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Why is a carrot female?: English speakers’ struggle with noun genders

John Murray

Anybody who has ever tried to learn a foreign language will be familiar with not only finding out the words for nouns, but having to remember their gender as well. French and Spanish have masculine and feminine nouns, while German and Dutch speakers also throw  neuter into the mix. Some Slavic languages like Polish, Czech and Slovak will differentiate between animate and inanimate objects. The most gender confused language of all would appear to be Swahili, which has no fewer than 16 noun classes, denoting everything from animals and trees to natural forces.

This is all something of an alien concept to English speakers, because we don’t use them at all. We describe ‘the tall man’ with the same form of determiner and adjective as we do for ‘the tall women’, and it seems to work fine for people; let alone for things like tables, caravans and omelettes that somebody at one time decided were a boy or a girl. It’s perhaps one of the main reasons why English speakers generally struggle to take up a second language, although it’s a poor excuse given that Finnish and Turkish are also genderless languages and their speakers are often bilingual.

There was a time, however, when English nouns did take genders. If you go back to Old English, spoken in England and parts of Scotland until the mid-12th Century, there are examples of nouns being assigned masculine, feminine and neuter status. Not a lot of thought seemed to go into it; the word for ‘woman’ was neuter, for example.

Gender was phased out over the 400 years or so of Middle English that followed, and the Modern English we speak today is less than 500 years old. It was largely unstandardised at first as well, with words being spelt differently from region to region.

Traces of gender nouns in English still remain – historians often refer to ships and countries as ‘she’ rather than ‘it’, and we have a tendency to assume that animals are male, but it’s largely an old relic and something we English speakers struggle to understand.

With English spelling and grammar often being difficult to master, even for native speakers, perhaps we should be grateful that lack of genders, as well as the relative simplicity of pluralising most nouns, gives us a bit less to worry about. After all, it’s hard enough to spell words like ‘encyclopaedia’ and ‘kaleidoscope’ without having to determine their sex.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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