Can anyone tell me what purpose is served by classifying nouns as masculine, feminine or neuter? Why does German have three genders when the closely related English has no gender system apart from pronouns and most other languages in 'Western Europe (all modern Romance and Celtic languages) have two genders.

closed as off-topic by πάντα ῥεῖ, Alexander Kosubek, Björn Friedrich, Eller, Mawg Nov 21 at 13:16

  • This question does not appear to be about the German language within the scope defined in the help center.
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 15
    Russian does not have articles, and Russians still understand each other just fine. Why does English bother with them? – Carsten S Nov 20 at 21:45
  • 23
    Why would the English language be a reference? Or one could come up with the counter-question of “Why does English need a present or past continuous, when German manages easily without?” Apart from that, there are so many grammatical constructions that some languages have and others don’t, that asking “why” is probably best answered with “because that’s how it is”. – Stephie Nov 20 at 21:56
  • 4
    I'm German and lived in Norway for half a year. They have genders too, but assign different once to the same words. So I know now the pain of having to remember which word has which gender. Something I never thought off with my native language. – Martin Scharrer Nov 21 at 6:50
  • 1
    It would be better, but.. if I suck with the articles, I am always thinking on the ancient German Empire, the successor of the Roman Empire, and I feel the weight of the thousands of years of History and it is so beautiful! The irrationalities of the languages are kept by the social inertia, but it is also a tradition, a millenia old heritage. Btw, ancient German was much more complex, for example there was gender difference also in plural. – peterh Nov 21 at 7:02
  • 10
    This question could be valid on linguistics.se, but it is not, imho, on german.se. – Alexander Kosubek Nov 21 at 7:56

German inherited its three-gender system from Proto-Indoeuropean, but the reason that language had it is lost in the mists of time. Some languages kept this. Others reduced to two genders (e.g. French before the Normans invaded Britain in 1066). English still had three genders up to that point. Once the two languages started to merge they gave up the Germanic three-gender system and the French two-gender system pretty quickly. It is easy to see why. The English speakers would not know the Norman French genders or inflections and vice versa. So we ended up with a massively levelled system with one French infection (the -s plural) and one German (the -s genitive, from masc/neut sing, one noun class) and gave up all inflections on adjectives and articles.

So whilst the strict answer to why German should have the three-gender system is ultimately "why not?", the answer to the question of why German and English have different gender systems is that it was English that changed, not German, after we were invaded by the Normans in 1066.

As is true with all languages all through time, linguistic features are not extant in order to 'serve a purpose', but rather often as remnants of things that once served purposes, then became obsolete.

One good point to direct you in further research of the history of language development: https://linguistlist.org/issues/5/5-525.html

And one good read on a related topic (the history of linguistic genders): https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/27699089.pdf

  • 1
    +1 for providing information on the historical of linguistic genders. Imho, this is a good example for well-meaningly reading the question. Even if the question does not ask for this information directly, it is probable a good help for the questioner and an aswer providing it will be better than an answer not providing it. – jonathan.scholbach Nov 20 at 22:45
  • And does it apply (remnants of thing that once served a purpose) to the gender system? How did it became obsolete, then, and when? – user unknown Nov 26 at 1:19

There is no purpose.

This is the direct answer to your question. The slightly deeper problem of your question is the assumption that grammar would aim to achieve a purpose. That's just not the case. Natural languages are not designed, but evolved historically. It is possible to have a language with gender and to have a language without gender. German just so happens to be a language with gender.

Yet another question could ask for the consequences of that, i.e. for instance the social consequences, on behalf of style, on constraints this is imposing on other grammatical phenomenons. But this is a very broad question which is to broad for me to answer.

  • 1
    Dekorative Elemente ohne weitere, nützliche Funktion, kennt man auch im Design, um nicht zu sagen, gerade im Design. Das ist also kein gutes Argument. Und da die Evolution primär unnütze Merkmale aussortiert ist die Evolviertheit ein noch schlechteres Argument. – user unknown Nov 20 at 23:50
  • 4
    @userunknown Sorry, I have the feeling that you just jump on the mere words design and evolution. I used the term design to refer to a planned process which achieves a certain purpose, and not as a means of achieving "beauty" or industrial shaping or whatever - I assumed this meaning was clear due to the analogy of evolution vs. intelligent design. In my answer I just wanted to point out that the development of a natural language is not a planned process. I fail to see how your argument - esp. the part on decorative elements in design - engages with this. – jonathan.scholbach Nov 21 at 9:38
  • Intelligent Design oder Evolution - man kann schlecht behaupten, dass das Auge keinen Zweck erfüllt. Ähnlich halte ich es für ein voreiliges Urteil, dass das grammatische Geschlecht keinen Zweck erfüllt. Auch stimme ich sofort zu, dass die Sprache, wie wir sie heute sprechen, nicht von einem Einzelnen oder einem Team am Reißbrett entworfen wurde - gleichwohl können sehr viele kleine Schöpfungen und Veränderungen auf Absichten zurückgehen, also auf eine Serie von Designentscheidungen, die sich dann aber im Wettstreit mit anderen durchsetzen mussten. – user unknown Nov 22 at 4:21
  • @userunknown Looks like we are having a different understanding of what the word purpose (Zweck) means. In philosophy, and esp. in philosophy of science regarding evolution theory, the term purpose (ancient greek telos, latin finis) logically requires intent and historically it is considered to be the core achievement of Darwin that he replaced the concept of purpose by random mutations and selection. So your claim "One can hardly say, that the eye does not have a purpose" is pretty much the opposite of what evolution theorists would say. – jonathan.scholbach Nov 22 at 8:18
  • Gut, da lag ich wohl falsch. Das Auge erfüllt keinen Zweck sondern bloß eine Funktion, da gehe ich, wenn wir ein wenig streng sein wollen, mit, neige ich doch selbst gerne zur Strenge. Dennoch ist der Schluss gewagt, dass die Elemente der Sprache, die ja von Lebewesen geschaffen wird, die durchaus der Willensbildung fähig sind, ebenfalls absichtslos entstanden sind. Dafür gibt es doch keinen Beleg. Gewisse Regelmäßigkeiten deuten doch eher darauf hin, dass das kein chaotischer Prozess war und ist. – user unknown Nov 23 at 2:09

3 genders can be useful for formulating "German-style" sentences

While calling it the purpose of gender would be too much, one advantage of 3 grammatical genders is that in many cases, confusion with personal pronouns or relative clauses can be avoided.

Im Haus stand ein Tisch. Er war schwarz und es war blau.

While this is not the best example, it is clear that the house is blue and the table is black and not the other way round.

Ich traf einmal eine Maus in einem Wald, der sehr alt war.

vs

Ich traf einmal eine Maus in einem Wald, die sehr alt war.

Here, the second version is what I call "German style" in the sense that you could not achieve this word order in English.

In gendered languages, grammatical genders are useful to label the gender of things that naturally come on two genders, and a lot of languages have a third gender for things that don't have a gender. With time and language evolution genders may shift and other ways to express gender may appear (like the suffix "in" in German) and in the end grammatical gender can became arbitrary and not very useful - or as Megan Holloran's answer point, became a remnant of a things that once served a purpose.

To see how genders are useful, I'd suggest taking a look to romance languages, where they still serve a purpose, although there a lot of words without a natural gender but have an arbitrary one and may give a hard time to language learners.

  • 4
    Could you elaborate how genders "still serve a purpose" in Romance languages, please? As a native German speaker who also speaks French and Spanish, it is not evident to me how genders in those languages serve any more or less of a purpose than in German. – O. R. Mapper Nov 21 at 6:23
  • 1
    For example, in Catalan "gos" is a male dog and "gossa" is a female dog, "president" is a male president and "presidenta" is a female president. The only difference is the gender mark "a" (for feminine). Of course, for naturally ungendered things genders are arbitrary and don't serve any practical purpose (except to allow to tell tales about Sun marrying Moon before same sex marriage entered bedtime stories for kids). I don't think it's very different from German. – Pere Nov 21 at 19:08
  • "for naturally ungendered things genders are arbitrary and don't serve any practical purpose" - I think the question is exclusively about naturally ungendered things. After all, naturally gendered things are actually gendered already in English, and the OP does not seem to have any issue with that. "I don't think it's very different from German." - oh, I see then. Given that the OP seemed to fail wrapping their head around the concept of arbitrarily gendered nouns based on German, your answer sounded to me as if Romance languages allowed some illuminating insight into arbitrary gendering ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 21 at 21:32
  • 1
    @O.R.Mapper - The scope of the question is not very clear, and your interpretation is fairly reasonable, too. About German and Romance languages, I think that German (and English) rely on suffixes or different words to convey different biological genders, while Romance languages tend to rely on grammatical gender marks. For example, the German suffix "in" is unrelated to the gender mark in adjectives and articles, while in several Romance languages feminine ending "a" is common to several word categories. Not a big difference, but Romance languages seem a bit closer to "natural" genders. – Pere Nov 21 at 22:04
  • 1
    @O.R.Mapper - If that little bit of closeness can give some insight to speakers of a non-gendered language is up to those readers. – Pere Nov 21 at 22:05

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.