masculine and feminine noun endings

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masculine and feminine noun endings

Post by Archived Topic » Thu Feb 11, 1999 12:00 am

Why are noun endings (in Latin, Romance languages, etc.) classified as "masculine" or "feminine"? Why are such distinctions made at all? Do these labels have anything to do with the more usually underwstood ,eanings of "masuline" and "feminine"?
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masculine and feminine noun endings

Post by Jonathon Green » Fri Feb 12, 1999 8:00 am

Fortunate as we are to use a language which survives without gender, despite being a mongrel composition of others, notably Latin and its descendant French, which do, this is a problem we don't have to face. More irritatingly, I find that this being the case my various reference books are of little help in offering an answer. Nor, it seems do those gender-specific languages seem to have much logic. French has a feminine flower, OK that fits the cliches, but why is carpet, in Italian, masculine? It all stems from Latin, but the whys and wherefores elude me. You need a good book on grammar.

That said, I offer a couple of chunks taken from Baugh & Cable's History of the English Language (1993). They don't answer the question, but may cast some light:

42. Grammatical Gender: As in Indo-European languages generally, the gender of Old English nouns is not dependent upon considerations of sex. Although nouns designating males are often masculine and those indicating females feminine, those indicating neuter objects are not necessarily neuter. Stan (stone) is masculine, mona (moon) is masculine, but sunne (sun) is feminine, as in German. In French the corresponding words have just the opposite genders: pierre (stone) and lune (moon) are feminine while soleil (sun) is masculine. Often the gender of Old English nouns is quite illogical. Words like mægden (girl), wif (wife), beam (child, son), and cud (child), which we should expect to be feminine or masculine, are in fact neuter, while wifmann (woman) is masculine because the second element of the compound is masculine. The simplicity of Modem English gender has already been pointed out (§ 11) as one of the chief assets of the language. How so desirable a change was brought about will be shown later.

121. Loss of Grammatical Gender. One of the consequences of the decay of inflections described above was the elimination of that troublesome feature of language, grammatical gender. As explained in § 42, the gender of Old English nouns was not often detenmined by meaning. Sometimes it was in direct contradiction with the meaning. Thus woman (OE wif-mann) was masculine, because the second element in the compound was masculine; wife and child, like German Weib and Kind, were neuter. Moreover, the gender of nouns in Old English was not so generally indicated by the declension as it is in a language like Latin. Instead it was revealed chiefly by the concord of the strong adjective and the demonstratives. These by their distinctive endings generally showed, at least in the singular, whether a noun was masculine, feminine, or neuter. when the inflections of these gender-distinguishing words were reduced to a single ending for the adjective, and the fixed forms of the, this, that, these, and those for the demonstratives, the support for grammatical gender was removed. The weakening of inflections and the confusion and loss of the old gender proceeded in a remarkably parallel course. In the north, where inflections weakened earliest, grammatical gender disappeared first. In the south it lingered longer because there the decay of inflections was slower.

Our present method of determining gender was no sudden invention of Middle English times. The recognition of sex that lies at the root of natural gender is shown in Old English by the noticeable tendency to use the personal pronouns in accordance with natural gender, even when such use involves a clear conflict with the grammatical gender of the antecedent. For example, the pronoun it in 'Etath thisne hlaf' (masculine), 'hit is min lichama' (Aelfric's Homilies) is exactly in accordance with modern usage when we say, 'Eat this bread, it is my body'. Such a use of the personal pronouns is clearly indicative of the feeling for natural gender even while grammatical gender was in full force. With the disappearance of grammatical gender the idea of sex became the only factor in determining the gender of English nouns.
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