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?

Gender in Languages Across the World

Earth globe with people

The use of gender in the Romance languages is just the tip of the iceberg. French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian, along with the other minor Romance languages spoken west of the bygone Iron Curtain, all use a masculine-feminine noun classification; that is, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Romanian uses a masculine-feminine-neuter classification, which, as the name implies, has an additional category of neuter nouns. Finally, some languages use an animate-inanimate classification which we will discuss in further detail.

The Semitic languages – of which Arabic and Hebrew are the best known exponents – use a masculine-feminine system of grammatical gender in the same way that the western Romance languages do. However, while feminine singular nouns in Italian, Spanish and Portuguese often finish in -a, in Arabic -at (which is reduced to -ah or -a before a pause) is the characteristically feminine suffix. The guidelines are slightly different in Hebrew, where the general rule holds that nouns finishing in -a (ה-) are masculine while those finishing in -t (ת-) are feminine. There is an important difference in complexity between the Romance and Semitic languages as well; while the former assign gender only to nouns, adjectives, pronouns and articles, the latter extend grammar to the verb part of the sentence as well. This means that a speaker of Arabic will have to use a different form of a verb depending on whether he or she is speaking to or about a male or a female. Nonetheless, this is not a feature limited to the Semitic languages.

Just like Romanian, German famously employs a neuter gender. Masculine nouns in German often end with -ismus (corresponding to English -ism) while feminine ones frequently end with -ung (-ing), -schaft (-ship), -keit or -heit (-hood, -ness), and it is typical for neuter nouns to be diminutives ending in -chen or -lein. In addition, the neuter gender is used across most of Eastern Europe, as the Slavic languages all employ it. It used to be in widespread use all throughout Western Europe as well – it was a fixture of Latin – and seems to be a favorite of classical languags – Sanskrit uses three genders too.

The Germanic languages which are not German (or English) historically had the same three-gender system as the flagship language of their linguistic grouping; however their standard versions have more recently merged the masculine and feminine genders into a “common” gender. The neuter gender remains, creating something similar to the animate-inanimate classification system used in Basque and many Native American languages. In these latter languages distinguishing between animate and inanimate nouns doesn’t require analyzing the noun ending and is usually quite intuitive. In Ojibwe, inini (man) and inikwe (woman) are both animate, while waakaa’igan (house) and adopowin (table) are inanimate. Noun endings do become important when it comes to plurals – animate nouns are pluralized by adding a vowel plus -g while inanimate ones take a vowel plus -n.

Finally, there is one very important category of gender classification which we have not yet discussed – the genderless languages. From Bengali to Persian and from Japanese to Turkish, there are a significant number of languages for which identifying the grammatical gender of a noun just isn’t a problem. The best-known example of this category is probably the language that this blog is written in!

Gender in the Romance Languages

man and woman gender

Last week we saw how Ernest Hemingway addressed the interpretative possibilities of linguistic gender in his seminal novel The Old Man and the Sea. As Hemingway showed, identifying the gender of nouns is not always a straightforward task in Spanish, and the same can be said for the other Romance languages as well.

In most Romance languages the masculine or feminine gender of a noun may be denoted by the article which precedes it, be it the definite article (“the sea” may be el mar or la mar) or the indefinite article (“a cat” may be un gato or una gata). In Romanian the definite article is added at the end of the word, so while “a man” is un om and “a woman” is o femeie, “the man” is omul, and “the woman” is femeia. Considering that Romanian also has a neuter gender, it should be clear that its grammar is remarkably different from that of its Western cousins. We’ll limit today’s discussion to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

A further distinction can be made between Spanish, Portuguese and Italian on the one hand and French on the other. Gender is often reflected in the ending of the noun, as shown in the example of the cat (el gato, la gata). Spanish, Italian and Portuguese frequently use -o for masculine nouns and -a for feminine nouns; however there are many exceptions to this paradigm. Nouns of Greek origin which end in -ma or -ta are masculine; so system is el sistema in Spanish and planet is o planeta in Portuguese. Some other Greek nouns ending in -a are masculine as well. It is often confusing to visitors to Italy to find men named Andrea, Luca, and Nicola; however, these names derive from the historical Greek names Ανδρεας (Andreas), Λουκάς (Loukas), and Νικολαος (Nikolaos). “The hand” is feminine in all three languages (la mano in Spanish and Italian and a mão in Portuguese) and many other Portuguese words which end in -ão are feminine, such as a nação (the nation).

It is therefore impossible to establish the gender of a noun using a simple -o vs. -a criterion, especially considering that there are many nouns which end in consonants or in other vowels: -e can indicate a masculine noun such as il cuore (heart) or a feminine one such la decisione (decision) in Italian. “Crisis” – another word of Greek origin – is feminine across the board despite the fact that it ends with a different letter in each of the three languages: a crise in Portuguse, la crisi in Italian, and la crisis in Spanish.

“The crisis” is la crise In French, falling into the typical French paradigm wherein masculine nouns end in a consonant while feminine nouns end in -e. Thus a male cat is le chat while a female one is la chatte; however exceptions – such as la mer and l’homme – abound.

Gender, therefore, is a fundamental characteristic of a noun which may or may not be deducible from the noun’s ending; it is more properly understood through an etymological study of a word’s origin. As shown, the gender of nouns in Greek has often dictated their gender in the modern Romance languages; Latin has had an even greater influence. The nouns “hand” and “nation” are feminine in all of the Romance languages because the Latin nouns manus and natio are feminine.

Language is much more than a cold study of letters on a paper; it is an organic complex which has resulted from millennia of culture and history. The Old Man and the Sea shows us how gender opens up expressive possibilities. The brief review of nouns that we’ve gone through today should show how the student of a modern language can benefit from learning about the history behind the language he or she is studying.