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I wonder if there had been a set of rules to ascribe a grammatical gender to the nouns in earlier forms of German language; for instance, according to their ending syllable.

I'd like to know by which historical or linguistic process, grammatical genders were ascribed to nouns and how such gender-assignments were accepted by all the German-speaking people (before the modern times).

Furthermore, I wonder if there were some attempts to remove (or reduce the complexity of) the grammatical gender from German to simplify the language – like what happened to the English language.

  • 2
    You should only ask one question at a time, because the best answer to your first question might differ from the best for the second question, might differ from an answer which answers both questions somehow acceptable. People will vote for different reasons for different answers. It's always a mess. I vote to close, until the issue is solved. – user unknown Jan 16 '16 at 22:16
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In addition to the article cited by Veredomon, I suggest watching the video by the same author (Belles Lettres).

Gist: Grammatical gender is less about actual, prescriptive 'rules' as such, but more about usage and slowly developing consensus.

(Note: The video is 84 minutes (!) long and includes pretty in-depth background information on linguistics, language history etc. - a lot of the things he says won't make sense if you haven't at least a nodding acquaintance with this stuff. Also, his choice of examples is sometimes a bit off, but he makes several excellent points.)

This guy does offer a (for me) somewhat surprising view on the topic:

He shows that the grammatical "genus" has only a more or less coincidental connection to "gender", because "Mann" and "Frau" were thought to be somehow "representative" of their grammatical category (genus). What had happened in early history was that people started to use additional endings to express certain aspects.

  • The first addition was a group of endings to say that "this is an inanimate object" - this became the "neuter" genus.

  • The second addition was a group of endings to say "this is a group of things/people" - this became the "feminine" genus.

  • The nouns that didn't take a new ending stayed in the "old" default form - later called the "masculine" genus.

So, no real gender, just grammatical categories that got rather muddled over time.

The bit of the video that was really stunning was how he showed the way this allows pretty accurate predictions of what genus new words will likely develop over time. (around the 00:34 mark). This will blow your mind. :)

PS: This is a slight modification of an earlier answer to a similar question.

  • Were there any attempts to eliminate the grammatical gender from the German language or reduce it? – AlQuemist Dec 18 '15 at 17:55
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    @PhilosophiæNaturalis That’s a question that you may ask separately if your curiosity isn’t satisfied by earlier answers to e.g. Q2370 or Q25093. You should then also remove it from this question. – Crissov Dec 18 '15 at 20:32
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    Even though Belles Lettres is often quoted on German.SX be warned that not all scholars will agree with the theories described there. – Crissov Dec 18 '15 at 20:41
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    @Crissov: Good point. The problem is that it is not clear where his ideas come from; if they come from someone else, the sources are missing, if he developed them on his own, his methods/reasoning is missing. – Veredomon Dec 18 '15 at 22:42
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Belles Lettres wrote a text about grammatical gender - ie. noun classes, albeit in German:

http://www.belleslettres.eu/artikel/genus-gendersprech.php

There is definitely no moment where gender sprang into life and people accepted it, and it is far older than the German languages, dating back to Indoeuropean roots.

In the end, there is a simple definition of gender (Gender by Greville Corbett): a language has gender as a grammatical category, when there are different agreements between nouns and other words, that is, a certain noun forces other words to be changed.

Now about the origins, why does something like that happen? My entirely personal theory is, at least concerning Indoeuropean languages, that vowel harmony was the reason why speakers started to change words in respect of nouns, especially when it came to creating new nouns. Just imagine creating words by following a specific paradigm:

Das Telefon > Die Telefonie (instead of der Telefonie, das Telefonie)

Doesn't it just sound nicer to have die here instead of das or der? If this happens at some point, a gender system has been created and probably will continue to creep into the language.

  • How was the gender ascription standardized in German before the modern times? For example, a German-speaker in the northern Germany might not agree about the gender of “Schmetterling” [butterfly] with a southern speaker. So, we would see large discrepancies in ascribed genders in the German language. Furthermore, I wonder why there has been no attempt to remove the gender from the German language altogether or to simplify it (as in the Dutch language) while some Indo-European languages, like Persian, lost the grammatical gender altogether. – AlQuemist Dec 18 '15 at 13:31
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    The cited article is good, but this video (belleslettres.eu/artikel/der-oder-das-blog_genus.php) is even better. Longish, but with a pretty convincing explanation. It also shows that this is less about actual 'rules' as such, but more about usage and slowly developing consensus. – Mac Dec 18 '15 at 13:35
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    Ich habe gar nicht gewusst, dass der so eine chauvinistische Giftschleuder ist. Spricht da einfach so einem ganzen Fach die Wissenschaflichkeit ab: «keine sprach­wissen­schaft­lichen und psycholo­gischen Studien, sondern Sprachtests, die fach­unkundig von femi­nisti­schen Psycho­login­nen durchgeführt wurden». Mir sträuben sich die Haare. – mach Jul 22 '18 at 6:48
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While reading this Ask MetaFilter thread, I encountered the following comment that suggested this book (which I have not read myself; so its readers should inform me of the quality) but which I thought to present here as it may assist:

The Third Gender
Studies in the Origin and History of Germanic Grammatical Gender

by Frederick W Schwink, 1. Edition, 2004

From what I recall of reading part of this book, Germanic languages aren't consistent (as noted above, they don't have the same number of genders anyway), but there are patterns. (Something about words going from neuter to feminine as you go east, but don't quote me on that.) posted by hoyland at 1:57 PM on December 4, 2012

John McWhorter PhD Linguistics (Stanford) expounds this, in The Power of Babel (2003).

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