The Neuter Maiden: Gender Is Purely Grammatical

As we discussed in a previous blog, some languages have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter.

One of the modern languages which most notably uses a three-gender system is German. In their singular form, neuter German nouns are preceded by the definite article das. We have das Festmahl (the banquet), das Auto (the automobile) and das Mädchen (the maiden).

The fact that a banquet and an automobile are neuter may not be particularly troubling, but it would seem that the feminine gender of a maiden should be unquestionable. The truth is – even more so than in German than in the Romance languages – gender is a purely grammatical concept linked to the word and not to its meaning.

The word “maiden” is feminine in each of the principal Romance languages: la señorita in Spanish, la damoiselle in French, la signorina in Italian, a senhorinha in Portuguese and domnișoară in Romanian. Each of these words has a masculine correspondent: el señorito, le damoiseau, il signorino, o senhorinho and domnișor.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word maiden as “an unmarried young girl or young woman,” and notes that it is of archaic usage. To capture the archaic aspect of the word we might have used the translations la doncella in Spanish, la damigella or la donzella in Italian and a donzelain Portuguese, but these words are better off as translations of the English “damsel”, which is perhaps even more archaic than “maiden.” Especially when crossing boundaries between language groups, translations are rarely “perfect”; however the examples we have given will serve to illuminate the differences in the use of gender between German and the Romance languages.

We can use Spanish as an example for all of the Romance languages. In Spanish a man may be indicated by señor, a woman by señora, a young boy or man by señorito and a young girl or woman by señorita. Thus we see how a grammatical root referring to a person (señor-) may be rendered feminine or younger.

In Germanic languages the transition between masculine and feminine is not always so smooth. English is a good example of this phenomenon; “boy” and “girl” are completely different words, as are gentleman and lady, and so on and so forth. It is hard to think of a masculine correspondent of “maiden,” and it is certainly cannot be found by replacing a final -a with a final -o, as is often the case in the Romance languages.

On the other hand, making a word smaller or younger can often be accomplished in the Germanic languages with the addition of a suffix. To make a diminutive in English we often add the suffixes -let or -ling, among other possibilities. German has two standard diminutive endings: –chen and –lein. The word for maiden is formed by adding the first of these to the word die Magd, meaning “the woman” (N.B. In adding the suffix -chen to Magd, an umlaut is added to the vowel. This is typical).

As indicated by the definite article die, Magd is a feminine noun, while its diminutive, das Mädchen, is neuter. This is a standard operation – all diminutives formed with –chen and –lein are neuter, in direct contrast with what happens in the Romance languages, wherein gender is maintained in the forming of a diminutive. Although the use of the neuter gender in German is by no means limited to diminutives, this example should help to clarify the fact that it is a gender with a grammatical meaning linked to the word and not the underlying concept described by the word.

Does thinking of the neuter gender as a purely grammatical construction help in understanding how it works?

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