Why do romance and German languages have the masculine and feminine for non-living things


…or a gender for both sexes of God’s creatures? Is it a holdover from pagan days? Has anyone ever considered dropping the nonsense? No offense, but there’s no real need for genders where they don’t rationally apply.

Is that where St. Francis got the “Brother Sun and Sister Moon” thing from (though I’ve read somewhere that maybe he never wrote a couple poems attributed to him)?



This is what is known as purely grammatical gender, and as far as I know, there is no reason for this. Latin is the same. There is no way of knowing what gender a neuter noun is; you just have to memorize it!

I don’t think this is a holdover from pagan days, but I could be wrong.


C.S. Lewis discusses this question near the end of his book Perelandra, which I just finished reading. He suggests that there is a certain duality amidst all creatures, relative to their state in the eyes of God. Among living creatures, this reality is reflected through sex: the devil has tried to destroy this concept among humans, but it is so innate that even pagans gave a hint of it in their concepts.


I don’t think the reasons are religious – it’s just that those Latin-based languages developed differently than English did. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with it, and I rather like the subtlety that can be used; two years of (rather poor) French occasionally have me wishing that English differentiated between formal and familiar “you.” =)


Linguists are not really sure but many think that early Proto-Indo-European had two genders, animate and inanimate but the inanimate gender later split into neuter and feminine. This gave rise to the three-way classification of masculine, feminine, and neuter.

Many Indo-European languages kept these three genders, for example, most Slavic languages, Latin, Sanskrit, Greek, German etc. Other Indo-European languages reduced the number of genders to two, either by losing the neuter - like most Romance languages and the Celtic languages such as modern Irish - or by having the feminine and the masculine merge with one another into a common gender . This is happening with some Germanic languages today.

Linguists believe there are 3 main ways that nouns were assigned gender:

  1. according to logical or symbolic similarities in their meaning (semantic criterion) The most extreme example of this is found in some languages from Papua New Guinea where all males and things which are tall or long and slender, or narrow such as fish, crocodile, long snakes, arrows, spears and tall slender trees are masculine and all females and things which are short, squat or wide, such as turtles, houses, shields, and trees that are typically more round and squat than others are fememine.
  2. by grouping them with other nouns that have similar form (morphology). For example in German Mädchen “girl” and Fräulein “young woman” are neuter because diminutives with the endings chen and -lein are always neuter,
  3. or through convention which may possibly be rooted in the language’s history. Uusually, even for native speakers of the language there is no clue to their gender. All you can do is learn the noun and modifier at the same time such as la table or der Tisch.
    Usually, a combination of the three types of criteria is used, though one is more prevalent.

Grammatical gender is not restricted to Indo-European languages. It is also found in Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Northeast Caucasian, and some Australian aboriginal languages.

Corbett, Greville G. (1991) Gender, Cambridge University Press is excellent it you want to read more on this.

Hope this helps.


Actually, English is one of the very few languages that doesn’t.

And gender in Romance languages is not arbitrary, but actually makes sense most of the time. For instance, water and Moon are feminine, fire and Sun are masculine, etc. It’s not any pagan throwback, but the outcome of reading God’s handwork.



This is what is known as purely grammatical gender, and as far as I know, there is no reason for this. Latin is the same.

So is Greek.

For instance, water and Moon are feminine, fire and Sun are masculine, etc. It’s not any pagan throwback, but the outcome of reading God’s handwork.

On the other hand, in Japanese, the moon is masculine and the sun is feminine.


Thanks! Still, it makes it difficult to learn those languages. English has a lot of crazy stuff about it that others don’t have, but it has German influences, which uses genders. In Pan’s Labyrinth, I think the director says he heard that the Celtic music came from Spain, but I don’t know when.

I kind of get the long and slender and the round thing for masculine and feminine. I forgot there was the neuter, which I think should be for nonliving or asexual things as the other two should be for living things, each according to their sex. That’s how God really made things, the way I see it. Strip away the slang and adaptations of foreign words from the current languages, thus leaving the form of the languages with gender words for a dead version of each language for poetry (kind of like how Italian was separated from Latin to keep the Mass language pure from banal novelties and newer influences on the language, if anything had influenced it in the beginning).

On the other hand, of course, languages are like a physical record of a culture. Certain things are understood. When understood, they can modify it along their lines. Of course, ones that hate their culture or think it is inherently deficient can use language to confuse people or change their thinking about something by changing the meaning.

I’m not casting dispersions of those who constructed the N.O. (though it’s not impossible the cardinal most responsible was a Mason as we have liberation theologist priests who are oddly allowed to keep being active priests as SSPXers are rightly not in full communion), because I don’t know, but the vernacular Mass did seem to have a negative effect on our thinking (though it could be antics of wayward priests) and they’ve been trying to come up with accurate translations of this and that of the Latin text ever since for each language–an excessively unnecessary burden if we had listened to the Vatican 2 Fathers and made the Mass more like EWTN’s or the Canon Regulars of New Jerusalem, if they do a Latin version of the N.O… I have to wonder if the TLM were replaced by the N.O. to protect the TLM from some foreseeable corruption of its language.

Correct me if I’m wrong. If they were trying for a long time to adapt Hebrew and/or Aramaic to Greek and Greek to Latin, please say so. After all, there is an old version of Greek, I think.

That’s my opinion.


Every language has different ways of classifying nouns. Languages develop as people talk. Someone is standing there saying, “So, the moon was behind a cloud and I couldn’t see him.” The other person thinks, “Well, the moon is neuter where I come from, but go on.” A few centuries later the moon is masculine in that language. Or feminine. A few centuries after that it becomes masculine.
English developed strangely. The Danes took over part of England, and their grammar was different but their common words were similar – Germanic words. To a Dane, an English horse dealer would have sounded something like “Me are to selled yours they two’s horse and you’ve buys it those for ten of they coin like when this one?” After a few tries he would get the idea: Two horses for ten of those coins.
But they have to simplify their grammars and compromise on pronunciations to do business fast enough. Most noun genders had to go. So did the difference between the dative and the accusative case, and some constructions became auxiliary forms (“I will go” instead of “I (future form of verb ‘to go’” e.g.).
The payoff linguistically was that words took on shades of meaning because the north and east said “skill” and “raise” and “scattered” while the south and west said “craft” and “rear” and “shattered”. The words changed meanings slowly and separately. Now “raise a child” sounds a little softer and more country than “rear a child”, not everyone has much craft but everyone has some skills, and it may be hard to be scattered but at least it’s better than being shattered. We got a richer language.
Meanwhile Danes also attacked and settled part of France: The land of the Northern Men – Normandy. Normans picked up a lot of Old French. Normans always had a taste for assimilating. They liked French but the Scandinavian nouns didn’t always line up side-by-side with the Old French nouns on gender, so they gave up trying to learn the French genders and just talked as if most things were neutral.
The Normans invaded England in the 11th Century, while the Danes were just assimilating. Their hegemony dug in so deep for so long that there are close to no records of English in transition from the 11th Century to the 15th. Literate people knew Norman French (and they already knew Latin).
The Latin, Norman, Continental French, Gaelic, Brytthonic, Norse and Anglo-Saxon synonyms found their shades of meaning while English grammar sloughed away as the words chafed against each other.
By Chaucer’s time, English had a reputation as a rough and rude trade language, not a medium for poetry. But a few poets made up words and cobbled grammar self-consciously to turn their tongue into a much more expressive one. In the 16th Century new vocabulary was growing at a pace that makes it hard to imagine trying to have a conversation. In the 17th, the grammar was struggling to sort all the words. In the 18th, spelling, punctuation and pronunciations were set down formally and taught in classes, and in the 19th Century we finally had English as we recognize it.
French, Spanish and German were made formal around the same time.
If the rules had been written and enforced earlier, we might have ended up with more grammar. But we didn’t. Instead we got a lot more vocabulary.


Wow! That’s interesting!

BTW I was thinking that, once it seems that a civilization is developed, with a way to write what they have around them and how to give a term to new things and experiences to them with a written word, it seems changing meanings can change people’s thinking. How it’s changed depends on the aims of the changers, but it seems some can undo a civilization as the West seems in decline by its own hand. Maybe the culture changes first or maybe they are fused so one affects the other. It seems to happen when people ask, “What is the truth?”, though Rome fell about 300 or so years later. Then again, the people’s rebellions were starting in the 1700s, about the time, I believe, the first Masons began.


evil villain voice HAHAHA Foolish Mortal! (sorry, had to do that). As other posters have said, this is called grammatical gender. However, in French, at least, it’s co-mingled a bit with physical gender. Humans, for example, are “il” or “elle”, “he” or “she”, among other pronouns. Certain familiar animals, such as dogs and cats, are usually “le chien” and “le chat”, but could also be “la chienne” or “la chatte”, for females of the species. For turtles, however, it’s always “la tortue”, cuz if you’ve ever had a turtle, you’ll know it’s definitely not obvious its sex, even if you kinda know what you’re looking for. As a linguist, I try not to identify parts of other languages as nonsense, because then they just come back and ask how many ways “ough” can be pronounced :wink: (8!!).

I can’t comment on St. Francis’s poem, since I’ve never read it, or studied its authorship, but remember he was writing in Italian, and was writing poetry, an already illogical art-form :p.

lol, well pick up a textbook then! Seriously, I think most people will forgive you for making a few errors.

That’s how God really made things, the way I see it. Are you sure about that? Strip away the slang and adaptations of foreign words from the current languages, thus leaving the form of the languages with gender words for a dead version of each language for poetry (kind of like how Italian was separated from Latin to keep the Mass language pure from banal novelties and newer influences on the language, if anything had influenced it in the beginning).

Sorry, but this just doesn’t make sense. If you take away the slang and foreign adaptation from Modern Spanish, you don’t get a genderless language, you get…well, you get a language that has never existed, but it still uses “el” and “la”. Further, Italian was not “separated” from Latin. Such a process would be impossible, since the average Italian was speaking Latin, the Latin of the day, which we might call Old Italian. The inability to add novelties to the Mass would occur naturally then, as priests became less fluent in Latin (although someone who has attended [and remembers?] a pre-Novus Ordo Mass could vouch for this better than I).

Meaning change happens even before writing does. Usually it’s not for a nefarious purpose, however, please see George Orwell’s “1984”. Also check modern connotations to “discrimination”, “fetus”, and “tolerance”.


So, as you find it hard to learn those languages, you want to change them? How about you rise to them instead of suggesting to water them down and broaden your culture?

Besides, a language is a cultural perspective on creation. Your suggestion to look at things according to the English language, that only living things have gender, etc, is quite American. Yet, you mean that the rest of the world follows this cultural perspective instead of their own. Now, I’m no fan of “diversitism”, but you sound like a cultural imperialist.

That’s because English is a barbaric smorgasbord (pun intended) of a bunch of other languages and whose literature has developed only recently.

Of course, English being such a primitive language, makes it very easy to learn. English orthography may be hard, but its grammar is almost as easy as it can get. That’s why it’s the international language of our times.

BTW, Latin has genders for inanimate things too. Where else do you think that Romance languages got it from?



I think Peter Kreeft gives a good idea about this issue in this talk.



Don’t English and German have the same roots? I speak both and can see they are similar in many ways, just like the Dutch language.


English: Milk
German: Milch
Dutch: Melk

Spanish: Leche
Italian: Latte
French: Lait

The Latin languages are all similar and German, Dutch and English are all similar.

Other example:

E: Good morning
G: Guten Morgen
D: Goedemorgen

S: Buenos dias
I: Buongiorno
F: Bonjour

I don’t know why English just has “the” while all other languages have genders.


Indeed, English, German, Dutch, and Frisian all have a common root. In answer to your question, here’s my standard answer to all “why” linguistic questions:

Quirk of the language.

I could show you the path that was followed, but that’s a 3rd year university course :stuck_out_tongue:


Because of the grammatical breakdown as described in my post above. I recommend The Story of English and The Mother Tongue (English and How It Got That Way). These are just two of the most enjoyable books (not always totally right AFAIK but a great place to start discovering this subject) to cover the whole story of this language’s development from a Frisian-like dialect of Early Low German to the wide variety of forms English takes around the world today.
The Indo-European Language family splits into two parts around the time the PIE speakers wander out of the mountains of Eastern Europe 3500-3900 years ago: “Kentum” and “Satem”, from the different words for “hundred”, one of the earliest major differences of vocabulary.
The Kentum subfamily split quickly into “Hellenic”, “Celtic”, “Germanic” and a few others. Hellenic split later into “Italic” and “Greek”. Italic split into the so-called Romance languages: Latin, Romanian, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, French and more, all of which were dialects of Latin heavily influenced by the non-Indo-European-speaking Iberian and Alpine people and other peoples.
Germanic became “High German” (Norse and German) and “Low German” ( Dutch and many dialects thereof), which in turn split into (High German) Swedish, Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, and many forms of German, and (Low German) Dutch, Frisian and Flemish. Saxons, Angles and Jutes spoke dialects of Frisian. They invaded southeast Britain, pushing the southern Celts west and the northern Celts west and north. Britain at that time was already a cosmopolitan island, where Brytthonic, Gaelic, Latin and possibly traces of still other languages mixed. The Angles, Saxons and Jutes fought each other sometimes but normally joined to fight the Celts. Their language picked up Celtic and Latin words, but was mainly a mix (a remix actually) of the split-up dialects of Frisian they had used before invading Britain. They saw it as primarily the tongue of the Angles (Anglisc)and saw most of southeastern Britain as the land of the Angles (Angleland), but in a short time they would consider themselves Saxons. Essex and Wessex are the settlements of the East Saxons and the West Saxons. East Anglia is where the East Angles staked a claim so long ago.
Although most words in English aren’t A-S words, the most-used ones are, such as the, and, house, man, woman, child, cup, water, of, be, hand, live and get.
The second-most-used words are pimarily Norse (Scandinavian). The next tier are Norman, and the next Latin. We also have absorbed words from Turkish, all the Gaelic and Brytthonic Celtic languages, Spanish, Russian, Japanese and Incan, along with hundreds of other tongues. But English is at root a trade language with simplified grammar that grew from Low German.


BTW I did not intend the topic to be a door opener for thoughts about the N.O., but it just went there.

Nonliving things having genders, sorry, just doesn’t make sense. I’m not into language imperialism, but an, dare I say, evolution of those languages to cast out unnecessary words, just as we use “like” or “You know?” too much, though those are not formal extra words.

I also meant to write “What is Truth?” It’s good to wonder what is the truth about something, obviously.

I think I was right about the general time Rome fell. Was I/


I’m sorry, but that’s all it is. As a Brazilian, the gender of things makes a lot of sense to me. Who are you to tell me that I should evolve Portuguese so that it would conform to your likings?

Besides Portuguese, I also speak Spanish, Italian, French and English. I can also read Latin. I can appreciate each one’s insights and beauty, be it English’s versatility and terseness and Latin’s conciseness.

How many languages can you speak besides English?



How does it make sense? I don’t see the logic. The stuff was made by people! If I make a cheap childish sculpture with clay, it is not a he or she. Well, ok, it’s an “it” (as everything without sexual characteristics), but that’s not how German and Romance languages have it. If you call a boat a “she”, that’s not taking that seriously. Scrap the baggage! I don’t care, personally, as I like Japanese, except for its ridiculous use of the Chinese characters, most of which looking like nothing. That’s not ethnocentrist. I know English is wacky.
Of course, I could be guilty of gender discrimination :smiley:


Correct, culture is made by people. And according to a particular culture, it makes sense to regard things to have a feminine or a masculine character. Note, character, not gender. Just because you don’t see the logic it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, but rather that you fail or refuse to appreciate it.

One can’t learn a language without learning the culture that engendered it. I invite you to be more acceptable of other world views.


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