Even if you’re monolingual, you are probably aware that many languages distinguish nouns in gender. Even English does so, which becomes obvious when referring to someone/something with a personal pronoun (e.g. the man – he, the woman – she, the car – it). However, many other languages even distinguish ‘things’ in gender. More precisely, they would refer to a car as ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘it’. I am sure that everyone who’s ever studied a language that makes use of grammatical gender will agree that learning ‘random’ articles, for example, can be tedious. But is it all really just random?
Natural gender is when the (masculine or female) gender of a (human) referent goes along with the grammatical gender of that kind. However, there are exceptions. For example the Gaelic word for woman, “boireannach”, or the Irish word for girl, “cailín”, are masculine, the Irish stallion, “stail”, is female and the German girl, “Mädchen”, is neuter.
But what about abstract things? All just random because a noun has to belong to some noun class? Why do Polish, German and Arabic speaking people think that a moon is a “he”, whereas French, Spanish and Russian speakers refer to a “she”?
Yes, unfortunately many nouns end up with a merely conventional gender in order to belong to some noun category. Sometimes it seems very illogical, for example when two nouns denoting the same concept differ in gender, such as the German words for car: “der Wagen” (masculine) or “das Auto” (neuter).
Frequently, grammatical gender is related to the word’s ending, indicating a morphological way of gender assignment. Spanish is a good example for this, as most words follow the rule “words that end with -o are masculine, and words that end with -a are feminine”. If we look closer, even much gender assignment in German is actually not random. The explanation for “Mädchen” being neuter is simply, that words ending in –chen and –lein are always neuter. As for most nouns, though, deflexion made gender markers unrecognisable.
Often a combination of morphological, arbitrary convention and semantics – with usually one being more dominant – is used to determine a word’s gender. Many studies have investigated the gender retrieval mechanism. A study on semantic gender assignment regularities in German by Beate Schwichtenberg and Niels O. Schiller (2003) found that when presented with random words of different categories (e.g. “Ruppel” in the category instruments), native speakers would select the gender-marked article associated with the category (e.g. feminine ‘die’, since most instruments in German are feminine)
In the end, if you’re learning a foreign language that distinguishes nouns in gender, it is probably best to simply see the word PLUS gender marker as a whole (e.g. “la+voiture”, instead of just “voiture”). Language-learning would be a lot easier without this ‘gender-trap’, but it’s always a nice challenge 🙂