Why Romance languages aren’t “gender-neutral”

Somebody forwarded me a derposaurus item about the “sexism” of the French language. The argument, such as it was, primarily proves Orwell’s Law, but an interesting linguistic curiosum occurred to me. Why does French have no neuter gender, and neither do Spanish and Italian — while their common ancestor Latin clearly does?

English, of course, has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. The gender of English nouns is also extremely regular: pretty much every inanimate object or concept is neuter. (In literary and poetic usage, countries or (star)ships can be female.) Compare German, which also has three genders. (Neuter gender is actually called sachlich, lit. thing-like, objective, business-like in German.) Who would have guessed that a carpet is male (der Teppich), a page is female (die Seite) — as is physics (die Physik) — while a boat is neuter (das Boot). [There are actually some, fairly complex, rules that allow you to guesstimate correctly about 4 out of 5 times. More here.]

In Hebrew (or Arabic), for instance, there is no neuter gender, so anything is male or female. As a rule, in Hebrew, unspecified gender defaults to male. So a dog is a kelev, plural klavim — except if you want to specifically point out it’s a she-dog, then kalba (which also can mean “bitch” as a pejorative), plural kalbot. A donkey is a khamor, except if you specifically mean a she-ass, atonAvot (the plural of av) literally means “fathers” but also can generally mean “ancestors” of both genders.

Back to French now, and Romance languages in general. Classical Latin obviously had three genders. In nouns of the second declension, they are quickly identified by the endings -us for male (dominus, domus), -a for female (domina, ancilla), -um for neuter (museum, ferrum). But of all the major Romance languages, only Rumanian seems to have a neuter gender at all — and even that is a strange beast that behaves like male in the singular and female in the plural. What gives?

The thing is: Latin existed in different “high”/formal/literary and “low”/informal register variants, and the differences were so pronounced that they amounted to two dialects of the same language. (Linguists call this situation diglossia. It is also seen with classical vs. demotic Greek, Sanskrit vs. Prakrit, and — in the modern era — literary Arabic vs. its regional dialects.) The classic Latin works we learned in high school were all written in easier or more difficult forms of classical Latin: the language spoken (and to some extent written) by the common people (Latin: vulgus) was called vulgar Latin. All Romance languages descend from vulgar Latin, rather than classical literary Latin.

Typically, the informal language variants have a simplified grammar compared to the literary form. For example, this is the case with spoken informal German (Mundart, lit. “the way of the mouth”) vs. the written language, and with “street Hebrew” vs. the formal language (e.g., the use of “[noun] sheli” for the possessive instead of inflecting the noun). Vulgar Latin was no exception to this rule: among other things, the neuter gender was absorbed into the masculine.


Et voilà. As vulgar Latin fragmented into dialects, which ultimately evolved into Old French etc., those descendants retained the binary gender.

In contrast, while classical Greek existed in a similar state of diglossia, both classical Attic Greek and demotic Greek had three genders —  and hence modern Greek (which descends from Demotic) retains the neuter gender.retains it as well, even if many other grammatical features of literary Greek were discarded.



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