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?

Linguistic Gender Crossing

Cross Gender

Last week we discussed the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in detail; however, seeing as the somewhat complicated-sounding term means nothing more than a “crossing” (like the shape of the Greek letter chi), it is often used as well to describe what happens when linguistic genders get crossed.

For those with an interest in language, linguistic gender crossing is every bit as titillating as cross dressing and sex changes. The first type of gender crossing is called chiastic agreement, a special type of agreement between a noun and its qualifiers. A qualifier is any word which specifies characteristics of a noun, such as adjectives, adverbs and possessives. So in the noun phrase “seven new red cars”, new and red are both qualifiers. The number seven, on the other hand, is a quantifier. Agreement between a noun and its qualifiers means that if a noun is feminine and singular, its qualifiers will be feminine and singular as well. So in Spanish we have “siete nuevos coches rojos” but “siete nuevas bicicletas rojas”; coches (car) is masculine and plural, so “new” and “red” are nuevos and rojos, while the feminine bicicletas are accompanied by nuevas and rojas.

Notice that the quantifier – siete – is invariable. Obviously the number seven will always be plural, but, as with all quantifiers in Spanish and most other languages, it has no gender. This is not the case in Arabic, where quantifiers in fact express agreement with the noun which they enumerate; i.e. they will be feminine if the noun is feminine and masculine if it is masculine.

However, the numbers 3 to 10 in Arabic show chiastic agreement, which means that the genders are swapped. So in the Quranic verse في ستة أيام (God created the world in 6 days), the masculine plural noun أيام (days) is qualified by the feminine number ستة (six). If the period had been six years we would have seen six written as ست, which is its masculine version, in chiastic agreement with the feminine word عام (year). All other numbers show normal, homogender agreement.

Although numbers are genderless quantifiers in most other languages, there is one Romance language in which the gender of numerical quantities can be slightly confusing. In Italian, on top of the difficulty of identifying the gender of a noun, one must also learn to recognize those nouns which undergo the equivalent of a sex change when they pass from the singular to the plural.

Two of the words which change gender when pluralized refer to numerical quantities: the masculine singular nouns il centinaio (a group of one hundred) and il migliaio (a group of one thousand) become the feminine plurals le centinaia and le miglia.

Many of the Italian nouns which undergo a similar gender change refer to parts of the body; we have il braccio (the arm, m.) but le braccia (the arms, f.), il ginocchio (the knee, m.) but le ginocchia (the knees, f.), il labbro (the lip, m.) but le labbra (the lips, f.), and l’orecchio (the ear, m.) but le orecchie (the ears, f.). Head, shoulders, knees and toes (testa, spalle, ginocchia e piedi) is all that more difficult to remember in Italian.

All of this probably sounds confusing – nice-looking rules inevitably have exceptions. Remember – grammar, in our own language as well as foreign languages, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive science. To learn to speak Arabic and Italian correctly you not only have to learn your genders; you have to learn when to cross them!

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!