NZTC International Word of the Week: house


NZTC International Word of the Week: house

This may sound like a strange question, and many monolingual speakers of English find it mystifying that a word like “house” can be said to be masculine, feminine or even neuter. It’s even more puzzling that the gender of an object can vary according to language. In German the word for house is neuter (das Haus), whereas in French it is feminine (la maison), and in Russian it’s masculine (дом).

“Milk” is similarly multi-gendered: feminine in Spanish (la leche), masculine in French (le lait), feminine in German (die Milch) and neuter in Russian (молоко). The lack of any apparent rationale behind the grammatical attachment of gender to objects is highlighted by the oft-cited fact that in German “girl” is neutral in gender (das Mädchen).

Grammatical gender is a feature of about one quarter of the world’s languages. Just some examples of the many languages that don’t label inanimate objects in this way are Chinese, Basque and Vietnamese. On the other hand, several indigenous Australian languages do.

The origins of the system of ascribing often arbitrary gender to nouns are still a mystery and most explanations are based on speculation and educated guesses.