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There are various discussions, also on SE network, about the usage of "gender-neutral" language, where most controversies arise around using the pronoun "he" to address any user.

Such problems are caused by the fact that the English language has almost completely lost grammatical gender of the nouns, but it still has gender-specific pronouns. Therefore, any (such as "user") can be addressed as "he", "she" or "it" (in most Indo-European languages, the "correct" pronoun is defined, for example, in Polish "user" is masculine).

Are there (many) other languages which also have the same situation, so no grammatical gender of the noun, but gender-specific pronouns?

Georgian or Chinese, for example, have no grammatical gender, but also no gender-specific pronouns.

  • The inflectional morphology is gradually being drained out of English. Pronouns, being so specialized and so common, are the last to go. But they is in common use in English to represent non-specific indefinite noun phrases, whether singular or plural. Instead of he, which is no longer considered correct, except in older language and fixed phrases. – jlawler Jul 3 '14 at 13:09
  • I question whether English is likely to lose gender in pronouns, as it is so useful in terms of matching pronoun to antecedent. – Justin Olbrantz Jul 3 '14 at 20:15
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    Is gender on pronouns in English really inflectional? There aren't any grammatical phenomena in English that are sensitive to gender. There seems to be about as much evidence for saying that 'man' and 'woman' inflect for gender. It would seem to make more sense to say that English just lacks grammatical gender entirely, but pronouns still show natural gender. – P Elliott Jul 4 '14 at 13:17
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Thai lacks grammatical gender, but men and women use different first person pronouns. Actually it’s more complicated than that, there are a number of ways to refer to oneself depending on context and the relative status of speaker and addressee. But the choices are different for men and women, generally. For example, women who want to sound polite may need to refer to themselves as ‘mouse’ when talking to higher status people. A linguistic study of this by Diller and Chirasombutti found that “Thai women are required by the prevailing linguistic system to ‘place themselves’ through self-reference selections in a more finely-determined social space than that required of male speakers.”

This also correlates with sentence-final polite particles (men use khrap, women kha). It’s such a thorough-going system that it would be extremely difficult to change – getting rid of it would be a radical alteration in the ways politeness is communicated. On the other hand, you could say it’s PC even though not gender-neutral, because it can accommodate transgender people. E.g. a biological male who identifies as a woman can use feminine pronouns/particles to assert his/her gender identity.

According to Dixon (Basic Linguistic Theory vol 2, p. 200), “very many languages” do distinguish gender in third person singular pronouns only, so you may be able to find some without grammatical gender that do so. But be aware that there are many other possibilities cross-linguistically, as with Thai.

Reference: A. Diller and V. Chirasombutti, "Who am ‘I’ in Thai? – The Thai First Person: Self-reference or Gendered Self?" in P. Jackson and N. Cook eds, Genders and Sexualities in Modern Thailand, (Silkworm 2000), pp. 114-133.

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A language where the only targets of gender agreement are the pronouns can be said to have a "pronominal gender system". Such languages are fairly rare, but there definitely do seem to be examples other than English. Anna Kibort and Greville G. Corbett give the example of "Defaka (Niger-Congo, Nigeria; Jenewari 1983:103-106)" (7 January 2008, "Gender" (Grammatical Features)). I haven't been able to find a detailed grammatical description of the Defaka pronoun system, but what I have found seems to indicate that the distinction is only marked in the 3rd-person singular, as in English. Some languages may have gender marking on other types of pronouns (with or without more typical patterns of gender agreement on non-pronominal targets).

A few more possible examples are discussed in "Reinventing Pronoun Gender", by Jenny Audring (which I only skimmed).

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  • This link may give you some traction: defaka.rutgers.edu/papers.html – user6726 Sep 6 '17 at 20:26
  • @user6726: Thanks for the link! Unfortunately, I still haven't been able to find any unambiguous statement about whether Defaka has any gendered first- and second-person pronouns or plural pronouns. Some sources imply that it doesn't by explicitly restricting the examples to the 3rd-person singular, but I was hoping to find something explicit. – brass tacks Sep 6 '17 at 20:36

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