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He, She and It: The Gender of Things

Nov 2014

Language ,

Male Female

The English language has three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Originally, when Old English was spoken, these genders were spread across all nouns. For example, a bench was feminine, a stone was masculine and a ship was neuter. And just to confuse matters, the natural gender of things didn’t always correspond to the grammatical gender of things. The word for woman – wīfman – is actually masculine.

Thankfully, grammatical gender has been gradually phased out in in English. Most inanimate nouns became neuter and most things with natural gender assumed the equivalent grammatical gender. The boy is he, the girl she and objects are it.

There are, of course, some caveats. Boats, for example, are now feminine. The HMS Astute is a beautiful ship, she can do in excess of 28 knots.

Modern Grammatical Gender

However, not all languages followed the same path as English. Other languages have clung onto grammatical gender in one form or another.

German has the same three genders as Old English. In German, a spoon is masculine, a fork is feminine and the metal the cutlery is made from is neuter.

Modern French has abandoned the neuter gender and uses only masculine and feminine. Lemonade, flags and mosques are feminine. Horses, holidays and markets are masculine.

The Question of Origin

This is often a confusing sticking point for language learners who haven’t come across grammatical gender in their native tongue. Eventually they will ask the question: why are all Parisian horses are male?

Unfortunately, there just isn’t a conclusive answer. Instead we have vague sociological theories that address the question in very broad strokes. The preferred explanation is that languages assigned gender to things on the basis of whether they were related to gender specific jobs. So things in the domestic sphere – cooking, cleaning, washing – took on the feminine gender and things in the masculine sphere – industry, hunting, farming – took on the masculine gender. Additionally, actions and rewards tended to be attached to the male gender and linguistic modifiers to the female.

Is it unfair and sexist? Yes. But remember we are talking about the male-dominated civilisations from which modern languages originally emerged. It’s inevitable that a language will positively reflected a society’s power base.

The Un-Guessable Problem

The problem for language learners is that the original language has evolved but the associations have often remained particularly static. The thing that a word refers might have changed but the gender association usually won’t. Sadly, the exact origins of each word are long lost to history and that makes guessing grammatical genders incredibly difficult.

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