Linguistics Gender
by
Jenny Audring
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0066

Introduction

Grammatical gender is a feature of nouns, reflected on elements that agree with them. In nouns, gender is an invariable lexical feature that may or may not be overtly marked. The determining criterion for gender is agreement, that is, “the behavior of associated words” (Hockett 1958, p. 231, cited under Foundational Works). Typical agreeing elements are articles, adjectives, verbs, and pronouns, but gender may also be reflected on more unusual targets, such as adverbs, adpositions, or complementizers. Grammatical gender is widespread in Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Nilo-Saharan, Niger-Kordofanian, and Khoisan as well as among the languages of New Guinea. Many language families of Asia and America, however, lack grammatical gender. In some linguistic traditions, the term “noun class” is used instead of “gender.” Gender systems differ in elaborateness and complexity. Some languages have two gender values, others up to twenty. Languages also differ in whether or not the semantics of the system has sex as a component—animate/inanimate and human/nonhuman are other common distinctions. Gender is of theoretical interest for typology, morphology, and syntax as well as for theories of the lexicon. It is a classic topic in historical linguistics, particularly in the Indo-Europeanist tradition. More recently, evidence from the processing of gender in production and comprehension is collected in experimental settings. Related topics, which figure only marginally in this article, are classifier systems, which are considered to be different from gender systems, and gender in relation to sociology and language planning (though see Edited Collections).

Foundational Works

From the early Greek writers onward, scholars have puzzled about the double nature of grammatical gender—its formal role as a marker of agreement between words and its semantic link to male and female sex. The debate was which of the two factors lies at the origin of gender systems. The claim that natural gender is the central semantic property, metaphorically extended to inanimate entities, is traditionally associated with Grimm 1999. Brugmann 1889 is a prominent advocate of the opposing stance: gender is essentially a formal feature. Royen 1929 reviews the history of the debate in a monumental work in the systems of nominal classification. A shorter, more recent, and certainly more readable assessment of the issues is Fodor 1959. This account also includes commentary on Meillet 1931, which itself is an essential contribution to the discussion. On a different tack, Hockett 1958 should not be missing, as it supplies the definition of gender that is used most widely in the literature.

  • Brugmann, Karl. 1889. Das Nominalgeschlecht in den indogermanischen Sprachen. Internationale Zeitschrift für allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft 4:100–109.

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    A classic explanation for the origin of gender from declension classes. In German.

  • Fodor, István. 1959. The origin of grammatical gender. Lingua 8:1–41, 186–214.

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    An insightful and readable account of the debate on the origin of gender with a critical assessment of earlier work.

  • Grimm, J. 1999. Deutsche Grammatik. In Foundations of Indo-European comparative philology 1800–1850. Edited by Roy Harris, vols. 3–9. London: Routledge.

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    A modern edition of Grimm’s monumental grammar with his famous “Grundsatz” on the semantic properties associated with masculinity and femininity. In German.

  • Hockett, Charles F. 1958. A course in modern linguistics. New York: Macmillan.

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    A textbook on linguistics in general and the source for the definition of gender as “classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words” (p. 231).

  • Meillet, Antoine. 1931. Essai de chronologie des langues indo-européennes. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris 32:1–28.

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    This famous article explains the origin of gender in Indo-European from agent and patient marking. In French.

  • Royen, Gerlach. 1929. Die nominalen Klassifikations-Systeme in den Sprachen der Erde. Mödling, Austria: Anthropos.

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    An encyclopedic book that does not make an easy read but provides a systematic and detailed overview on the history of research on gender. In German.

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