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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 es por curiosidad.

  • 8
    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 '14 at 12:12
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    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. – user0721090601 Aug 7 '14 at 20:14
33

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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    Latin words even have three genders (masculinum, femininum and neutrum). Spanish words have only two. – Zenadix Jun 18 '15 at 21:19
  • And one of the sister languages of Latin, namely Sanskrit also has three genders. – Curious Sep 26 '16 at 10:25
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John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford) expounds this, in The Power of Babel (2003).

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Though the most prominent genders in Spanish are femenine (la casa, la mujer) and masculine (el arbol, el hombre), it has also kept the neuter gender (preceeded by the neuter article 'lo', less evident. It occurs mainly with adjectives:

• Lo mejor de la fiesta fue la música. [The best of the party was the music.]

• No pensemos en lo imposible. [Let's not think of the impossible.]

Clauses are another case when a neuter gender may occur:

• Haremos lo que tú quieras. [We'll do what(ever) you want.]

New contributor
uruk is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
  • Welcome to the site, uruk. I must say that I disagree with your answer. I think I can use almost any (or maybe actually any) adjective with "lo." For example "lo bello," "lo más útil," etc. – aparente001 6 hours ago
  • The question is, literally, "What is the origin of gender in Spanish words?". This contribution doesn't address that. Maybe, when you say "it has also kept the neuter gender" you should elaborate more about _kept from where?". – Diego 1 hour ago

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