12

The word das Weib, meaning woman, is grammatically neuter. While the gender of nouns is generally unpredictable from their meaning, it is unusual that a word with such an explicitly feminine meaning (can't get more feminine in meaning than "woman"!) would be grammatically neuter.

Is there a simple explanation for this, based on the history / etymology of the word?

I am expecting something comparable to the explanation of why Fräulein is also neuter: because the (diminutive) suffix -lein always creates neuter words, regardless of the root's meaning. I expect the explanation for Weib would need to go back much further in history though (the Old English cognate, wif, was also neuter).

Feel free to migrate to Linguistics.SE if it fits better there.

  • 1
    Also in Dutch: het wijf. – Rudy Velthuis Mar 14 at 11:35
  • 3
    I guess, the root problem is your assumption, that substantives representing persons are a special case and handled separately. They are not. Not only are numerous counterexamples like das Mädchen, das Kind, and there are also colliding rules, that diminuitives become neuter as das Männchen. – guidot Mar 14 at 13:02
  • 2
    @EndreBoth What do you mean by "the real gender is feminine"? The word Weib has neuter gender, no matter if you qualify this as being real or unreal or whatever. Furthermore, it has feminine sex. – Björn Friedrich Mar 14 at 14:29
  • 4
    @EndreBoth You confuse gender and sex! – Björn Friedrich Mar 14 at 14:45
  • 6
    @Philipp, the question is very reasonable, because in German words denoting male humans or animals are usually male and words denoting females are usually female. Exceptions exist and are interesting and worth investigating, which is what the question does. – Carsten S Mar 14 at 15:28
8

Since the etymology of Weib is unknown (1,2), there is also no way to explain its gender.

  • 3
    Grammatical gender is not necessarily related to etymology. It is not uncommon that cognates in different Germanic languages have different genders. In this case, the Norwegian cognate "viv" is e.g. masculine, the Danish cognate "viv" is common gender and the Swedish cognate "viv" is neuter. – jarnbjo Mar 14 at 14:46
  • 5
    @jarnbjo, still, when I read the entry in DWB (Grimm), it seems like the word has been neuter as far as it can be traced back, and they think that this should be taken into account when considering possible origins. – Carsten S Mar 14 at 14:50
  • Your last comment makes sense, but I found your answer pretty vague. It is not necessarily required to know the etymology of a word to explain its gender. – jarnbjo Mar 15 at 14:25
3

Certain things have already been established in other answers, and we have not got very far, so let us see what we have got and where we go next.

Firstly, Weib is of unknown origin. Although it has been traced back quite a few centuries in a "womanly" sense, we cannot rule out the possibly that it meant something else before that. But we have nothing to go on to come up with a definitive explanation. The best we can do is to consider what might cause this situation, and see which looks most plausible or has any evidence to support it.

The second thing is that whilst it is true that grammatical gender and biological sex are not the same thing, it is also true that the vast majority of words for females are feminine and the vast majority of words for males are masculine. Weib is therefore an exception that it is worth looking for an explanation for.

There are several things that I can think of that could in theory explain such an anomaly.

  1. There could have been a semantic shift - that is, the word could originally have meant something else. We simply cannot tell as we do not know where the word came from. However, I can give an example of a word in another language. Boireannach /bɔrʲənəx/ is the Scots Gaelic for a woman but is masculine. The usual explanation for this is that it was the neuter form of an adjective meaning "female" and was used as a noun meaning "something female". There is a corresponding word fireannach /firʲənəx/ meaning "man". But then two things happened. Firstly we lost our neuter and almost all neuter nouns became masculine. This does not concern us here. The second is that society changed and a new, general-purpose word for a woman was needed, where before there had been maidens and wives, regarded as separate categories, and with no over-arching term. Thus, at its simplest, this anomaly was caused by a change in the meaning of a word.

  2. Changing view of what female means. We have a fairly biological definition of female, but in the past, would someone who was not married or ready for marriage, who had not had sex and who had not developed adult female characteristics be regarded as female? Before you were old enough for marriage you were a Mädchen, essentially asexual and thus neuter, and then, when you were only just reaching physical maturity (with younger marriage and older puberty than today), you would marry, become a Frau and thus be regarded as a functional female. It is noticeable that several of the examples quoted in other answers are for females or people of unspecified gender that have would not have reached sexual maturity: das Fräulein, das Kind, das Mädchen, das Baby (which is often "it" even in English). To add an example from another language, we have Greek τέκνον (teknon) which is a neuter word for a child. It is difficult to see how this could explain the gender of Weib but we cannot rule it out as we do not know the origin.

  3. Origin in a genderless language. One possibility, since we do not know the origin of the three-gender system in Proto-Indo-European, is that all neuter words in PIE come from one language, and all masculine and feminine words come from another.

These are the possibilites as I see them. If anyone can add any others, or provide any arguments as to which might be relevant to Weib, please do.

  • 1
    Der Junge/der Bub sind auch nicht geschlechtsreif. Das überzeugt mich nicht. Kinder und Babys sind nicht geschlechtslos - der Säugling ist auch wieder generisch männlich. Außerdem steht die Frage, selbst wenn sich die Urstprünge für "das Weib" in der Geschichte verlieren, im Raum, wieso sich das Geschlecht dann nicht angepasst hat, im Laufe der Zeit. Das Laptop ist auch zu dem Laptop geworden, inzwischen. – user unknown Mar 15 at 2:01
  • Interesting example from Scottish Gaelic. This kind of possible mechanism is the next best thing I was looking for if (as it seems to be the case) the origin of the word can't be traced back far enough to get a definitive answer. – Neugierig Mar 15 at 10:41
  • Yes @userunknown, this shows that the situation is complicated. It also seems to be the case that in our culture there is much more of a category change for females than for males. German, French and English all had a Frau/Fräulein distinction but no corresponding distinction. It is these Fräulein that are most prone to being considered neuter. It is almost as if the three genders corresponded to. Herr/Frau/Fräulein. No wonder they got rid of the Fräulein and mademoiselles. – David Robinson Mar 15 at 16:00
  • It's true that Mädchen and Fräulein are neuter, but so are Bübchen and Männlein. These words are newer than Weib, too. So they do not support your second point, that non-breeding females might be considered neuter (especially since one meaning of Weib is "wife"). On the other hand, the point about changing meanings, with the Gaelic example, is interesting and relevant. – KWeiss yesterday
  • About your 3rd point: The details of the PIE gender system's origin might not be fully understood, but we have some pretty good ideas about the general development. Most likely it goes back to an animacy based system to which a third gender was later added by reinterpreting collective nouns. See this Linguistics SE question for details. – Marc Schütz yesterday
2

'Das Weib' and its cognates is or has been neuter in most Germanic languages. The word dates at least back to Proto-Germanic in the period before common era, and was already then neuter. There are conflicting information about the origin of the word. Wiktionary relates the word possibly to Proto-Indo-European *gʰwíh₂bʰ-, which had a different meaning.

One likely explanation, is actually that the word, be it *gʰwíh₂bʰ- or not, originally was of neuter gender, but had a different meaning and therefore did not deviate from the usual correlation. While the meaning changed to 'a female person', the neuter gender was kept.

Several comments and answers seem to implicate that grammatical gender and biological sex are two completely different things. This is simply wrong. There is a strong correlation between grammatical gender and biological sex in all Indo-European languages with a distinction between masculine and feminine genders. The split into masculine and feminine genders is also assumed to be rooted in the distinction between biological sexes and goes back to some time in the Proto-Indo-European period. It is assumed that the Proto-Indo-European language originally only had a distinction between animate and inanimate objects and that the animate 'gender' split into masculine and feminine, while the inanimate gender turned into neuter. In the North Germanic languages and some Slavic languages, there is still remains of a gender-like distinction between animate and inanimate things.

There are exeptions, e.g. the already mentioned German words 'Fräulein' and 'Mädchen', which are neuter because all diminutive forms are neuter, but in general, most words solely referring to male persons are of the masculine grammatical gender and most words solely referring to female persons are of the feminine grammatical gender. With a few more exceptions, but still in general, this also applies to words referring to animals. It is a very legit question to ask why 'das Weib' does not follow the general rule.

Edit: Based on user unknown's comment, it seems that I have to clarfiy, as he didn't understand what I wrote. I do not claim, that all words of masculine gender refer to objects of male biological sex, that all words of feminine gender refer to objects of female biological sex and that all words of neuter gender refer to things. I am saying that if a word refers solely to a male living object, the word has most likely masculine grammatical gender: der Mann, der Ochse, der Hengst. If a word refers solely to a female living object, the word has most likely feminine gender: die Frau, die Kuh, die Stute.

To quote from Wikipedia on the topic Grammatical vs. natural gender:

The natural gender of a noun, pronoun or noun phrase is a gender to which it would be expected to belong based on relevant attributes of its referent. This usually means masculine or feminine, depending on the referent's sex (or gender in the sociological sense). For example, in Spanish, mujer ("woman") is feminine whereas hombre ("man") is masculine; these attributions occur solely due to the semantically inherent gender character of each noun.

The grammatical gender of a noun does not always coincide with its natural gender. An example of this is the German word Mädchen ("girl"); this is derived from Maid "maiden", umlauted to "Mäd-" with the diminutive suffix -chen, and this suffix always makes the noun grammatically neuter. Hence the grammatical gender of Mädchen is neuter, although its natural gender is feminine (because it refers to a female person).

Normally, such exceptions are a small minority.

  • 2
    Das Reh ist also die Frau vom Hirsch? Katzenfutter ist für weibliche Katzen? Das Schwein ist geschlechtslos, die Maus weiblich, der Habicht männlich, die Taube weiblich usw.? M.W. ist der Ursprung des grammatikalischen Geschlechts keine Unterscheidung weiblich/männlich und auch nicht belebt/unbelebt (die Sache, der Hammer, die Zange, ...). Historisch trat erst das Femininum als Endung auf, dann kam das sächliche, und das unspezifische wurde dann aus einer Art Symmetriedenken männlich genannt. Hence generisches Maskulinum. – user unknown Mar 15 at 1:54
  • @userunknown also bei den Rehen paaren sich der Bock mit der Ricke oder Geiß. Und der Hirsch ist gern bei seiner Kuh, bzw. Hindin. Darauf wolltest Du zwar nicht hinaus, aber in einem Sprachforum bin ich für korrekte Benennung :) – Arsak Mar 15 at 5:06
  • 1
    @userunknown Regarding Reh and Katzenfutter: I have slight problems following your logic. Nothing I wrote indicate what you are implicating here. I have tried to clarify, but I am honestly not even sure what you didn't understand, so please ask if my edit doesn't solve your issues. Regarding the history of grammatical gender: You can confirm what I wrote in any publication about Proto-Indo-European grammar and grammatical genders. You can start with the Wikipedia articles if you don't have any better material. I suppose that you have a source for your theory? Please tell. – jarnbjo Mar 15 at 8:27
  • 1
    Maybe it is getting downvoted because 80% of the answer has nothing to do with the neuter gender of Weib? – David Vogt Mar 15 at 17:17
  • 1
    user-unknown: "Reh" geschlechtzloser, obliquer Stamm, erst Reh-bock, oder Hirsch-Kuh (Reh-Kuh?) hat Gender. "Katzenfutter" wie absurd, "das Futter" ist offens. n. "das Schwein", ja kastriert; gibt viele Wörter für kastrierte Tiere, wenngleich "der Ochse" meiner Behauptung entgegensteht. "die Maus", im Gegensatz zu "der Ratte", die bedeutend größer ist. "der Habicht", "die Taube" bin kein Ornithologe, aber "der Taube" (Hörgeschädigte) funktioniert phonetisch, also muss es einen anderen Grund geben. Merke: Hebr. yona (f) evtl. Proto-Semitic *yawn-at- ~ wānay- (“dove”), vgl *ʾaḫwat- "sister" – vectory Mar 16 at 22:21
1

First of all you always should be aware of two facts:

  1. Grammatical gender is a property of a noun (i.e. of a word). It is not a property of the thing that is named with this noun.
  2. The biological sex of a person and the grammatical gender of a word that is used to name this person are different things.

An example for #1:

The English word "car" can be translated in may ways into German. The possible translations are not perfect synonyms, but when we are are talking about a rusty old limousine you can translate »the car« (which has no gender at all in English) in these three ways into German:

  • Das Auto

    This is a neuter noun and it is the standard translation for "car".

  • Der Wagen

    This is a masculine noun and it means literal "the carriage" but is often used for bigger cars like limousines.

  • Die Karre

    This is a feminine noun and it is used for shabby old cars.

So, while these nouns have three different grammatical genders, they still can be used as names for the very same car.


Other examples for #2:

  • Das Mädchen

    This is also a neuter noun, and it means girl. It is a diminutive, and in German all diminutives are neuter.

  • Das Fräulein

    Again a diminutive that was used for young ladies. It is outdated and considered not to be politically correct anymore.

  • Die Tunte

    This is a female noun used for some men (la-di-da gay man)

  • Das Kind

    Meaning: Child. It is a neuter noun, but is used for persons who may be male or female.

  • Das Baby

    Meaning: Baby, toddler. Same as before.

  • 2
    You should also be aware of the fact that there is a very strong correlation in all Indo-European languages between biological sex and grammatical gender for all words naming an animate subject of a specific sex. It is also commonly assumed that the split between the masculine and feminine grammatical genders, which goes back to Proto-Indo-European, origins in differences in biological sex. – jarnbjo Mar 14 at 17:42
  • 1
    @jarnbjo: While I mostly agree with your comment, it kind of reads as if you were claiming the masculine/feminine distinction to be basal to all Indo-European languages. If I'm not mistaken, the generally (though not universally) accepted consensus is that PIE originally had only a common/neuter (or animate/inanimate) distinction, with the three-way masculine/feminine/neuter system evolving only later, some time after the Anatolian languages like Hittite had branched off from the rest of the Indo-European family. – Ilmari Karonen Mar 14 at 18:42
  • 1
    @userunknown: Das Nomen »the car« hat kein Geschlecht, weil im Englischen kein einziges Nomen ein Geschlecht hat. Die Wörter, die im Englischen ein Geschlecht haben, sind ausschließlich die Pronomen. »He« hat ein Geschlecht, »she« auch, ebenso »it«, »him«, »her«, »its«, »his« und »hers«. Fertig. Mehr als diese acht Wörter mit einem grammatischen Geschlecht gibt es im Englischen nicht. Und im Englischen gibt es auch keine Geschlechter-Kongruenz zwischen einem Pronomen und dem Nomen auf das sich das Pronomen bezieht. – Hubert Schölnast Mar 15 at 8:55
  • 2
    As written in the original question, I am well aware that generally grammatical gender and meaning are independent. But as @jarnbjo says, this is not so for most words that explicitly imply sex (Mann/Frau, Stier/Kuh, Junge, Magd, etc.). You can't deny that Weib being neuter is very unusual, and worthy of investigation. None of the examples you brought indicate sex explicitly and lack an obvious explanation for their gender a the same time (the diminutive suffix is an obvious explanation that I already mentioned in the question). – Neugierig Mar 15 at 10:27
  • 2
    This answer does not at all address the question. – idmean Mar 15 at 16:41
1

From other answers, it is clear now that the true reason is lost in the mists of time. It is still interesting (and linguistically useful) to speculate about not completely implausible reasons, so we can get an idea of how this might happen at all. (David Robinson shows one not-so-obvious way how a similar gender-mismatch came about in Scottish Gaelic.)

I found a blog post by Anatoly Liberman, a linguist, on the very same topic:

Were ancient ‘wives’ women?

I will quote the relevant paragraph, while noting that the author himself makes it clear that this is mere speculation.

Among the Old Scandinavian goddesses, we find Sif. Her name, derived from Indo-European si-bh, is related to Engl. sib and Latin su-us “one’s own.” Sif must have been the patroness of family ties. The only recorded myth in which she plays a visible role, points to fertility, rather than affinity by marriage, but the concepts of family and fertility are close. I compared Sib and the personal pronoun we. The protoform of we was wis (with “long i, that is, wees, if spelled in today’s English); -s was an ending. I think that Old Germanic wibh, the protoform of wife, was wi-bh a formation parallel to sibh. If I am right, sibh meant “all the people related by marriage,” while wibh referred to a group tracing its origin to the same woman. It was a word like y’all. Wibh, as I see it, had to be neuter, because it was the name of a community whose members descended or believed that they had descended from the same woman. It included both males and females, and in Germanic, when a pronoun like they covered “mixed company,” the form was always neuter (John and Jack needed the masculine they, Betty and Mary would be covered by the feminine they, whereas Jack and Jill required the neuter they). As time went on, the word meaning “we, descendants of one woman” came to mean “woman.” Wife emerged as a term of social relations, but the old grammatical gender remained. The old Indo-European word for “woman” (preserved by Engl. quean) also survived, but it narrowed its sphere of application and came to denote “woman in her biological (child bearing) function.”

New contributor
Neugierig is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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