Nouns of uncertain gender

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby MartinJ » Tue Mar 07, 2017 12:49 pm

I've just discovered there are some nouns - eg bùth - that dictionaries quote variously as masculine, feminine or both.

Is this down to regional variation? Can anybody advise on best practice when you have to qualify a noun of uncertain gender?

Tapadh leat, MJ

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby akerbeltz » Tue Mar 07, 2017 1:17 pm

Regional variation and in many cases, historical confusion because Old Irish had three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter and when the neuter gender went adios, the nouns ended up being masculine or feminine and in some cases (like muir), a bit of both.

There is no hard and fast generally accepted rule. What I personally recommend to learners (it's also what we use in the Faclair Beag to settle this question) is that in these cases, we apply the broad » masculine, slender » feminine pattern because it's the only approach that is practical and does not play dialectal favouritism and isn't based in shaky impressions (i.e. there is NO reliable data to tell you if bùth is masc or fem in such and such an area, mostly if you ask people they'll give you their personal impression).

As a learner, you have enough on your plate without getting into endless dogfights about this one. On the bright side, most speakers are aware that gender can fluctuate so it's unlikely to cause issues unless you happen to run into someone who is determined that only they are right.

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby MartinJ » Thu Mar 09, 2017 10:12 am

Many thanks - very interesting.

Underneath all this is the fundamental question of why language-creators felt the need to ascribe gender to every object and how they decided what was what. As a Gaidhlig speaker are you strongly aware of the colour this adds to the world - and does it make sense?

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby GunChleoc » Thu Mar 09, 2017 11:35 am

Some African languages have 20 genders - it's just one of these things that grammar can do.

The only reason that we call this thing gender it that sometimes they will correspond do acual gender of the entities refered to, but it's not necessarily so. For example boireannach (woman) is male, German Mädchen (girl) is neutral, and Polish mężczyzna (man) is feminine in the singular.
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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby akerbeltz » Thu Mar 09, 2017 12:13 pm

As a Gaidhlig speaker are you strongly aware of the colour this adds to the world - and does it make sense?


Hm not really. Grammar is just a set of conventions about how we talk in a certain language. This can change over time of course but if everyone follows a different set of conventions, then the whole thing falls flat on its face. If you decide to put the subject last and the object first but I do it the other way round, you say "The cat defeated the dog" and I say "The dog defeated the cat" and we're at an impasse.

Grammatical gender is by and large based on endings that have long gone but that resulted in different ways of inflecting the word. So - just making these examples up - you had COW-a which behaved in one way, grammatically speaking and BULL-os which behaved in another way. For example, COW-a might have formed a plural as COW-as and BULL-os might have formed a plurals as BULL-osos. So it was easy, really, Noun Class 1 ended in -a and had a plural in -as and Noun Class 2 ended in -os and formed a plural in -osos. No gender involved as such. But then endings are often dropped over time so you end up with COW and BULL where it's just not possible to look at the noun and say "ah, this is category 1 or 2 because of the ending". You just have to learn which is which, at least if (for example) they still have a plural difference (e.g. COW » COW-s but BULL » BULL-os)

Grammatical gender in many - if not most - cases has no real basis in biological gender. Mostly they refer to different noun classes but the first linguists (technically they weren't even linguists but philologists) being a romantically inclined bunch, rather than calling them Noun Class 1, 2, 3... called them "masc/fem/neut" based on some prominent members of each category - like a cow being in one class (cf German "die Kuh") and a bull being in another (cf German "der Bulle"), that sort of thing. That is in spite of the fact that actually most nouns (anything that isn't animate) ALSO has grammatical gender that doesn't really link to biological gender - why is a chair "der" and a banana "die" in German?

Of course every language has grey areas but by and large, these are limited because languages have the strong tendency that when there are too many exceptions and special cases, it does away with ... something. "Colour" is not really a valid concept in (historical) linguistics 8-) Maybe one day Gaelic will lose its noun classes but while it still has them, there needs to be broad agreement on how they work and for now, gender is part of that.

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby MartinJ » Fri Mar 10, 2017 11:24 am

Grammatical gender is by and large based on endings that have long gone but that resulted in different ways of inflecting the word. So - just making these examples up - you had COW-a which behaved in one way, grammatically speaking and BULL-os which behaved in another way. For example, COW-a might have formed a plural as COW-as and BULL-os might have formed a plurals as BULL-osos. So it was easy, really, Noun Class 1 ended in -a and had a plural in -as and Noun Class 2 ended in -os and formed a plural in -osos. No gender involved as such. But then endings are often dropped over time so you end up with COW and BULL where it's just not possible to look at the noun and say "ah, this is category 1 or 2 because of the ending". You just have to learn which is which, at least if (for example) they still have a plural difference (e.g. COW » COW-s but BULL » BULL-os)


Now, that's really interesting and something I had never considered. When guys refer to a boat as "she" in Beurla they really do think of her in femine terms, shaking their sexist heads over her wayward tendencies.

So, however unlikely, I had assumed that Gàidheil were sex-mad like the French but just better at concealing it. When I was talking about "colour" I was suggesting that when discussing kitchens in Gàidhlig you might think of kettles as pink and pans as blue.

So, that's a great relief, in a way Though in another, perhaps I'm a little disappointed!

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby akerbeltz » Fri Mar 10, 2017 12:06 pm

The boat thing probably IS sexual in its imagery. Oddly enough, all Germanic roots for boats I can think of are neuter (das Boot, das Schiff).

Not sure I get the colour thing but I think you're trying to make a joke ;)

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby MartinJ » Fri Mar 10, 2017 12:31 pm

Traditionally, in Sassan at least, a boy baby will be dressed in blue and a girl in pink. Women will refer to "blue jobs" - clearing away dead birds, unblocking the loo, etc, namely as those tasks which require exclusively masculine skills - as opposed to "pink" jobs, which require female input, such as remembering birthdays and anniversaries.

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Unread postby akerbeltz » Fri Mar 10, 2017 1:05 pm

Duh of course, duilich, I am barely into my first coffee of the day

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby Níall Beag » Sun Mar 12, 2017 11:45 am

"Gender" originates in a Latin word meaning "category" (compare genre, generic, in general).

There are several ways languages view these categories, and one of those is "yin-and-yang" -- where two distinct things complement each other and form a single whole.

For example, night+day = a 24 hour cycle. Latha math (masc) + Oidhche mhath (fem)
Morning+afternoon/evening = daylight hours. Madainn mhath (fem) + feasgar math (masc)

It just so happens that humanity is a yin-yang of masculine and feminine, so men and woman have been categorised that way. When looking for a label for these categories, the most immediate referent our predecessors had was that of men and women, hence the names "masculine" and "feminine".

Gaelic also has a lot of categorisations that tend towards being mostly a single gender. For example, most items of clothing are feminine, but relatively recent introductions such as "còta" for coat (most people wore cloaks, not coats, until very recently) are masculine.

And of course there are categorisations by grammatical form too, such as "solas" and "dorchadas" which could have been a yin-yang going by meaning, but both end in -as, so are the same category.

I reckon it helps to start looking at gender as category, and ignore the implications of masculine and feminine.

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Unread postby akerbeltz » Sun Mar 12, 2017 12:07 pm

where two distinct things complement each other and form a single whole.

That's (linguistically) very thin ice because the pairings often end up being arbitrary to some degree and certainly not fixed. Matin(s) and vesper(s) were both grammatically masculine prior to borrowing. Boireannach and fireannach are both masculine. Aotromad and truimead are both masculine.

It just so happens that humanity is a yin-yang of masculine and feminine


There's a whole lot of biological grey in between those two :priob:

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby MartinJ » Sun Mar 12, 2017 4:06 pm

The more I think about this the more interesting it gets.

Somebody told me the other night that you've got to go as far east as India to find another language like English without (lost/abandoned/never there?) its gendered nouns. Does anyone know if this is true?

Reflecting on my disappointment that the noun gender in its present form appears to carry no information content (ie, dare I say this? - is a complete waste of time) I consider that there must have been something in somebody's mind when akerbeltz' lost word-endings were being assigned. We don't know what that was (ying/yang - how does that work in practice?) but it can hardly have been arbitrary. Even today when somebody (SMO?) is adding loan-words to Gàidhlig they must be following a scheme of sorts.Anybody know what this is?

Sorry if I'm being tedious, but you must surely know how these things niggle....

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Unread postby GunChleoc » Mon Mar 13, 2017 8:15 am

We have a page on the gender rules that might help you learn them: http://www.foramnagaidhlig.net/index.php?page=114
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Unread postby akerbeltz » Mon Mar 13, 2017 11:16 am

Somebody told me the other night that you've got to go as far east as India to find another language like English without (lost/abandoned/never there?) its gendered nouns. Does anyone know if this is true?

That's bollocks, pure and simple, many languages have no noun classes. Like most Polynesian languages. Closer to home, most Finno-Ugric languages (like Finnish) have none. Basque doesn't, unless you want to argue the animate-inanimate distinction it has in a few cases counts.

Unless they meant another Indo-European language. Which is a bit truer. Dutch is in the progress of shedding the last vestiges of its noun classes. Most others have at least vestiges of the old 3 way system. But (if your friend was thinking Bengali), Armenian is much closer than East Bengal.

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Nouns of uncertain gender

Unread postby Droigheann » Sat Jun 24, 2017 12:51 am

Does this gender ambiguity also apply to orc, or is this a special case, where:

- Colin Mark's "orc, an orc nf cramp" is feminine because it refers to a condition, the mass noun cramp in English, as in "bha an orc dhona agam o chionn nam mìosan" (eg when leg cramp has been waking me up at night for months), while

- AFB's masculine "orc /ɔrg/ fir. gin. oirc, iol. -an [...] 2 cramp" refers to a single spasmodic attack, the countable noun in English, as in "thàinig orc dona orm" (eg after sitting in the same position for too long)?


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