gender [Lat. genus = kind], in grammar, subclassification of nouns or nounlike words in which the members of the subclass have characteristic features of agreement with other words. The term gender is not usually considered to include the classification of number. In French, for example, there are two genders, feminine and masculine, marked by the form of the articles la and le [both: the]. Most French nouns referring to males are masculine ( le garcon [the boy]), and most referring to females are feminine ( la fille [the girl]), thus conforming to natural gender. Other words are placed in either gender, e.g., le jardin [the garden] and la table [the table], being instances of grammatical gender. In German, Russian, and Latin there are three genders, called masculine, feminine, and neuter. Scandinavian and Dutch languages have in addition to these three a "common" gender, which combines, and often distinguishes between, masculine and feminine. A genderlike distinction between animate and inanimate is widespread, e.g., in Algonquian languages of North America and the Andamanese of the Bay of Bengal. Some Bantu languages have 20 genderlike noun classes. English nouns may be divided into gender classes according to the personal pronouns they take. Nouns referring to males take he and nouns referring to females take she. Most English nouns referring to objects that cannot be classified by sex take the pronoun it, although exceptions exist; ships, for example, are sometimes referred to as she. The grammatical device of concord, or agreement, is bound up with gender distinctions. By it one word bears a formal signal to show its relationship to the word it accompanies or modifies; thus, in la viande, the form of la shows that it is related to a word of the feminine gender class, and it may be said to agree with, or be in concord with, viande. While in most Indo-European languages gender involves nouns, adjectives, and pronouns, in Semitic langauges and some Slavic languages even verbal forms must agree with the gender of their subjects. Although gender is present in many languages, it is far from universal. In English a few words retain gender inflection (e.g., actress, executrix ), but since the 12th to 15th cent. English has dropped most of the gender distinctions characteristic of its ancestor languages.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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