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#42578 - 09/21/01 05:35 PM Gender and Articles
Jazzoctopus Offline
old hand

Registered: 07/03/00
Posts: 1094
Loc: Cincinnati & Loveland, Ohio, U...
I think one of the most annoying parts of learning a foreign language is figuring out the gender of all the words and thus the articles that go with them. How did genders come about for nouns? French and Spanish have a rather understandable two, masculine and feminine, but then German throws in a third, neuter. I'm not too familiar with French and Spanish, but German also changes the article depending on the tense of the word: "der" for main noun, "den" for direct object, "dem for indirect object. And that's just the masculine definite article. Throw in the other genders and the indefinite articles and German has about 15 different articles.

English, on the other hand, though so closely related to German, has just three simple articles, "the", "a" and "an". Why the vast difference between so similar languages? And why, when English phonetics are so confusing, are the indefinite articles based on whether the word starts with a vowel or a consonant?

#42579 - 09/21/01 06:59 PM
Max Quordlepleen Offline
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Registered: 08/12/00
Posts: 3409

#42580 - 09/22/01 01:18 AM Re: Gender and Articles
Capital Kiwi Offline
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Registered: 11/13/00
Posts: 3146
Loc: Northamptonshire, England
JazzO, your question was obviously serious, but, as MaxQ has pointed out, somewhat facetiously, it requires many words or none.

Here's a good place to start:

I remember a Playboy article from the 1970s sometime dealt specifically with the origins of "a/an", but that was a long time ago.

And before you all leap down my throat about Playboy, let me tell you that in the early days, the articles were written by every good author then writing and the pictures were, um, not very good. Now it seems to be the other way around.

And if any of you has a complete collection of early Playboys I'd really love to hear from you. I'm looking for a short story, I can't remember by whom, called Superboy's School Days or something like that. It was absolutely hilarious. I photocopied it but have since lost it. It was a marvellous spoof, written in Southern dialect.

The idiot also known as Capfka ...

#42581 - 09/22/01 08:09 AM Re: Gender and Articles
Keiva Offline
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Registered: 08/04/01
Posts: 2605
Roughly when was the article, Capt'n? If you recall enough about it to be able to search out the date, I may be able to find it for you.

#42582 - 09/22/01 08:27 AM Re: Gender and Articles
inselpeter Offline

Registered: 03/14/01
Posts: 2379
Loc: New York City

I'm sure you're correct about the quality of writing in Mr. Hefner's mag but, assuming we are roughly contemporaries, you were about 14 years old during that golden era: I have to commend you, you were a far more avid reader than was I.


To the extent you may have been for real: a hut, an 'ommage; an ef-15; an spoken language.

German has three definite articles and three (?--omygod, and I used to speak it!) cases and this allows for all sorts of fun word orders.

#42583 - 09/22/01 01:11 PM Re: Gender and Articles
belMarduk Offline
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Registered: 09/28/00
Posts: 2891
I agree with you Jazz. It can be confusing when learning an other language. Here, because 90% of the population is French, we often have English people trying to learn the language.

The genders of things is one of the major problems they have since there is no obvious reason why a thing is a she or a he. Why *would a table be a she and a desk a he?

What makes it worse is that all your verb tenses have to be conjugated accordingly (adding 'e' when feminine) - like if we don't have enough verb tenses to contend with.


I agree with you there Cap. The fiction and sci-fi used to be really top-notch. I know a lot of sci-fi greats got their big break by writing for Playboy.

Now don't all get in a tizzy about me knowing this. Keep in mind that French people tend to have a different view of about sexuality in general. My mom used to give my dad a subscription to Playboy as birthday gift ever year - until the quality of the articles dropped off and he decided not to get it anymore.

#42584 - 09/22/01 04:52 PM Re: Gender and Articles
Bobyoungbalt Offline

Registered: 11/22/00
Posts: 1289
The situation is more complicated and nonsensical than you think, Jazz.

For openers, English did at one time have three genders, like German, to which it was similar, but that was Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, which was spoken in England up to the Norman Conquest.

To give you an idea of what it was like: OE had 3 genders (masc., fem. & neuter), 5 cases (nominative, genetive, dative, accusative and instrumental) and 2 numbers, sing. & plural. Nouns had two full declensions (employing all the above) some of which had more than one form, and some partial ones which are mostly exceptions to the regular declensions. All this means that there were hundreds of possible forms a noun (or adjective) could take in being declined, many of which were, of course, the same. The definite article ("the" in modern English) and indefinite article (a, an in ME) were also declined. Verbs were a whole other story, even more complicated.

This is the same story with all ancient European languages in the Indo-European family.. Latin and Greek have the same 3 genders; and gender, except when applied to people or animals, has nothing to do with sex. Obviously, a word for "bull" in any language is masculine and "cow" is feminine. Beyond that, however, grammatical gender is something not well understood. C.S. Lewis, a philologist of note, alluded to this and had no explanations.

As the Western European languages developed, they took on different paths. Most of the Romance Languages, derived from Latin, dropped the neuter gender and wound up with everything being either masculine or feminine. German retained the neuter. German has a peculiarity -- any word with either of the diminutive suffixes "chen" or "lein" is automatically neuter gender. Hence a "Mädchen" (little girl) or Bübchen (little boy) or a Fräulein (young woman, literally little wife) is neuter gender and is, correctly, referred to as "it" if a pronoun is needed for the noun.

What's more, there isn't agreement on gender between the Romance Languages and others. In Italian, French, Spanish, etc. "moon" is feminine and "sun" is masculine; in German it's the other way around. Similarly, Life and Death are feminine in Romance Languages, masculine and neuter, respectively, in German. I don't know about the Slavic languages, but imagine there are the same discrepancies.

Your question is a very good one, one which I have myself often ruminated on and I would also be glad to see some explanations for the mysteries of grammatical gender.

#42585 - 09/22/01 11:09 PM
Max Quordlepleen Offline
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Registered: 08/12/00
Posts: 3409

#42586 - 09/23/01 12:21 AM Re: Gender and Articles
Bobyoungbalt Offline

Registered: 11/22/00
Posts: 1289
Some further notes, this time about articles, which you also asked about.

Ancient Greek, both Classical and Koine, had the definite article ("the" in English), but no indefinite article (a, an). It was declined through the 3 genders and 4 cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative), singular and plural. In the nominative case, the definite article is Ho (m.) He (f. - spelled with eta, long 'e'), To (n., spelled with omicron, short 'o') in the singular; Hoi, Hai, Ta is the plural. Since there is no indefinite article, it has to be supplied from the context when translating into English.

Latin has no articles, definite or indefinite, so "the" and "a/an" have to supplied when translating. In the rare cases where it is necessary to verbally point out someone or something, "ille" = that, that one, is used where we would use "THE" (with an emphasis). And there are words for "a certain (person, thing)" and such expressions, which were used where we use the indefinite article.

It is another mystery why the Romance languages should have followed Greek and adopted definite articles, along with indefinite articles, when Latin, their mother language had neither. German, of course, did the same, although the German definite article (Der, Die, Das) is unlike the Romance articles (el, il, le, la, l'..., les, los, las, etc.) Russian (and, I presume the other Slavic languages) followed Latin in that it has no articles either. Romanian (a Romance language surrounded by Slavic tongues) has a peculiarity with the definite article. It places it as a suffix on its noun. In the Romanian translation of the famous Socialist motto "Proletarii munduli, Unitivi!" (Proletarians of the world, unite!), the article "ul" is attached to mundo (world) and declined in the genitive singular masculine.

So don't feel bad about the "annoyance" of having to learn those various forms in Spanish. You'd be having it 10 times as bad if you studied German, Old English, Latin and Ancient Greek, as I can attest from personal experience.

#42587 - 09/23/01 12:31 AM Re: Gender and Articles
Jazzoctopus Offline
old hand

Registered: 07/03/00
Posts: 1094
Loc: Cincinnati & Loveland, Ohio, U...
So don't feel bad about the "annoyance" of having to learn those various forms in Spanish

I don't. I studied German.

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