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English:

What is the origin of gender in Spanish words? (la mesa, el perro) I come from another language (English) that doesn't have gender for nouns, except maybe a few things like ships, planes, etc.

I'm not complaining, just curious.

Español:

¿Cuál es el origen del género en las palabras en español? (la mesa, el perro) Yo vengo de otro idioma (Inglés) que no tiene género para los sustantivos, excepto tal vez algunas cosas como barcos, aviones, etc.

No me quejo, sólo curiosidad.

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3  
I think it actually would be better question for English.SE. "Why is English the only European language which doesn't have concept of grammatical gender?". –  vartec Aug 7 at 12:12
    
Well, technically, it's not. In the Indo-European camp, Scots and some dialects of Danish don't have it. For the non-Indo-European European languages, Finnish, Hungarian, Basque, Turkish, among a few others, lack it. –  guifa Aug 7 at 20:14

3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Gender is a grammatical feature that was present in Proto-Indo-European, that is, the common ancestor of a diverse group of languages including both English and Spanish, as well as Greek and Hindi. The development of that is an interesting read.

Both Anglo-Saxon and Latin (the languages from which English and Spanish derive) had a three way gender distinction, masculine, feminine, and neuter. Along the way, English lost it, now only making a minimal distinction in animacy. You can see the process of gender loss by looking at Danish, another Germanic language, which depending on region has one, two, or three genders.

Most languages derived from Latin lost use of the neuter gender except under highly specific situations. It seems to me (don't quote me) that most neuter words switched to masculine in the development of Spanish. Romanian has a neuter, but it means that nouns function as masculine in singular, and feminine in plural. Asturian likewise has neuter, but primarily uses neuter for uncountable/mass nouns, though it does have its own ending.

Grammatical gender is really just a special type of noun-classing, which is common in many other languages (if you think two or three genders are hard, try Zulu with fifteen genders/classes!). Looking at Bantu languages (of which Zulu is a member), one might be able to hazard guesses as to the origins of gender in PIE in terms of semantic categorization.

If you're more curious about how a given new word in Spanish acquires its gender, that's a pretty complicated topic. Most imported words are masculine, unless the language the word came from has M/F gender and then it tends to preserve that gender, but not always. Sometimes, a word will be imported and obtain two different genders based on region (el/la Internet, el/la computador(a)), so there's no single rule. Sometimes a word I might make up just sounds like it should be one gender or another, but that's pretty subjective.

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Spanish is a Romance language derived from Latin (through Vulgar Latin) which had the gender distinction for all nouns. And thus the gender distinction rule persists in Spanish. I believe it helps in rearranging the order of sentences and constructing complex sentences without confusion.

Old English also had genders for inanimate objects but it has disappeared over time in modern English.

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I don't know what percentage of languages use gender for nouns, but the language I know second-best (after English and before Spanish) uses gender, too (German).

I find using gender makes things more complicated, but also more clear/precise. zB, when you say "the teacher" in English, it doesn't tell you whether the teacher is male or female (without adding "lady," "female," "male," or "man" or some such additional word).

In German, it's clear: "Der Lehrer" is a man; "Die Lehrerin" is a woman. Spanish similarly ("El Maestro/La Maestra" and "El Profesor/La Profesora").

So: more difficult? Yes. Superfluous? No.

UPDATE

And speaking of difficulty, I have heard many people over the years say that Spanish is an easy language to learn. Maybe I'm mis-remembering -- or maybe it's that my brain just isn't as agile as it used to be -- but it seems to me that learning Spanish is considerably more difficult than learning German (which I did half my life ago, when I was in my mid-late 20s).

Maybe part of it is because English is a Germanic language?

I hope this doesn't sound politically incorrect, but I wonder if people say Spanish is "easy" in the same way that they say learning to play the guitar is easy: while it's true that it is relatively easy to learn a few chords and play some basic rhythm guitar, to really know how to play the guitar well is extremely difficult. And I'm under the same impression (delusion) about learning Spanish well - it's pretty easy to learn a few conversational Spanish phrases, but once you get beyond the "holas" and "adioses" is where "there be dragons."

Maybe it's considered easy because many Spanish speakers (perhaps not those from Spain, but the Latin Americans) don't seem to be ones to read very much or widely (and/or may tend to be under-educated) and hence their vocabulary isn't that great.

IOW: learning a little guitar and a little Spanish isn't that tough; but to really know them is another matter altogether.

I also find Spanish -- although consistent in its orthography and pronunciation, as German is (and English is not) -- very hard to pronounce correctly - it's as if I have to adjust the way my mouth "sets up" to speak Spanish, whereas German (except for the rolling R) came pretty naturally to me.

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Since you're talking about German, I'd like to mention that there's another feature. Because German has grammatical cases, you can swap subject and object and the sentence is still the same. Try it in English and you fail: "The man bites the dog - Den Mann beißt der Hund" –  Em1 Aug 7 at 19:48
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did you mean "there be dragons"? –  Walter Mitty Aug 8 at 11:07
    
@WalterMitty: yes, thanks; fixed. –  B. Clay Shannon Aug 8 at 15:07
1  
The numerous and ambiguous (almost overlapping) vowel sounds of English make its listening and speaking really hard to me, that never heard actual English until adulthood. German (and French), at least, always pronounce the same sound for the same syllable (e.g. "eu" is always like Spanish "oi"). In English you need to know (memorize) the spelling and the writing of every word. Someone told me that that's because its multilanguage origins, and that knowing German, Gaelic, Danish, Swedish, French and whatnot makes it easier to figure out the pronunciation of English words. Wow. –  Lucas Sep 30 at 11:47
    
Yes; English is crazy; I feel for those who have to learn it rather than absorb it from infancy. Maybe that's why relatively few native English speakers learn a second language - they're afraid it's going to be as nightmarish and nonsensical as their mother tongue. –  B. Clay Shannon Sep 30 at 15:06

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