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Grammatical gender

In linguistics, grammatical genders, also called noun classes, are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words; every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be very few which belong to several classes at once (Hockett 1958: 231).

Some languages have only one noun class, and treat all nouns in the same way grammatically. Most Indo-European languages have one to three noun classes, which are traditionally called grammatical genders rather than noun classes. Some Caucasian languages have four to eight, and most Bantu languages have ten to twenty noun classes. If one agrees that classifiers such as measure words also express noun class, then some Sino-Tibetan languages have even more.

Noun class systems have direct bearing on the way words and sentences are put together. In a typical example from the Bantu language Swahili, for example, the class marker 'ki' (marking singular nouns in class number 7) shows up on both the adjective (-kubwa) and the verb (-anguka), to express their relation to the class seven noun kitabu 'book':

  • kitabu kikubwa kinaanguka   ( 7.big 7.PRESENT-fall)   'The big book falls.'

Common criteria for distinguishing noun classes include:

  • animate vs. inanimate (e.g. Ojibwe)
  • rational vs. non-rational (e.g. Tamil)
  • human vs. non-human
  • male vs. other
  • male human vs. other
  • masculine vs. feminine (e.g. French)
  • masculine vs. feminine vs. neuter (e.g. Latin, German)
  • strong vs. weak
  • augmentative vs. diminutive

In general, the boundaries of noun classes are rather arbitrary, although there are rules of thumb in many languages. The Algonquian languages have animate and inanimate noun classes, for example, and most Indo-European languages distinguish feminine, masculine and sometimes neuter noun classes. In many other languages, however, masculine and feminine are subsumed in the category of person, either generally, or only in the plural, as in the North Caucasian languages and some Dravidian languages.


Algonquian languages

The Ojibwe language and other members of the Algonquian languages distinguish between animate and inanimate classes. Some sources argue that the distinction is between things which are powerful and things which are not. All living things, as well as sacred things and things connected to the Earth are considered powerful and belong to the "animate" class. Still, the assignment is somewhat arbitrary, as "raspberry" is animate, but "strawberry" is inanimate.

Australian Aboriginal languages

The Dyirbal language is well known for its system of four noun classes, which tend to be divided along the following semantic lines:

  • I - animate objects, men
  • II - women, water, fire, violence
  • III - edible fruit and vegetables
  • IV - miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three)

The class usually labeled "feminine", for instance, includes the word for fire and nouns relating to fire, as well as all dangerous creatures and phenomena. This inspired the title of the George Lakoff book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things (ISBN 0226468046).

The Ngangikurrunggurr language has noun classes reserved for canines, and hunting weapons, and the Anindilyakwa language has a noun class for things that reflect light. The Diyari language distinguishes only between female and other objects.

Caucasian languages

Of the Caucasian languages, some members of the Northwest Caucasian family, and almost all of the Northeast Caucasian languages, manifest noun class. In the Northeast Caucasian family, only Lezgi, Udi , and Aghul do not have noun classes. Some languages have only two classes, while the Bats language has eight. The most widespread system, however, has four classes: male, female, animate beings and certain objects, and finally a class for the remaining nouns. The Andi language has a noun class reserved for insects.

Among Northwest Caucasian languages, Abkhaz shows a human male/human female/non-human distinction. Ubykh shows some inflections along the same lines, but only in some instances, and in some of these instances inflection for noun class is not even obligatory.

In all Caucasian languages that manifest class, it is not marked on the noun itself but on the dependent verbs, adjectives, pronouns and prepositions.

Indo-European languages

In Indo-European languages, genders typically include feminine, masculine and neuter. Latin has these three, but in many of its modern descendants, such as French and Spanish, the neuter gender has all but disappeared, though a few words, especially pronouns with no clear gender such as "cela" in French, have been assigned by some grammarians to a neuter gender. In Spanish, there exists a "neuter singular" gender whose only nouns are adjectives used as abstract nouns. (eg "lo único" = "the only thing"; "lo mismo" = "the same thing"). In other languages, feminine and masculine have merged into a common gender with a neuter gender, for example, in Danish. English generally exhibits gender only in third-person singular pronouns (e.g., he, she, and it), with the masculine and feminine genders used only for persons or higher animals, sometimes objects in colloquial speech as in 'Isn't she a beauty?'. Other languages may group genders differently: Czech and, to a lesser degree, Russian further divide the masculine gender into animate and inanimate groups; The Spanish constructions for direct objects are different for humans and for objects, although its Latin-influenced grammar tradition doesn't usually count this as a noun class distinction; the Nostratic language, a theoretical language that gave rise to the Indo-European languages and other language families, is believed by its proponents to have had human, animal, and object as grammatical genders.

In common nouns, grammatical gender is usually only peripherally related to sex. For example, in Spanish, the word hijo (son) is masculine and hija (daughter) is feminine, as one might expect. This is called natural gender, or sometimes logical gender. Other times, there are elaborate (and mostly incomplete) rules to define the gender of a word. For example, in German, nouns ending in -ung (corresponding to -ing in English) are feminine, and car brand names are masculine. Words with the -lein and -chen ending (meaning smaller, younger) are neuter, thus the grammatical genders of Mädchen (girl) and Fräulein (young woman) are neuter. In some local dialects of German, all nouns for female persons have been shifted to the neuter gender, but the female gender remains for some words denoting objects. All this is still arbitrary, and differs between cultures. The ancient Romans believed the Sun to be masculine and the Moon to be feminine (as in French, Spanish, Italian), but the Germans (and Germanic languages) express the opposite belief. The learner of a language thus must regard the gender as part of the noun, and memorize accordingly to use the language correctly. A frequent recommendation is to memorize the definite article and the noun as a unit.

In Indo-European languages that assign genders to all nouns, the genders often correspond roughly to declensions that govern the way the nouns are inflected. In Latin, for example, almost all of the -a stem nouns of the first declension are feminine; the main exceptions are a handful of nouns that identify typically male roles like nauta, "sailor," or agricola, "farmer." Likewise, almost all of the -o stem nouns of the second declension that end in -us in the nominative case are masculine; those ending in -um are neuter. Names of places and trees are feminine though, like ulmus, "elm," or Ægyptus, "Egypt." Most other Indo-European languages that have retained declensional systems have similar rules.

Niger-Congo languages

Bantu languages

According to Carl Meinhof, the Bantu languages have a total of 22 noun classes. While no single language is known to express all of them, all of them have at least 10 noun classes. Swahili, for example, has 15, and Sesotho has 18. Often, certain noun classes are reserved for humans. The Fula language has a noun class reserved for liquids. According to Steven Pinker, the Kivunjo language has 16 genders including classes for precise locations and for general locales, classes for clusters or pairs of objects and classes for the objects that come in pairs or clusters, and classes for abstract qualities.


The Zande language distinguishes four noun classes:

Criterion Example Translation
human male kumba man
human female dia wife
animate nya beast
other bambu house

There are about 80 inanimate nouns which are in the animate class, including nouns denoting heavenly objects (moon, rainbow), metal objects (hammer, ring), edible plants (sweet potato, pea), and non-metallic objects (whistle, ball). Many of the exceptions have a round shape, and some can be explained by the role they play in Zande mythology.


The Alamblak language , a Sepik Hill language spoken in Papua New Guinea, has a "masculine" noun class, which includes males, as well as things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow such as fish, crocodile, long snakes, arrows, spears and tall slender trees, and a "feminine" noun class, which includes females, as well as things which are short, squat or wide, such as turtles, frogs, houses, fighting shields and trees that are typically more round and squat than others.

Languages without gender marking on nouns

These languages can be divided into two subtypes. The first type still distinguishes gender, but the distinction is made on modifiers (adjectives, etc.), pronouns, and perhaps even verbs - but not on the noun. German would fall into this category, since most nouns give no clue as to their gender other than the forms of the article, determiner, and adjectives they must use. Japanese and Chinese may also fall into this category: they have elaborate systems of measure words which classify nouns into types based on shape and function, but are only used with counting modifiers. However, in these two languages, the classes of nouns are not generally distinguished in other contexts, and many if not most linguists would consider them completely genderless.

The second type consists of those, like English, which have no concept of grammatical gender - thus the forms of modifiers used with the nouns, and of verbs, do not change according to gender: the word man is naturally masculine, and the word girl naturally feminine, but the form of the adjective tall used with both is still tall.

Welsh is unusual in that it does not conform cleanly to these boundaries. On the whole, gender marking has been lost, both on the noun, and, often, on the adjective. However, it has one unusual feature, that of initial mutation, where the first consonant changes to another in certain places. In Welsh, gender can cause mutation, especially the soft mutation. For instance, the word merch means girl or daughter. However 'the girl' is y ferch. This only occurs with feminine nouns, masculine nouns remain unchanged after the definite article (eg. mab - 'son', y mab - 'the son'). Gender also affects following adjectives in a similar way, for instance 'the large girl' is y ferch fawr, but 'the large son' is y mab mawr.

However, as in English, even if a language has no concept of gender in nouns, personal pronouns often have different forms based on the natural gender of the reference; this is not the same concept as grammatical gender. Gendered pronouns vary considerably across languages: there are languages that have different pronouns in the third person only to differentiate between humans and inanimate objects, like Hungarian and Finnish. Even this distinction is commonly waived in spoken Finnish. Other languages, such as Japanese, have a wide range of personal pronouns to describe how the referents relate to the speaker.

It should be emphasized that languages that have no grammatical gender can have quite pervasive lexical marking of natural gender, which should not be confused with grammatical gender. A notable example is the Esperanto suffix -in, which can be used to change, for example patro, "father" into patrino, "mother." This particular suffix is extremely productive (there is no atomic term for "mother" in Esperanto), leading some people to the erroneous assumption that it is a grammatical rather than a lexical gender marker.

Personal names

Personal names often have characteristic culture-specific forms that identify the gender of the bearer. For example, in an English-speaking culture, John (masculine) and Joan or Jane (feminine) are gendered variants on the Hebrew name of John the Evangelist. Again, this is natural gender, and not necessarily grammatical gender.

For Russian gender-related tradition of personal naming, see Names in Russian Empire, Soviet Union and CIS countries.

Gender in other contexts

The word gender can be used in English instead of sex when referring to the perceived masculinity or femininity of a person or characteristic; in this case, sex referes to the physical characteristics of a person. Compare gender.

Also not to be confused with grammatical gender is the variety of gender-describing common names some tribal languages have for intersexual or transgender individuals.

List of languages that do not use grammatical genders/noun classes

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*These languages have measure words: nouns are classified but the classes are shown only by counting modifiers, not by other adjectives or articles.

List of languages using grammatical genders/noun classes

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Two genders/noun classes

Masculine and feminine

Common and neuter

Animate and inanimate

Many Native American languages, e.g. Navajo

Three grammatical genders/noun classes

Masculine, feminine, and neuter

More than three grammatical genders/noun classes

More than three noun classes counting measure words


  • Charles F. Hockett, A Course in Modern Linguistics, Macmillan, 1958
  • Greville G. Corbett, Gender, Cambridge University Press, 1991 - A comprehensive study; looks at 200 languages.
  • Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct, William Morrow and Company, 1994
  • Meissner, Antje & Anne Storch (eds.) (2000) Nominal classification in African languages, Institut für Afrikanische Sprachwissenschaften, Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Köln: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag. ISBN 3-89645-014-X.

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