July: Grammatical Gender

‘Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex.’

                                                                                                              Oxford English Dictionary

 In Language and Gender, Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell Ginet point to the power of language to insist on gender identifications: ‘In using a third-person singular pronoun to refer to a specific person, English also forces the speaker to index the referent’s sex: to say someone called but he didn’t leave his name is to ascribe male sex to the caller.’ The meeting point of gender and language has created a site of contemporary concern.

 Until the end of the twentieth century, the word ‘gender’ was commonly used to voice a contrast between male and female. The gender gap meant pay differentials between men and women. Gender rights meant women’s rights. Recent uses of the word take new directions. People speak of gender blindness, gender capitalism, gender changing, gender dysphoria, gender fluidity, gender identity, gender queerness, gender reassignment.

In the Beginning, there were two genders: ‘male and female created He them ’ (Genesis 1.27), and, when created He them male and female, God made it clear who was boss. Gender fluidity expresses modern unhappiness with that hierarchy, and Mark Zuckerberg has for some time been working in the gap that God left.

Facebook moved beyond Male and Female, and it began offering users these genders: Agender, Androgyne, Androgynes, Androgynous, Bigender, Cis, Cis Female, Cis Male, Cis Man, Cis Woman, Cisgender, Cisgender Female, Cisgender Male, Cisgender Man, Cisgender Woman, Female to Male, FTM, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming, Gender Questioning, Gender Variant, Genderqueer, Intersex, Male to Female, MTF, Neither, Neutrois, Non-binary, Other, Pangender, Trans, Trans Female, Trans Male, Trans Man, Trans Person, Trans*Female, Trans*Male, Trans*Man, Trans*Person, Trans*Woman, Transexual, Transexual Female, Transexual Male, Transexual Man, Transexual Person, Transexual Woman, Transgender Female, Transgender Person, Transmasculine, and Two-spirit.

The adaption of ‘trans’ is particularly rich. It continues to serve as a prefix, but it also does imaginative duty as a noun and a verb. Even more imaginative is the revitalization of the prefix ‘cis’, not previously much found outside scholarly discussion of Cisalpine Gaul. Cis as an opposite of Trans is now on active service. Language works this kind of magic with ease, and there is no limit to the number of names, that is, nouns, that can be invented.

Here we come up against Joseph Greenberg’s 43 Language Universal: ‘If a language has gender categories in the noun, it has gender categories in the pronoun.’ Fifty new genders call for fifty new pronouns. Meanwhile for the singular man, woman and thing, English gives us ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’. Beyond ‘he’ and ‘she’, there is only ‘it’ - an unsatisfactory pronoun for a new gender person.

English has a pronoun gap, and that will be discussed further, but the three genders of our singular pronouns point to the strange notion of grammatical gender. That is the  name, says The Oxford English Dictionary, given to classes of ‘nouns and pronouns distinguished by the different inflections which they have and which they require in words syntactically associated with them.’ Words are associated ‘syntactically’ when they are bundled in meaningful units. That bundling can be done by varying and matching word endings, i.e., their ‘inflections’.

The English singular, third-person pronouns, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, give three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, and those are the three grammatical genders once found in all Indo-European languages. The original Indo-European language, called Proto-Indo-European (aka PIE), was spoken 7000 years ago. Some 450 living languages have evolved from PIE, languages from Albanian to Zemiaki with German, French and English among them. German has kept the three grammatical genders. French has lost one of them. English has lost all of them.

Once upon a time, English had the three genders. They were there in the language brought to Britannia in the fifth century by the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Friesians (the last missed out by the Venerable Bede.) In their English, Old English, nouns were divided into three kinds. Each kind had its own word endings, its own inflections. When you used a noun along with adjectives, the adjectives had to agree, as grammarians say, with the noun in three ways. You had to match the number, singulars with singulars and plurals with plurals. You had to match the case, deciding whether your noun was the subject or the object of the verb or had some other role. You had to match the gender of the noun whether it was masculine, feminine, or neuter.

It is difficult for foreigners to match number, case and gender in time to deliver a sentence, but native speakers match at lightning speed. We do that unthinkingly when we use pronouns. It is wrong to say: ‘When John saw Lucy, she raised her eyebrows’ if it was John who raised those eyebrows. If we had to say it, we would say ‘When John saw Lucy, he raised his eyebrows’.

The three classes of nouns that speakers of Old English had to handle were not many. Some languages have more. Tuyuca has 50 to 140, so The Economist says in an article that attempts to identify ‘the World’s hardest language’. English, says The Economist, is among the world’s less difficult languages to learn, and one reason is that it no longer employs grammatical gender. (Tuyuca’s uncertain number of genders suggests that linguists have work yet to do in sorting Tuyuca out.)

The fact that class can serve as a synonym for gender points to the etymology of the word. Oxford tells us that ‘gender’ comes from Latin ‘genus’ by way Old French ‘gendre’. Latin ‘genus’ meant ‘birth, family, nation’. In Middle English, ‘gender’ meant ‘kind, sort, genus’, and it was used in the fourteenth century to describe the three kinds, sorts, or genera of Latin nouns: masculine, feminine and neuter. Gender’s use as a grammatical term may pre-date its use as a biological term, but the very names of the grammatical genders point to biology. Moreover, if a language has genders, masculine, feminine and neuter are usually the first to be listed. But, why have grammatical genders at all?

There is no agreed  explanation of the original function of grammatical gender, but, if it is not a language universal, it is nonetheless found in human languages of all kinds right across the world. Its origin is ancient and might be original with language itself, that would be some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. Gender may be a way of seeing the world, a way of sorting the thousands of things that surround us. If so, the Indo-Europeans had a primary sort into masculine, feminine and neuter. Another common way of sorting is found in those languages that sort with the genders animate and inanimate. A worldview explanation of grammatical gender is possible though it is not a very convincing explanation for the Tuyucans’ 50 to 140 genders.

Whatever the origin of grammatical gender, its function is easy to see. Gender does part of the work in a Latin sentence that word order does in an English sentence. The words in a Latin sentence could come in almost any order; gender told the listener how to associate, i.e., link, the words heard. The ties of number, case and gender told which adjective went with which noun and which noun with which particle. The word endings, the inflections, told you what you needed to know.

Once gender had become a part of the syntax and was no longer part of the worldview, gender was freed from logic. In Old English, the moon (mona) was masculine. Gift (giefu) was feminine. Woman (wif) was neuter. ‘Grammatical gender is only very loosely associated with natural distinctions of sex’, as Oxford puts it. Grammatical gender was not logical, and if gift is to be treated as feminine, it is not very much less logical to treat woman as neuter. Grammatical gender does not help to make sense of the world. It helps to make sense of the sentence.

Old English had grammatical gender. Modern English does not. Middle English abandoned grammatical gender. Why? What did it put in its place? And there is another question posed by this gender story. Joseph Greenberg’s language universal says that: ‘If a language has gender categories in the noun, it has gender categories in the pronoun.’ Today, we have seventy-one Facebook genders - twenty-one new genders have been added to the original list of fifty. Should Mark Zuckerberg be required to create seventy-one new third-person singular pronouns to supplement ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’?



Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Economist. ‘In Search of the World’s Hardest Language.’ The Economist (17 December 2009): www.economist.com.

Greenberg, Joseph H. Language Universals. New York : Mouton de Gruyter, 2005.

Ramat, Anna Giacalone, and Paolo Ramat, eds. The Indo-European Languages. London: Routledge, 2015.

Williams, Rhiannon. ‘Facebook’s 71 Gender Options Come to UK Users.’ The Telegraph (27 June 2014): www.telegraph.co.uk.


For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj


The English Project’s August Posting: Logical Gender. Middle English replaced grammatical gender with logical gender. Why did English abandon an ancient practice, widespread in the world’s languages? German and French haven’t abandoned grammatical gender. Why not?