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I'm curious about the concept and origin of gendered nouns. In a modern romance language such as Spanish, nouns are masculine or feminine which I'll describe as anthropomorphic labels. From my schoolboy Latin, I recall the declensions but not gender (it was a very long time ago). From a little research I've learned Latin had the concept of gendered adjectives, but my question is were they even then referred to using the same anthropomorphic labels as today, ie. masculine/feminine, or were they simply type A or type B with the anthropomorphic connotations grafted on later.

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    No offense, but this is truly a new record in the discipline of "I had Latin in school, but have forgotten most of it" 😉 Sep 7, 2023 at 7:05
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    @SebastianKoppehel it was a veeeery long time ago
    – pinoyyid
    Sep 7, 2023 at 18:59
  • Dyirbal has a system of 4 noun classes that are analogous to gender. 1. most animate objects, men 2. women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals 3. edible fruit and vegetables 4. everything else. If you combine this with some of the other answers, it seems clear that gendered nouns are widespread. Sep 7, 2023 at 23:38
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    Is your question whether both Spanish and Latin have noun genders? Or is it about whether popular words like (say) "water" are of the same gender in Spanish and Latin? Sep 8, 2023 at 7:48
  • Does this comprehensive introduction to differences between Latin and Romance languages grammatical gender answer what you actually want to know?
    – Gyrfalcon
    Sep 11, 2023 at 17:06

2 Answers 2

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Yes, Latin had a distinction between masculine and feminine nouns (and also a third category, "neuter"). This didn't always correspond to biology—homo "human" is always masculine, even when referring to a woman, and persona "person" is always feminine, even when referring to a man—but most words for humans and animals match their gender to their referent's.

Of course, most nouns don't describe humans and animals, and there's nothing especially male or female about water, roads, the sky, etc. So we could just call them "category A" and "category B" (and "category C") if we wanted. But it helps to have more memorable labels, and one of the most consistent rules about this is that names for men tend to be masculine and names for women tend to be feminine. (Though even this has exceptions!) As a result, since ancient times there's been a convention to refer to these categories as "masculine" and "feminine" (and "neuter").

The origin seems to go all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. It's likely that, originally, there were only two categories, "animate" and "inanimate", and this is the system we find in e.g. Hittite. But at some point, a special marking was devised for female humans and animals, and this split the "animate" category into "default/masculine" and "feminine".

It's hard to say any more than this with certainty, because it happened so long ago and evidence is scarce. But it's true that most Indo-European languages treat the masculine as the default gender for humans, and the feminine as the unusual or marked one. (For example, a group of men and women together will usually take a masculine adjective.) It would make sense if this came from the feminine gender being split off at a later point, compared to the masculine and neuter.

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    To be even more explicit, Quintilian used expressions like masculinum nomen (masculine noun) and masculinum genus (masculine gender). Interestingly, though, masculinum does not appear to be attested in this sense before him. Sep 7, 2023 at 7:10
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    @SebastianKoppehel True! Though of course the terminology doesn't start with him; he's calquing the Greek names used by Dionysius Thrax.
    – Draconis
    Sep 7, 2023 at 13:56
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    @SebastianKoppehel that's actually the answer I was looking for. Many thanks
    – pinoyyid
    Sep 7, 2023 at 19:00
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    @dlrlc It's possible; what we see in Anatolian is an animate-inanimate split (though the labels aren't entirely accurate there either—grain is animate) where animate nouns have nominative and accusative cases and neuter nouns have ergative and absolutive instead. If this reflects an earlier state in IE, that would explain why neuter nouns' nominatives and accusatives always look the same. But even if this does indicate that the feminine was a later development (and it may not; some people argue that Anatolian merged m-f due to sound change) it's hard to pinpoint how exactly it arose.
    – Draconis
    Sep 7, 2023 at 21:57
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    @jogloran That's very different from grammatical gender, though. Even English has that: women are "beautiful" and men are "handsome", for example. Grammatical gender is merely a categorization of words, though, and there's no special relationship between it and sex. The German word for "young woman" is Mädchen, which is neuter, not feminine.
    – cmw
    Sep 8, 2023 at 13:21
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Most1 Afroasiatic Languages also have noun gender. This appears to indicate it was likely a common feature of Proto-Afroasiatic, and not borrowed later from contact with Indo-European. I'm not sure about the research on how the use of their grammatical gender may have changed over time, but it seems safe to speculate that the features that are common in all branches haven't changed that much since those branches diverged.

In Proto Indo-European, it seems like the grammatical gender may have originally have been more of an animated-vs.-inanimate designator(PDF). However, the "animate" nouns seem to have split into genders (leaving us with masculine, feminine, and neuter) before Romance/Latin developed its own identity. The best guess for the change seems to be sometime after Anatolian split off. That's sometime around 4kBCE, or about 3,000 years before Latin's Italic became its own family.

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1 - According to Frajzyngier et. al. The Afroasiatic Languages, all branches but not all languages of the Afroasiatic language family have gendered nouns.

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    While the original title was unclear, I believe (and OP seems to confirm in comments) that he's looking more about the terminology of gendered nouns in Latin and Romance languages.
    – cmw
    Sep 8, 2023 at 17:05

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