foundalis's closing to his paper Evolution of Gender in Indo-European Languages.

An alternative hypothesis is that masculine and feminine assignments to inanimate objects existed even in the original Indo-European ancestor. Although such assignments seem nonsensical today, they might have “made sense” in the remote past, at least among the few speakers of the ancestor language, based on animistic conceptions of the world. It could have appeared natural to a particular culture that, for example, a stone is of female sex. However, as the original language evolved, ideas about the stone’s sex changed, too. Since there is no objective way to agree on something like the sex of a stone, the “opinions” among descendant languages evolved differently. What we observe today appears as a purely formal and arbitrary assignment, since the original “reasons” have been lost. One prediction of this hypothesis is that gender evolution in such languages should be traceable through a weak agreement between phylogenetically proximal languages. I believe the present work supports this implication, although further investigation of the hypothesis is clearly needed.

This doesn't answer how it occurred, but offers a why: my two cents is that gender is useful since it can help free up word order, ease reference to antecedent words -- basically make communication more efficient.

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    My questions is more like why there are genders at all? If there are theories or evidence in those books, please explain/summarize/quote them here..
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 26, 2011 at 16:32
  • See edit. Foundalis's paper is short and worth the read.
    – mollyocr
    Sep 26, 2011 at 17:24
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    "basically make communication more efficient" ... I have serious doubts about that claim. Especially since gender helps but doesn't fully resolve yet adds a large layer of clutter to grammar.
    – user719
    Jan 27, 2012 at 10:19
  • In many cases the grammatical gender can be derived from grammatical categories. For example, various types of gerunds can have a fixed gender in a language, or different word endings trigger a certain gender. So there is less to memorize. Furthermore, the genders might have corresponded to the cultural perception of things among speakers of those languages. So there is less to memorize.
    – shuhalo
    Aug 5, 2015 at 13:07

Assume more than one origin.

According to the book "Women, fire and dangerous things" (that's a noun-class/gender in an Australian language IIRC) by George Lakoff, it arises due to association. It is not "invented"! In the case of the book title, "women" had natural gender feminine. Since women tends the fire, "fire" received feminine gender. Fire is dangerous, ergo "dangerous things" received feminine gender.

Another route, which might be more likely for Indo-European languages, is sound shifts. The markings for two genders become similar for all/some words and the two genders merge. Or, some words of gender X start to sound like words of gender Y due to sound shifts, and change genders so that the system of markings will still make sense. Instead of sorting into genders according to what the words mean you can now just sort them by what they sound like. Note that different dialects may consider the same word to be of different genders...

See the book "Gender" by Greville G. Corbett if you really want to dive into the subject.


You could ask the same of any kind of agreement: plurality, case, etc. multiple language elements in an utterance that don't add any extra meaning. Grammatical gender is particularly outstanding because it seems so arbitrary.

One explanation is that redundancy provides some error correction over the noisy speaking-hearing connection.

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    Yes, grammatical gender is different from those because it seems so arbitrary and contains no added meaning. If that is the explanation why is it so widespread and can you cite an example where it is helpful in providing error correction?
    – Louis Rhys
    Sep 26, 2011 at 14:27
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    I always thought the main benefit of a gender system is that due to agreement you can unambiguously refer back to previous words without saying the again because various different pronouns endings etc exist. Instead of "it hit it" you can say "she hit him" even for objects. Sep 26, 2011 at 16:46
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    @hippietrail, what about "she hit her"? "he hit him"? Doesn't seem to add much value in those cases which are probably equally likely to occur.
    – user719
    Jan 27, 2012 at 10:26
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    @ApprenticeQueue: Yes obviously not all sentences where multiple pronouns might be used are guaranteed to have different genders for each. Sometimes there will be a benefit of shorter, less complex sentences. But not all the time. Languages without this feature of course can never have the benefit. Jan 27, 2012 at 14:34
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    @hippietrail, they can use "former hit latter", "first hit second", etc although it could sound ugly. But genders/noun classes are not required.
    – user719
    Jan 27, 2012 at 19:42

In addition to what kaleissin and Mitch have already mentioned, for Indo-European in particular there was at some point just an animate/inanimate ("common/neuter") distinction which aligned pretty well with actual animacy; English "water" and Latin aqua are descended from an inanimate and an animate word, respectively.

There was for neuter nouns a collective marker **-a*, originally a laryngeal **-h2*, that seems to have developed into the feminine gender.

How did genders and cases develop in IE?

One conjecture is that collective nouns often were used for cows, ewes, does etc.

What Is the Plural of Virus?


I have often wondered if gendered nouns might have nothing at all to do with gender, but rather that there developed different classes of nouns in usage, and that only when grammarians first started to parse language (i.e., the Greeks) did some ancient thinker decide that one class of nouns might be considered "masculine," and the second class "feminine) and then when Greek -- and mainly Latin -- grammar was overlain on other languages did the terms "masculine" and "feminine" become common, and a third class of nouns (as in German) would then naturally be "neuter." There must be some other language in which there are four classes or more of noun. Is there any record of the terms masculine and feminine being used for nouns before Aristotle?

  • I think the main problem here is the concept of "record". It's only due to a miracle that we have records of what Aristotle said, and the evidence regarding what Protagoras actually said is quite thin (Protagora being possibly the creator of the "gender" concept). Anyhow, it is clear that gendered nouns have everything to do with gender, and the idea of gender as relating to gentalia is a recent invention. See Aristotle Rhetotic for the distinction between grammatical and natural gender.
    – user6726
    May 22, 2016 at 4:05
  • There are languages with non-sex-based gender systems, but gender in Indo-European languages quite obviously has a lot to do with human sex/gender: masculine nouns are in the same grammatical category as male humans, and feminine nouns are in the same grammatical category as female humans. According to the World Atlas of Language Structures Online chapter "Systems of Gender Assignment" by Greville G. Corbett, "languages may base their [gender] assignment system on semantic rules, or on semantic and formal rules, but not just on formal rules." May 22, 2016 at 4:43

Well no one knows for sure and the veiw that second declension nouns evolved out of collective nouns fits the known lexicon better than any hypothesis I know of . This also explains the the mistaken nexus with the female sex since many animals herded as females yet the singular animal was usually or often the male ( lupa/lupus). Even in English "vixen" is an old plural/collective form. There is a similar thing going on with abstract nouns which is manifested in modern Italian as the singular "a" ending that is really an ancient plural form. To demand certainty is to ask too much.


I wonder if noun classes did not ultimately derive from the very earliest forms and most primal forms of language, probably long before H. sapiens entered the scene, which may have had a very small lexicon of nouns and verbs and no qualifying words such as adjectives and adverbs? In the case of gender classes one can imagine a very early and primitive form of language with three nouns -- man-thing, woman thing and thing-thing. Eventually these simple very general nouns developed more specific forms, such as human-man-thing, human woman-thing, animal-man-thing, animal-female-thing -- and just thing-thing. As the need arose to be more specific about certain things (and as the linguistic component of the brain developed) it became necessary to distinguish between, say, an animal-man-goat-thing and an animal-sheep-thing and so on. And there could have been a primal distinction between round-lumpy-thing, long-thin-thing, sharp-thing, reddish-thing and so on. As more and more distinctions became necessary or useful, and as the brain developed, each of these primal words would have spun off more and more related names for classes of things -- all of them remaining in their original class. So from a single stem grew more and more branches and twigs. drawing ever finer distinctions -- but retaining some memory of the main stem from which a whole class of nouns grew. Later nouns would have been combined and recombined, have prefixes, infixes and suffixes added to them, to form more complex nouns which would have taken their class from either the one or the other component. Eventually, as languages became more complex, purely phonetic similarities or contextual influences (nouns ending on a vowel rather than a consonant, for example, or having other superficial similarities; or the influence of early religions), nouns could have shifted into other classes. It's not unreasonable to assume that our present vast lexicon of nouns could have derived from just a dozen or so primitive nouns, retaining some echo of their primal origin. It has been said that the average Parisian concierge used to have an active vocabulary of little more than 800 words or so. If we look at adjectives and even verbs, some modern American movies seem to do quite well with one basic adjective/adverb (the F word) and a handful of verbs (often the F word plus a preposition -- f-off, f-up, f-about ... etc) Language did not originate overnight, it probably started developing as the earliest hominids tried to communicate with simple sounds, and from then on there would have been a continuous and unbroken development and steady increase in complexity over a period of almost a million years in which each primal noun became a massive tree with branches, twigs, leaves and fruits. We sometimes hear statements that language developed a 100 thousand years ago or 200 thousand years ago. Patently absurd. We should perhaps look for the origin of many basic features of our languages in the mists of a very distant past.

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    Welcome, and thanks for your answer! To further strengthen your answer, could you provide references? Also, for better readability it would help if you split the text into several paragraphs.
    – robert
    Nov 9, 2014 at 19:26

In PIE it is thought that the femimine gender evolved out of the desire to produce collective nouns - and most collective nouns involved groups of females. e.g ewes, mares etc while the masculine was the lone animal e.g. the stallion.

So the primitive plural form ending in "a" became a new singular and its plural was a duplicated "aa" which became the "ae" we know in latin.

This explain why agricola, nauta and poeta are in the first declension because sailors came in crews, field diggers in gangs and poets(travelling minstrels) in troops.

Of course over time nouns migrated to different declensions and the clear symmetry was lost. Many classical latin nouns have shifted declensions into modern Italian - and of some declensions have disappeared.

Once established the declension generalised to become the home of many intangible or abstract nouns.

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    "....it is thought...." is not a good answer. Who thinks this?
    – fdb
    Jun 1, 2015 at 10:03

i agree with Richard Nilsen's answer.

i want to answer with my words, adding some details.

i think, gender is side-effect of fusion.

i think, indo european languages were agglutinative, and have developed into being fusional, and, so, the fusional morphemes has started to modify root morpheme, and they had to modify different root endings differently. for example, if there are words "abo" and "aba", a morpheme "i" better should not make them both "abi", but, for example, "abe" and "abi". so, people have acquired an extra noun categorisation , which has no meaning, but only for technical purposes, and they decided to use that categorisation also for meaning. then, they decided to use one type of root ending as masculine, another as feminine, or another way (for example by count) but not all objects in world are divided by this categorisation, so, as side-effect, they have become "non-natural genders".

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