Gender and (you got no) class

Swahili noun class markers. Picture source:

Many languages have a phenomenon such that nouns belong to groups that affect things about the words with which they occur.  French is such a language.  You can more or less put French nouns into two groups, as follows:

  • For one group, the singular definite article (“the”) is le, the singular indefinite article (“a”) is un, the adjective “big” is grand, and the adjective “boring” is ennuyeux.
  • For the other group, the singular definite article (“the”) is la, the singular indefinite article (“a”) is une, the adjective “big” is grande, and the adjective “boring” is ennuyeuse.

When a language has two or three of these classes, the language is typically said to have a gender system.  So, French has two of these classes, and we call the nouns in these classes masculine and feminine nouns.  German has three of these classes, and we call them masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns.  Lithuanian Yiddish has three of these classes, but most other dialects of Yiddish have two.  English has basically no such classes–we have words that are sort of intrinsically masculine, like father, and words that are sort of intrinsically feminine, like mother, but since they don’t affect the forms of the words with which they appear (you say the mother and the father, with no differences in the word the), linguists wouldn’t call it a gender system.  On the other hand, Old English (spoken from around 450 to around 1400) had three noun classes.  (Look at the different forms of the word the in these three Old English nouns, taken from Wikipedia: sēo sunne (“the sun”), se mōna (“the moon”), þæt wīf (“the woman/wife”).)  A language on which I did research in graduate school only has two such classes, but referring to anything by the wrong class is a way to insult it.  It doesn’t matter which of the two classes it belongs to–if you use the wrong modifiers, it’s an insult.  I was terrified to ever open my mouth, and don’t speak it at all.  (My son often played in the corner of the office while I collected data.  It’s quite amazing to hear dô páráná come–correctly–out of the mouth of that blond-haired, blue-eyed, video game addict today.)

There’s nothing magic about the numbers two and three–languages can have more or less arbitrary numbers of these classes.  We tend to refer to them as genders when there are just two or three, and to refer to them as noun classes when there are more than that, but there is no difference between what we call the gender system in French, with two noun classes, and what we call the noun class system in Shona, which has twenty noun classes.  It’s a difference of numbers, not of kind–in both cases, you have this more-or-less arbitrary slicing up of the nominal lexicon (noun vocabulary) of the language into groups of nouns that affect the forms of articles, adjectives, etc. in various and sundry ways.

I say “various and sundry” because gender/noun class systems can work out in lots of different ways.  In Semitic languages, verbs agree with the gender of their subjects.  For example, he studied is lamad, while she studied is lamda.  In the first case, it’s the pattern of having the two a-a vowels that makes it the masculine form of the verb, and in the second case, it’s the a in the middle, the md coming together (versus mad in the masculine form), and the a at the end that make it feminine.  Different verbs, tenses, and numbers (that is, singular versus plural) have different forms, so don’t get excited about the fact that there’s an a at the end of the third person singular past tense feminine form of the verb–it’s not that way all the time.  For example, he goes is holekh, while she goes is holekhet. 

Does having classes of nouns in your language–or not having them–make a culture more or less sexist?  I only have anecdotes here, and–counter to what you might hear–anecdote is not the singular of data.  For what it’s worth: my undergraduate advisor always used to point out that Hebrew is about as gendered of a language as you can get (see above–even verbs have to have gender in Hebrew), and probably close to everyone in Israel speaks either Hebrew or Arabic (which has the identical system), but Israel was the fourth country in the world to elect a woman as the head of state.  In contrast, Finnish has no gender whatsoever, but has never had a female head of state, as far as I know.  (This is not to imply anything bad about Finland–there are a bazillion countries with genderless languages that have never had a female head of state.  I don’t know why my professor picked on the Finns.)

English note concerning the title of this post: using the word got (or gots) as the present tense of the verb to have is a social marker of class–that’s “class” in the sense of couche sociale.  Lower class, specifically.  Other speakers might use it for humorous effect.  “To have class” means something like to have elegance of style or manners.  So, if you say you got no class, man, part of the flavor of the expression comes from the fact that you’re using a “low (social) class” verb form to talk about “class” in the sense of elegance.


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