Monday, May 30, 2016

Detail #286: Some Fun with Grammatical Gender

It turns out that gender systems sometimes bring along syntactical complications. This post is not well structured, it just provides some ideas to put into a power-blender and run together.

A few ideas and example phrases are taken straight away from a paper by Bobaljik, which is linked at the end.

The following situation is kind of interesting with regard to syntax and gender:
  1.  he's an actor, and she is too 
  2. *she is an actress, and he is too 
We have another class, where prince/princess form a good example:
  1. *he's a prince, and she is too
  2. *she's a princess, and he is too
A third class, where the nouns are clearly fairly adjective-like, morphologically, exist, where both ways go. English lacks this class, though. Spanish medico is an example, however, where both
  1. he's a medico, and she is too
  2. she's a medica, and he is too
are permissible, even if #2 might be slightly less favoured than #1. 

Now, what if a language had morphologically marked gender for all nouns, and each noun had a lexically determined default gender, a gender that (although explicitly marked) we could call the unmarked gender for that word. Now we could have situations where
  1. she's a danceress and he is too
  2. *he is a dancer and she is too
  1. he's a singer and she is too
  2. *she's a singeress and he is too
occur in the same language. Thus neither masculine nor feminine are systematically 'preferred'.

We can go on to imagine some further complications. An example Bobaljik mentions is Spanish medica/medico, which apparently go both ways. 

Now, what if we imagine nouns where the gender change also marked a meaning change - imagine that medica meant 'nurse', while medico meant 'doctor'. Let's further imagine they still can be coordinated, but of course mean different things even when coordinated.
he is medico and she is too
he's a doctor and she is a nurse
Alternatively, the coordination might not overrule the meaning:
he is medico and she is toohe's a doctor and she is a doctor (despite medica signifying nurse in this imaginary language)
Maybe we'd obtain a situation where medico ... (___a) is ambiguous - we are never told whether she's a doctor or a nurse; and of course, the other way around could apply for other nouns where the default gender is feminine.
Maybe, to obtain the "higher ranking" meaning for subjects of one gender with predicate nouns of the other gender, we need some kind of dummy pronoun situation:
hedummy pronoun and she is a medico
'she is a doctor'
Notice that the discongruence in the verb is intentional there.

Let's go further! Let's imagine the nouns always default to the "highest" meaning for the leftmost noun, and "decline" with each gap:
she is medica and he is too
she's a doctor and he is a nurse
What if it could decline even further:
he is medico and she is too
he's a doctor and she's a nurse

she is medica and he is too
she's a nurse and he's a nurse's assistant
Let's go one step worse, and have this happen even when the nouns have the same gender:
she1 is my mother, and she2 is too
she1 is my mother, and she2 is my sister ('is also my close relative' is the parsing the speakers would have)
This no longer has to do with gender, necessarily, but would be "nouns whose meaning changes over referents in a list", so e.g.
lexical item 1: mother, sister, cousin, female member of the same tribe
lexical item 2: high priest, assistant high priest, clergyman in general

Jonathan David Bobaljik, Cynthia Levart Zocca, May 2009,


  1. For the danceress example, you could use whore/gigolo:

    1. She's a whore and he is too
    2. *He's a gigolo and she is too