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Alternate Title: Genders, Classes, and Agreement, oh my!

We talk today all about gender.  Or noun class.  Or both.  Really, they are the same thing, at least we think so.  Anyway, after a vivid and lively discussion on what can be done with the wonderful world of arbitrarily classifying nouns we review Taruven

Top of Show Greeting: Knæknæk

Links and Resources:

— Zompist on gender (More in the book.)

— WALS pages

— Interesting gender systems

Featured Conlang: Taruven (newer link here — the grammar we used is very old)


We won something! (Link may die.  Let me know if it does.)

19 Responses to “Conlangery #34: Gender and Noun Classes”

  1. Anthony Docimo

    1. Congratulations on the victory.

    2. What was the opening conlang?

    3. Perhaps you might say “the lovely Bianca Richards nee Mangum”? that way you say it all. 🙂

    4. I hope Bianca’s better by now. sorry to hear you didn’t feel well.

    • Ossicone

      2. Knæknæk.

      3. Nah, we’ve been getting better at it lately.

      4. I am much better now. Thanks.

  2. CMunk

    Bianca, were you going to say “neuter is less common”? 😛

    In German, plural has its own conjugation, and is the same for all genders. Sure, it looks similar to feminine, but it is slightly different (they differ in their dative forms).

    Definite article (nom, acc, gen, dat):
    Feminine: die, die, der, der
    Plural: die, die, der, den

    • Ossicone

      TBH I blame my sickness for my general loopiness in this episode.

      Thanks for the correction. 😀

  3. Roman Rausch

    In German, the nominative plural article is “die” for all noun classes, and identical to the feminine singular article – I think this is what Bianca was referring to. The endings are different, though.

    An often-cited fact about German is that _Mädchen_ ‘girl’ is neuter – Mark Twain famously complained about it. No one cares to mention, however, that this is the case because the diminutive ending _-chen_ is always neuter, just like Greek _-ion_ in _paidion_ you mentioned. German *is* an awful languge, but not because of this.

    I noticed that despite idiosyncrasies of gender even among closely related languages in Indo-European, abstract nouns always seem to be feminine (e.g. Germanic: schön -> die Schönheit, Romance: beau -> la beauté, Slavic: krasivyj -> krasota); and they are also feminine in Semitic as far as I know (e.g. Middle Egyptian: nfr -> nfrt). Is there any explanation for that?

    • Phillip Davis

      I’ve been reading some stuff about IE gender systems essentially a) being a way to make sentences easier to parse by making the upcoming information more predictable in the sentence’s semantic context and b) being primarily a way to organize information internal to the noun. The latter was specifically talked about by Elisabeth Leiss in relation to Old High German, where words could frequently be realized in three different genders, each with different meanings that are transparently related in similar ways over various words. Supposedly systems like that all the way back to PIE.

      As for that phenomenon in Semitic, it seems far more that “masculine” categories are largely just unmarked, usually noun, stems. Feminines add a variety of meanings (singulative, plurative, optional emphasis, etc.) depending on the meaning of the masculine stem, but what all these functions have in common is not clear.

  4. Bryn LaFollette

    The formal term for identity between the forms of different grammatical morphemes, or depending upon ones conception of the structure of the lexicon, apparent polyvalence of a given grammatical morpheme is Syncretism. As one might surmise from the discussion above, there is a great deal of syncretism throughout the article system (and likewise throughout all the so-called “Der” words); One part of which is a near total identity between the plural and the feminine case forms. As an L2 learner of German, this is dizzyingly confounding, btw.

  5. Kraamlep

    My 1997 conlang project, Rahha, had a four-gender(/class) system: animate, inanimate, abstract and unpluralable abstract (the last one could be better named). The lang had some neat features but, frustrated with my stubbornly non-ergative mind, I gave up on Rahha after tinkering with it occasionally over the period of a few years, and I moved on to other projects (and back to Jameld).

    Coincidentally, last weekend I started a new conlang project, my first in 5 years, largely inspired by the podcast (yay!). Before listening to this week’s episode I decided this new island-based lang, codenamed J6, should have a five-gender/class system, distinguishing between living and non-living (hm, is that necessarily the same as animate/inanimate? How about plants and fungi?), the sea and creatures/objects associated with it versus non-sea-related stuff, and abstract concepts, i.e.:

    I. The sea and living things associated with it
    II. Non-living things associated with the sea
    III. Living things (non-sea)
    IV. Non-living things (non-sea)
    V. Abstract concepts

    … whatever the correct nomenclature for those classes should be. Any suggestions for names?

    • admin

      I say that, with the semantics involved, there’s nothing with just calling them “Class I”, “Class II”, etc. I might number them roughly according to animacy, but you don’t necessarily have to.

    • wm.annis

      Plants, if they don’t get their own class, tend to be inanimate. Unless they’re special plants, in which case they might get promoted to animate.

      As for the names, just using class numbers works out ok for the Bantuists.

    • Anthony

      >distinguishing between living and non-living (hm, is that necessarily the same as animate/inanimate?
      I don’t think so (but I may likely be wrong)…two big questions in my mind:
      a. which category does fire belong?
      b. if the bones of a whale wash ashore, which category do they go in?

      all the best of luck to you.

      • Ossicone

        I think those are two examples of the kind of borderline cases that can be put in either that languages will arbitrarily decide. Some will go one way some will go the other.

        But my own gut instinct (with zero scientific value) says b. is far more likely to be inanimate and a. is far more likely to be animate.

      • wm.annis

        Parts of animate beings are not themselves usually animate. Except, as always, if the culture considers some part especially interesting in some way, such as if, say, they decided the spleen was the center of rational thought.

      • Kraamlep

        Those are exactly the kind of borderline cases I imagined would be rather fun. 🙂

        James (currently finding inspiration in Breton)

  6. Bryn LaFollette

    There was a Native American language I recall a discussion of back in grad school in relation to animacy hierarchies which treated the term for ‘rib cage’ as animate (at least for purposes of agreement). The interesting thing was that this same term had also been extended to mean the roof of a long house (apparently by extension from an analogy of the rafters?). And so, long house roofs also agreed as animate! Unfortunately I don’t recall the name of the language at this point, but the language had been an example in a syntax research seminar on hierarchical alignment types.


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