Why is my hamburger a lady?

An examination of the assignment of gender to inanimate objects.


Kani White

Social and Welcoming. Sra. Arcos and class Tiffany McAllister converse back and forth to help during an in-class activity. Throughout the class, students walked around and spoke with each other by asking questions and then filling out a chart they were assigned. “Today we were learning how to have full-on conversations in Spanish, rather than just asking “how are you” and being done with it.” sophomore Dan Nguyen said.

Sylvia Cohen, Staff reporter

Seven out of the top ten most spoken languages in the world employ gendered nouns. If you’ve ever taken a foreign language class here at LSHS, you’re already familiar with the concept as all three languages offered for study here at LSHS, French, German and Spanish, are “gendered” languages. This means that they group their nouns into specific categories and that the category of a noun determines what pronouns, articles and adjectives can be used with it. In French and Spanish, nouns are either masculine or feminine while in German they’re masculine, feminine or “neuter”, which essentially means genderless. For instance, the word for chair in Spanish, la silla, is considered feminine and therefore must  be paired with a feminine article (that’s what the “la” is) as well as the feminine version of adjectives.

But why is a chair feminine? The short answer is that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the noun classification. This idea is supported when you look at multiple languages and see that noun genders contradict all the time. For example: water is feminine in French, masculine in Spanish and neuter in German; obviously water itself doesn’t have an inherent gender. So the next logical question then is why do these languages gender nouns at all?  

Well, first let’s backpedal a little and broaden our definition of gender. When we are talking about language, gender can actually refer to any kind of distinction made between nouns; it does not necessarily have to relate to the idea of sexual gender at all. For instance, the Murrinh-Patha people of Australia speak a language which contains ten distinct genders which include categories for people, weapons and edible plants. So gendering language, in a broad sense, just has to do with the human instinct to categorize the world around us.

Though some languages have many gender categories, male-female distinction is still the most common system of classification and there are some theories as to when and why this particular gendering system came into use. Almost all the languages that belong to the Indo-European language class use the male-female gendering system. These are similar languages that are all proposed to have descended from a single ancestral language, a Proto-Indo-European language. Included in this group are languages like French, German and Spanish as well as over 400 others.

It’s been proposed by some linguists (Arent J. Wensinck and Jean Markale among others) that the ancestor-language that would someday evolve and then split into our many modern languages actually employed a different kind of gendering. They categorized their words as either animate or inanimate. This reflected the culture at the time which focused extensively on the natural world and the life present in everything. So in this ancient language you would treat the word for rock differently than the word for lion and this helped them to categorize their world. This kind of gendering is still in use in many different languages around the world, including Russian and Navajo. As time went on and monotheism became a large component of culture, the way the speakers of this ancient language saw the world changed, and they began to see maleness and femaleness as the main divide in their lives. When this proto-language split into its modern day descendants, what specific words were male or female got switched around a bit, as was demonstrated in the earlier example of water and its gender-fluidity. However, the central idea that the world could be divided into male and female spheres was carried over.

So how did English speakers evade the lure of categorization? Why is our table just a simple ungendered table? Plot twist: it didn’t used to be. English belongs to that same Indo-European language group, and Old English used to have a system of gendering very similar to French or Spanish, but it died out several hundred years ago. Likely, this was a result of the good ol’ Vikings. Professor Anne Curzan, author of several books chronicling the history of the English language, has proposed that when our namesakes came to Europe and began to live and interact with Old English speakers, many people became fluent in both Old Norse and Old English. Both languages had gender systems, but since they contradicted as much as they matched, Old English speakers began dropping the classification of nouns altogether and just calling a table a table.