This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode that looks at the reasons why English does not have genders when using nouns.
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Hello, I’m Stephen and this is English with Stephen, my podcast all about learning English. In these podcasts, I have 3 main topics. Sometimes I talk about strategies for learning English. Other times I tell stories about the origin and meanings of words. Today, I am going to talk about one of the reasons why English is the way it is.
It is easy to complain about how difficult, complicated, or illogical a language is. All languages are difficult, complicated, and illogical when you don’t learn them as a kid. But there is one aspect of English that is really quite simple compared to many other languages around the world.
We don’t have gendered nouns.
Many languages, like Portuguese, have masculine and feminine nouns. For example, the word “fork” in Portuguese is “garfo”. This is a masculine word so it ends in the “o” sound. In contrast, “knife” is “faca” which is feminine and so ends in the “a” sound. It’s a bit more complicated than this, but you get the idea. Any articles or adjectives that you use with these nouns also have masculine and feminine forms and must agree with the noun.
Why is “garfo” masculine and “faca” feminine? I have no idea. There is nothing about a fork that makes it feel masculine to me, just as there is nothing about a knife that is obviously feminine. They just are that way in Portuguese.
But it gets worse. The German language has three genders, with neuter joining masculine and feminine.
Other languages classify nouns not by their gender, but whether they are animate or inanimate. And some languages have multiple classes of nouns, with Tuyuca, a language spoken in the Brazilian Amazon, having up to 140 different noun classifications.
Anyway, English doesn’t have any of this. Why not? Find out after this.
Today, I would like to tell you about one of the most innovative and fascinating podcasts I have heard for English students. The podcast is called Stolaroids and is hosted by Fabio. Now, the word “stolaroid” is, I think, a blending of two words, “story” and “polaroid”. This is because the concept of the podcast is that Fabio tells a story inspired by his photographs. These stories are expertly written to help English students and he encourages his listeners to send in their photos and stories.
As regular listeners will know, I believe that stories are a powerful way to learn anything. And by making stories personal to use, they become an amazing way to learn a language. Fabio has been an English teacher in New Zealand, Ireland and Italy for the last 8 years and he uses this experience, as well as his passion for photography, to produce a podcast that you will just love. You can find his podcast by looking for Stolaroid on your favourite podcast app, or I will post a link t his site, stolaroid.com on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com.
Before we talk about why English doesn’t have any gendered nouns, we need to define our terms. There is a difference between “gender” and “sex”. “Sex” is the biological difference that naturally occurs at birth. “Gender” on the other hand, are differences that society gives to people or things.
For our subject, words cannot really have a sex. Words are not born with differences. Instead, a language community decides that this group of words is different to that group of words and so gives one group a gender of masculine and another a gender of feminine.
The issue of gender and sex is a hot topic around the world, but hopefully, in this area of linguistics, it is not too controversial.
So, why doesn’t English have genders?
Well, it does. A little bit.
We have three gendered pronouns with “he”, “she”, and “it”. We also have a few nouns that are generally considered to be male or female. For example, we normally talk about boats as if they were female.
And this gives us a clue into the origins of English. You see, if you go back to Old English, the English that existed from about the 5th century until the 11th century, you will see that English did have gendered nouns.
This kind of makes sense. English is, after all, a Germanic language and we have already seen that German has three genders. So the question is not “Why does English not have gendered nouns?” The question is “Why did English lose its gendered nouns?”
There are two theories. The first one is related to pronunciation patterns. The second, more exciting one, is related to the Vikings. Yes, that’s right, our old friends the Vikings are making a comeback.
First, the pronunciation theory.
English usually places the stress at the start of a noun. If it is a long noun, the stress is usually in the first couple of syllables. There are exceptions, but this is the general tendency. This means that the sounds at the end of the nouns become less important and unstressed. Over time, these sounds might even disappear completely.
The way English showed gender was to add a sound to the end of a word, like the “o” or “a” that we mentioned earlier when talking about Portuguese. If it is true that the sounds at the end of words in English become less important, then there is a good chance that the masculine and feminine endings could have disappeared because they would not be noticeable and so would no longer be important.
And now we welcome the Vikings back. Well, not really welcome them. Did anyone welcome the Vikings? Anyway, you know what I mean.
As I have mentioned before many times in this podcast, the Vikings had a huge influence on English. They started by raiding, which is quickly attacking and then leaving, towns and cities. But after a while, they decided to stay and settle in England. They mainly lived in the north and east of the country, but they traded with, married and influenced most of modern-day England.
The language of the Vikings was also from the Germanic family and modern scholars think that the basic roots of most of the Viking words were similar to the basic roots of the Anglo-Saxon words. The main differences were in the endings of words.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s imagine that there are two languages; Language A and Language B. The people who speak Language A decide to go and live in the same area as the people who speak Language B. The two languages are similar, but not exactly the same. The word for “dog” in Language A is “gadda” while the word for “dog” in Language B is “gaddy”. After a while of trying to communicate with each other, the speakers just decide it is easier to drop the final “a” or “y” and agree that the word for “dog” is just “gadd”.
So, by dropping the gendered endings of words, communication between two different language groups became much easier. They could now effectively and efficiently buy and sell from each other, declare undying love, and persuade kings and queens to do what they want.
Personally, I have a feeling that it was a mix of the pronunciation effect and the desire for efficient communication that led to English dropping gendered nouns.
Now, before we finish for today, I need to address one important point. I have had conversations with some students who believe that English is a much less sexist language than others because there is no gender involved.
Firstly, we do still have some gendered endings. For example, some people still differentiate between a waiter and a waitress. This seems to be disappearing, but it still exists.
Secondly, the way English is used is still sexist. From the words used to describe promiscuous men and women, to the way people say “female doctor” (you rarely hear of a “male doctor”), to the assumption that man equals all people.
However, I would say that this is more about the people using the language rather than the language itself. English, and I think all languages, are able to adapt depending on what the community of speakers wishes to express. If we nurture and create a less sexist society, the language will reflect this.
That’s all from me for today. I’d love to hear about the language you speak. How many genders do you have? Do they make sense to you? Do they create problems for people trying to learn your language?
You can leave me your thoughts and suggestions on my site, EnglishwithStephen.com. That’s S T E P H E N, EnglishwithStephen.com. On my site, you can also find links to my social media where I would love to connect with you and answer questions you might have.
And don’t forget to go and check out the amazing podcast called Stolaroid for an innovative and effective way of learning English.
Thanks for listening. I hope to speak to you next week.