As everyone knows, there are two genders: common and neuter.
Well, everyone in Stockholm knows that. So does everyone in Amsterdam. Go to Berlin or Moscow, though, and they’ll tell you there are three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. So will people in many other countries. But speakers of Ojibwe and several other languages know that there are two genders: animate and inanimate. Meanwhile, in Luganda, there are ten genders: people, long objects, animals, miscellaneous objects, large objects and liquids, small objects, languages, pejoratives, infinitives, and mass nouns. But in Chinese, Finnish, and quite a lot of other languages, there are no genders at all.
Okay, yes, this is grammatical gender. And it may seem like language geekery, but languages are one way cultures express their views of the world, and one thing that about a quarter of all the languages in the world do is sort nouns into sets and change the forms of the words that relate to them — such as adjectives and articles — according to what set the noun belongs to. For instance, in French, “a green hat” is “un chapeau vert” but “a green shirt” is “une chemise verte”: un and vert are for masculine nouns, and une and verte are for feminine ones. Apparently, hats are masculine and shirts are feminine. This is different from the English a versus an, which relies entirely on the next sound: We say “a red shirt” but “an orange shirt,” so the noun shirt doesn’t require a or an in the same way as the French chemise requires une.
As for Luganda: Does it really have ten genders? Well, it has ten noun classes, all but one of which also have a singular-plural distinction. Many other African languages also have complex systems of noun classes, with different prefixes for the different classes for nouns and the adjectives that modify them. Many Australian Aboriginal languages also have detailed classifications; Dyirbal is famous for having a noun class for “women, fire, and dangerous things” (which is the title of a book by the linguist George Lakoff) — actually, its four classes include one for women, water, fire, violence, and some animals; one for men and most animate objects; one for edible fruits and vegetables; and one for things that don’t fit into any of the other three classes.
You may well be asking yourself: Is this all really gender? But grammatically, it …read more