David Kelley of the Bucknell Electrical Engineering Department just dropped a note that I thought worth sharing with the world. Here is what he asked and how I answered.
“I enjoyed reading Sam Alcorn’s ‘Ask the Experts‘ profile of you that has just recently appeared on Bucknell’s web site. There is an aspect of language that has puzzled me for 25 years. I have never found a satisfyingly complete answer to my question, so I thought I would ‘ask the expert’.“
“Does anyone know why (or have a good theory for why) gender developed in most of the world’s (or at least Europe’s) major languages? I know French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, and I know German adds “neuter” to the list. Even more intriguing to me is why English, which is derived from German and has borrowed heavily from French and Latin, has lost the classification of nouns by gender.“
David, thank you for your note. I’m happy that you enjoyed Sam’s interview with me; I was pleased with it myself.
We should keep in mind that we are not looking for logical reasons for gender, so the question “why?” begs the question. Gender exists for grammatical reasons alone and our mental grammar has its own rules. Grammar interacts with other mental processes but it should not be confused with them: it is an independent human mental faculty with rules of its own.
That said, gender is actually a category of the lexicon, out mental vocabulary, the dictionary of words we have in our heads. Grammar, the rules for organizing words in sentences, works together with lexicon to bridge our minds and the real world. Their job is to provide a speedy means of the expressing ideas about the real world to others out there. The first step in this process is to categorize everything.
Just as we have semantic (conceptual) categories like animal, vegetable, bodies of water, countries, we have lexical categories that group words so that they may be quickly grasped and understood in speech: gender, number, person. These categories are usually reflected in the dress of words, the suffixes, prefixes, endings, that they bear. Gender is one of those categories, a category with two or three members, usually masculine and feminine, but also neuter in some languages.
Now, remember that the lexical categories have to do with words, not semantic categories. The names “masculine” and “feminine” are therefore misleading for they also refer to the semantic categories of males and females. Masculine and feminine nouns are not limited to males and females. The word for table in Russian, stol, is masculine while la table in French is feminine. As I hope is obvious to all, tables have no semantic gender at all. Moreover, in Russian, the words for “uncle”, “judge”, “daddy”, and all male nicknames are feminine and the word for “girl” in German, Mädchen, is neuter.
Lexical gender, then, is an arbitrary set of classes and all nouns must belong to one of them. There is a tendency to associate semantic categories with lexical categories because of the confusion between the two that led to the names “masculine” and “feminine” for the lexical categories. Still, speakers have to memorize which class a noun belongs to just as they memorize each word’s meaning.
Languages that have gender also have agreement. This means that when a noun is used with an adjective or verb in those languages, that adjective and verb must bear an indicator (suffix or prefix) associated with the class of the noun. This helps the mind of the listener keep up with which adjective and which verb goes with which noun in complex sentences that have multiple adjectives and verbs. This is generally the purpose of lexical categories and, as you can see, it is purely grammatical, not semantic or logical.
The relation is not logical because languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no prefixes or suffixes, no gender, no agreement yet speakers and listeners have no trouble processing these languages. English historically has been moving away from gender-agreement to the Chinese and Vietnamese model. We use only a handful of affixes now and there is evidence that they are losing their grip.
Why? No one knows. Clearly gender and agreement are not required of a functioning language; they just come and go for the arbitrary “reasons” of language alone, reasons linguists have not yet been able to establish.