There was a great question on Simon Mayo’s ‘Homework Sucks’ feature on his Radio 2 Drivetime show last night. The caller was wondering how the gender of items in, for example, French, German, Spanish etc, was decided. And what about new words – is there a committee somewhere deciding that an mp3 player should be male and a laptop female?
There were a number of theories – that it depended on the ending of the word, that all ‘borrowed’ or ‘stolen’ words are masculine, even that the pagan gods had a hand in it!
The expert opinion came from renowned linguist David Crystal who confirmed that it is all of the above (although I’m not sure he mentioned pagan gods…). He explained that, although at the beginning of language the words often had a natural distinction – for example, animate and inanimate – language has moved on and in many directions. There is no committee and, although there are often patterns, there are also lots of exceptions. So, no easy answer; the gender frequently varies across language and there is often no relationship between the grammatical and natural gender of a word. For example, you might naturally expect the word for ‘girl’ to be feminine, but ‘Mädchen’, in German, is actually neutral gender because of the -chen.
So there you go, just another twist in the marvel of language.