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In most languages, gender plays a much more important role than in English. Nevertheless, it is possible to refer to a noun using its gender.

The ship was launched on 4 October 1853. Tayleur left Liverpool on 19 January 1854, on her maiden voyage.

How does one know that "ship" is feminine? Are there masculine nouns?

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I'm not convinced that gender plays a much more important role than it does in English in "most" languages. Grammatical gender is a kind of noun classification, and there are many languages that have no noun classes at all. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  nohat Aug 6 '10 at 0:08
I suppose that I meant most (Indo-?)European languages. –  Paul Lammertsma Aug 6 '10 at 0:22
Ships are called "she" because they keep men out of deep water. –  Jon Purdy Oct 10 '10 at 2:59
@JonPurdy: Except in Russian, where it's a "he." I wonder if that's true for other slavic languages... –  T.J. Crowder Oct 4 '14 at 17:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Well, gender matters with anaphors (Steve shaved him/*herself) and pronouns with antecedents, (Steve retrieved his/*her book).

The ship example is very rare in modern English, and is probably a holdover from when English had real grammatical gender (i.e., when it was more like German).

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+1 for "anaphor" and "resumptive pronoun" –  Edward Tanguay Aug 5 '10 at 23:28
This is not a resumptive pronoun. –  Arne Aug 16 '10 at 21:34
Yup, that's true. –  Alan Hogue Aug 17 '10 at 5:48

Clearly, gender is mandatory for personal nouns and less so for (sexed) animals. Non-living nouns that use gendered pronouns are boats and countries (the "ship of state"). There are probably a handful of other exceptions, but I can't think of any off hand. I will add them later if I do.

For the most part all non-living nouns use "it" and "its" for pronouns.

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Well, third-person pronouns are examples of gender. I have heard and used the ship example, but more for stylistic purposes than to be better understood; the same applies to countries. I would argue that gender still is as important, though simply no longer surfaces. I think there are some very interesting experiments here.

Another example of gender occurs in the relative pronouns who and which. We divide groups of things into these two categories based on whether or not something is animate, or as I like to think, how human-like it is. Compare: "the friend, who", "the dog, who/which", "the shoe, which".

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I always thought this was an odd and antiquated rule, and in fact the wiki article on it mentions that it is waning in use. I don't know any masculine nouns except in figurative language.

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