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Some questions on ELU already touch on this subject, and they pose that English does not have grammatical gender which means that most of its inanimate nouns are referred to with it rather than he or she. I wonder if this is true.

When a language used to have a three-way gender system (neuter, masculine and feminine) and then slowly evolves into a system that only supports neuter grammatical gender, why does this mean that it has no grammatical gender? What are the arguments against saying that English has evolved into a language which has neuter as default and masculine and feminine as exceptions to the rule - for certain animate cases?

In other words, nice and simple, is English a language that has no grammatical gender or is it a language that has grammatical gender which in most cases is neuter by default?

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    There is a bit of covert gender in English -- ships and favorite cars and guns and other machines are often referred to as she; the default gender for a dog is he and for a cat is she, etc. But in general, if a noun doesn't refer to a person or an anthropomorphic animal or spirit, it's neuter. Mar 20, 2015 at 19:35
  • also, referring to an animal of known gender is always by the correct gender. A horse is 'it', but Seglawi, the Prophet Muhammad's mare is a she and Bucephalus, the stallion of Alexander the Great is a he.
    – SF.
    Mar 20, 2015 at 19:41
  • @JohnLawler I've never heard or seen that bit about a cat - what's your source? Mar 20, 2015 at 19:41
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    @BramVanroy: Your assertion is correct - "in most cases". While many other languages distribute the genders between their nouns in roughly equal proportions, English keeps a very narrow range of generic names assigned non-neuter gender. Ships, for example are female even if unknown (but specific). "Ship ho! She's a frigate and she flies English colors!"
    – SF.
    Mar 20, 2015 at 19:51
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    @BramVanroy: Primarily that most of them are. I'm really not going to argue neuter vs genderless. I've got into enough trouble with Social Justice Warriors over such issues, not going to risk more.
    – SF.
    Mar 20, 2015 at 20:27

3 Answers 3

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“Grammatical gender” is just a term. You can define it in various ways, and it doesn’t really matter, as long as you make your definition clear. Even linguists don’t have perfect agreement about how they use this term.

It is clear that linguists don’t mean “having different words to refer to males and females”. So the existence of words with different forms for male and female, like “waiter” and “waitress” or “hen” and “rooster”, isn’t considered to be an example of grammatical gender. (For comparison, we also have the words “child” and “adult”, and “puppy” and “dog”, but this doesn’t mean English has a category of “grammatical age” or “grammatical maturity”.)

According to Anna Kibort and Greville G. Corbett, the “definitional characteristic of gender” is agreement in gender of other words with the noun. This is where it gets tricky to classify English. Unlike most languages with grammatical gender, English doesn’t exhibit gender agreement on articles, adjectives or verbs. The only place we could point to to justify a category of “grammatical gender” in English is the pronouns.

So, it comes down to whether you think it’s correct to say that pronouns “agree” with their antecedents in gender, in the same sense that adjectives or articles agree with their antecedents in languages like Spanish or German.

Apparently, linguists disagree about this. Kibort and Corbett say

Barlow (1992:134-152) discusses the issue of the scope of agreement and concludes that there are no good grounds for distinguishing between agreement and antecedent-anaphor relations. If antecedent-anaphor relations are accepted as agreement, languages in which gender distinctions are absent from noun phrase modifiers and from predicates and in which free pronouns present the only evidence for gender, can be counted as having a (pronominal) gender system. Such languages are rare, and the best known example is English, which is typologically unusual in this respect (Corbett 2005:126; see also §6 below); another such language is Defaka (Niger-Congo, Nigeria; Jenewari 1983:103-106).

So even if we say English should be considered to have grammatical gender, it’s not a typical example.

An idealized "typical" example of grammatical gender

Typically, in a language with grammatical gender, every noun in the language is associated with a single specific gender, which governs the agreement of other words that refer back to that noun, usually including any articles or adjectives modifying the noun. Different languages assign gender to nouns in different ways. Some languages use strictly semantic criteria, like “male animate” vs. “female animate” vs. “inanimate” or “male human” vs. “female human” vs. “other”. There are also more complicated semantic assignment systems like “male human, domesticated animal, or concrete noun” vs. “female human, wild animal, or abstract noun”. Other languages use a mix of semantic criteria and formal criteria relating to the shape and structure of the word, like what sound it ends with or whether it has certain affixes. In languages with formal criteria, the gender of a noun doesn't necessarily relate in any obvious way to whether it is "male", "female", or "neither". (Corbett 2013)

In real languages, things are often more messy. Even in languages with generally robust and obvious gender systems, some nouns may be "epicene" or "common" and have more than one pattern of agreement, and some nouns might have an uncertain gender classification that varies from speaker to speaker.

An example from French

A clear example of grammatical gender from French: the phrase for "a mouse" is une souris, which is grammatically feminine, marked by the use of the feminine indefinite article une. Even if it is a male mouse, we cannot use the masculine article and say un souris -- that’s absolutely impossible. If you wanted to indicate that it is male, you would have to use a longer phrase like une souris de sexe masculine. (example taken from the following thread on Wordreference)

How pronoun "agreement" is unusual

In many languages, pronoun agreement is based less on the identity of the noun, and more on the identity of the referent, than adjective or article agreement. (We can see this in English for the category of plurality: a grammatically plural pronoun like “they” can refer back to a grammatically singular noun like “the group”.)

Taking our French example of a male mouse, une souris de sexe masculin, the mouse might be referred to with the masculine pronoun il, since it is male, although the grammatical gender of the word souris is still unambiguously feminine. Example:

J'ai une souris qui s'appelle Gérald. Il est très gentil, c'est une bonne souris.
“I have a mouse called Gerald. He is very nice; he is a good mouse.”

(Sentence taken from pointvirgule's post on Wordreference)

So we see in languages with grammatical gender, the gender of a pronoun isn’t guaranteed to be the same as the gender of the word it refers to. 


Similarly, in English, the choice of pronoun is rarely based on the specific word we're using. It generally has more to do conceptualization of the actual thing that we’re referring to. 
Depending on the circumstances, we can say any of the following:

  • I took my cat to the veterinarian because it was sick”
  • “I took my cat to the veterinarian because she was sick”
  • “I took my cat to the veterinarian because he was sick”

using the exact same noun in each case.

So the agreement of pronouns -- the only place where English regularly makes a gender distinction -- is almost never based on the specific noun used, but on semantic criteria pertaining to the referent. (This holds even in freak cases such as using “she” for ships: the pronoun isn’t specifically tied to the word “ship”, but is used to refer to things that are ships. You can use it in a sentence like “The vessel set sail on her maiden voyage this evening” where the word “ship” is never even used.)

If we do say English has grammatical gender, it may not be a three-way system

It's generally accurate to say the "target" of agreement (the pronoun) can take three values based on gender when referring to a singular noun: he/him/his..., she/her/hers..., it/its... (although in modern times, with greater recognition of additional gender categories for humans, the they/them/theirs... set of pronouns has also been added to this group by some people).

However, this is only half of the gender system. The other half is the gender classification of "controllers" (the nouns that are being referred to). The classification of controller gender seems to be generally more complicated (there are examples like Italian nouns that behave like masculines in the singular, and feminines in the plural: should this be called a third "neuter" gender?) and English is no exception.

Kibort and Corbett say English nouns have been analyzed as belonging to anywhere from three to nine "gender classes" based on possible agreement patterns with third-person pronouns and interrogative and relative pronouns.

Summary: English either doesn't have gender, or it has a "pronominal gender system"

In sum, the phenomenon of grammatical gender is characterized by agreement.

Most familiar European languages with grammatical gender exhibit the following features:

  • every word has to have a grammatical gender
  • gender is marked by the agreement of other words in the noun phrase like adjectives or articles
  • a word generally only has a single grammatical gender, which takes precedence over the natural gender of the thing that the word is referring to for purposes of agreement
  • gender is generally reflected in the morphology of nouns

English doesn't exhibit these features. The only place gender shows up in English is in pronouns, so English is either not considered to have grammatical gender, or it is said to have a "pronominal gender system". In addition, English pronouns are almost always selected according to semantic criteria, "natural gender". For language teachers, it is probably useful to emphasize the differences between the natural gender system of English and the grammatical gender system of a language like French, rather than using terminology that emphasizes the similarities.

References:

  • Kibort, Anna & Greville G. Corbett. "Gender." Grammatical Features. 7 January 2008. http://www.grammaticalfeatures.net/features/gender.html

  • Greville G. Corbett. 2013. Systems of Gender Assignment. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/32, Accessed on 2016-12-12.)

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  • "J'ai une souris qui s'appelle Gérald. Il est très gentil, c'est une bonne souris." is not correct French. Just after "une souris" you have to use "elle est très gentille".
    – Quidam
    Nov 25, 2019 at 12:23
  • @Quidam: Could you clarify what you mean by "not correct French"? Do you mean that you would be astonished to hear this kind of pronoun usage from a native speaker, or are you instead saying that even though it could be heard, it would not be considered "technically" correct? As I said in this post, that example is not mine, but is taken from a wordreference post by a French speaker, pointvirgule.
    – herisson
    Nov 25, 2019 at 20:55
  • It's not grammatically correct. You use "une souris" in the previous sentence or clause, you have to use "elle", when referring to it. (anaphoric use). It can't be heard by a native, and if a non native says it, we would correct it.
    – Quidam
    Nov 26, 2019 at 21:24
  • In the post you linked, people correct the person, saying that to use "il", you have to use "souriceau" that is masculine (a baby mouse).
    – Quidam
    Nov 26, 2019 at 21:24
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I'm no expert, but I believe the quote, "...English does not have grammatical gender..." merely says that, unlike many other languages, English has no grammatical constructs or usages that are firm indications of gender. For example, in Spanish, nouns and adjectives ending in "o" are almost always masculine (mano being an exception), those ending in "a" are almost always feminine (dia being an exception). English has no such clear grammatical rules or indicators for gender.

However, that is NOT to say that there are no masculine or feminine nouns in English. Many animals have specific male and female names: bull, cow; buck, doe; etc.

Also, third person singular personal pronouns, pronoun adjectives, and absolute personal pronouns have all three genders: he, his, his; she, her, hers; it, its, its.

Here's an excerpt from Grammar-Monster.com that addresses this topic:

"Unless the meaning makes it obviously male (e.g., boy, king, boar) or female (e.g., princess, hen, mare), a noun in English is neuter by default.

"Large machines (e.g., ships, trains, cranes) are neuter by default. However, sometimes they are affectionally given a feminine gender (i.e., called she).

"By default, an animal is referred to as it. However, if the sex is known, it will be called he or she."

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  • just a note that while for most machines that's a semi-rare quirk, with ships it's pretty much regular as long as we talk about specific ships. (while talking of generic/family of ships, they are neuter; "a barge is an unpowered vessel, it needs a tugboat for propulsion", if you refer to any specific ship, even without knowing about its details, it will be frequently, if not usually referred as female; "we've got a blip on the radar; she's moving north, speed four knots.") You won't see this with e.g. train engines. ("the engine whistled, then she pulled the train out of the station.")
    – SF.
    Mar 20, 2015 at 20:19
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    It's interesting that ships named after naval heroes (Hood, Rodney, Nelson ...) were still 'she'. Mar 20, 2015 at 20:45
  • @EdwinAshworth And the Prince of Wales.
    – WS2
    Mar 20, 2015 at 23:46
  • @WS2 And the Flying Dustman. Mar 21, 2015 at 9:00
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There is no evidence of grammatical gender in modern English. In other words, there are no grammatical rules governing word formation or agreement among nouns (the pronouns he and she and their derivatives do not fall under this).

That some things normally assume a gender despite the irrelevance to reality (ships, dogs/cats) is purely semantic.

You question is about why it was chosen to say the English 'has no grammatical gender' instead of English 'nouns are overwhelmingly neuter gender'. There are many reasons one could propose.

  • If you have no experience of other languages, only of English, then grammatical gender for nouns is not a useful concept (it just doesn't apply).
  • if there were only two languages in the world, English, and another that is gendered, and you are trying to describe English, you might say that all nouns are neuter. That would imply, by analogy with your own language, imply that all words agree in endings with their modifiers. But that is more complicated than is necessary implying that there are endings that need to be remembered, when really it is much easier to say there aren't any endings to remember at all.
  • given that there are many languages in the world, and many don't have gender, many have M/F gender, many have M/F/Other/Other1/Other2/etc systems, linguists have settled on calling those that don't have gender 'genderless'.

If none of that is convincing, then there's always the fall back "It's just what people already do, and saying it another way will sound weird to everybody."

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