Grammatical gender can be confusing for a native speaker of a language that doesn’t have it. In French, the word for gender is “genre”. The most helpful thing you can do to get over this hurdle is to stop thinking about word genders, but “word genres”. Some words are in a different genre, and they get different articles/prepositions/inflections.
Why? It’s irrelevant, and has little to do with biological gender. Languages aren’t bastions of logical construction. Sometimes you have to accept it and study, and save your it-doesn’t-make-sense complaint for later. Most people who learn languages with grammatical gender learn words in conjunction with their gendered article (such as “the” or “a”).
What is “gender” in language?
About a quarter of the world’s languages uses gender. In technical terms, gender in languages is just one way of breaking up nouns into classes or categories. A noun is a part of language that names a person, place, thing, idea, action or quality.
For example, nouns can refer to an individual name of a person, like Mike or Amrita. Also, it can refer to a place or thing. In some languages, nouns, such as Qantas, can be male or female. Masculine or feminine.
It’s important to distinguish between grammatical gender and natural gender. Natural gender is simply the biological sex of a person, animal or character. Grammatical gender is a way of classifying nouns. But this doesn’t always match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described.
In some languages, grammatical gender is more than just “male” or “female.” Some languages have a “neuter” class. Other languages others have different genders for animate versus inanimate objects. See how this works in other languages.
English makes life a little easier for us when it comes to gender and grammar.
In general, there’s no distinction between masculine and feminine in English language. But sometimes we show gender in different words when referring to people or animals.
How does gender work in foreign languages?
In English we do not assign a gender to words. But how does gender work in foreign languages? For Italians, boys (il bambino) are masculine. Girls (la bambina), on the other hand, are feminine.
Germans, for example, assign three different genders to the three basic eating utensils: fork (die Gabel) is feminine. A knife (das Messer) is neutral. And, finally, a spoon (der Löffel) is masculine. Strangely, German doesn’t assign a gender to a young lady (das Mädchen).
Of course, German is not the only language that considers lifeless objects “male” or “female.” It also is not the only language that assigns living beings a grammatical gender unrelated to their sex. In Irish, for example, a girl (cailín) is masculine, while a stallion (stail) is feminine. The list goes on.
Why is a ship called “she”?
Interestingly, in Modern English, there are some word groups which are considered ‘feminine’, at least in a poetic or quaint sense. These include ships, countries and churches, for example.
Therefore, in English, ships are sometimes referred to as “she”. For example, “I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.”
A naval historian provides an explanation why this might be the case. Other languages have “male”, “female” and sometimes “neuter” words. But, English generally uses a neutral words such as “the” or “it”. So, making ships female and calling them “she” is an example of old English-speaking practice. Why? Because it gives a gender to an inanimate object. It’s worth noting that Lloyd’s Register of Shipping now calls ships “it”.
There are some other examples of gender in English language, too:
- I love my car. She (the car) is my greatest passion.
- France is popular with her (France’s) neighbours at the moment.
- I travelled from England to New York on the Queen Elizabeth; she (the Queen Elizabeth) is a great ship.
So, if you’re a non-native speaker of English and want to impress someone with your linguistic knowledge, make a reference to a ship or country using the word ‘she’. “The Titanic sank in 1912, didn’t she?” But, you have to be careful. It might make you seem a tiny bit pretentious. It is also not very gender inclusive.