28 July 2008

Grammar: Gender

One of the first things you'll hear/see in any course in just about any language except English is that "nouns have gender". Once again, a grammar term that we really don't have any reference for.

Most languages classify nouns into groups by the rather arbitrary criteria of "gender" -- that is, masculine or feminine (and often neutral, or neuter - and sometimes others: Polish, for exanple, has a few extra - Personal masculine, animate masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter). This classification is used not so much to identify the nouns themselves, but to identify how they are changed. That is, do endings change or articles change when the word is used? For example, in German do you use die, der, or das as the article for the word, is the Italian ending -a or -o? French le or la? Arabic endings -a or -i?

Since English doesn't have this type of classification any longer, it is a weird extra thing to remember for learners of another language. We have just a single, common gender for everything and our articles and endings do not change based on the imagined gender of the object we're talking about. You don't have a different greeting when you meet a woman vs a man, or have a different verb form to say that the rooster ran away vs the hen. It's all the same to us.

(As a side note, we haven't entirely lost the idea of gender in modern English - we just apply it rather haphazardly to things like actor/actress, bachelor/spinster, blond/blonde, and the odd association of the pronoun she to ships, for example. The only other remnants are some forms of the pronouns, but they do not change how other words are formulated. See more here. )

Not having to remember whether a chair is masculine or feminine in English makes it difficult for us to learn to track gender with our vocabulary (Actually, I bet it's harder for people with languages that DO have gender, because I doubt every language classifies each noun as the same gender!) It would be logical if the gender assignment was to things that really did have observable gender (that is, natural gender) - male and female people and animals, for example, and leave all those other things as "it". But no, inanimate objects have gender, too -- chairs and cars and lamp posts and philosophy.

Irish lies somewhere between English and, say, Czech, in complexity. Like roughly half of the major langauges currently spoken, Irish has two genders: masculine (firinscneach) and feminine (baininscneach). There is no neuter gender in Irish. Every noun in Irish is designated as one or the other, and this has an effect on how the noun is declined-- that is, how the noun changes when used.

It's critical to learn whether a vocabulary word is fem. or masc., because this will affect how it behaves after the article, and how adjectives are applied, for example. Later on, it becomes very important when trying to figure out noun declension, but that's a whole other can of worms.
fear --> man (masculine) --> an fear --> the man
bean --> woman (feminine) --> an bhean --> the woman
One of the best pieces of advice I got for learning a language was: learn the gender with the noun, don't try to apply it later. When you learn the word for man, learn "the man" so you can instantly identify which gender it is.

It still seems awkward for me, so at this point, I'm just accepting it and learning the forms. But there are some ways to predict the gender of a word. The most general rule is that most nouns that end in a broad consonant are masculine, and most ending in a slender consonant are feminine. If they don't end in a consonant, there is no real rule.

A few more suggestions:
  1. Nouns designating males are masculine (bull, ram), nouns designating females are feminine (cow, ewe). -- note the odd exception here: cailín (girl), is a masculine noun. Come to think of it, isn't madchen, girl, neuter in German?
  2. Names for people are the gender of the person in question
  3. Most country names, and language names are feminine
  4. Nouns ending in aeir, -éir, -eoir, -óir, -úir, -ín are masculine
  5. Nouns ending in -eog, -óg, -lann
There are dozens of detailed rules and the best rule is Check a dictionary!

IrishGaelicTranslators take
Compendium Gramadach Gaeilge
Gramadach na Gaeilge (a fabulous site, if a bit linguistically technical!)
Wiki Irish Noun Declension

Voila! It all makes sense now, right?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why don't children learn the gender of the Irish nouns in primary school?