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What gender do newly-invented things have in languages where things have genders?
February 23, 2011 9:38 PM   Subscribe

What gender do newly-invented things have in languages where things have genders?

The other day, I started to say, in French, that I'd got a new iPhone. I stopped because I don't know whether it's "un" or "une" iPhone.

And then I thought, wait, how does anyone know? Does the Académie Française decide? Does Apple? Does it just kind of happen? What if Apple says it's "un iPhone" but the great French public just kind of knows that it's "une iPhone"? What about other languages? Other words which don't obviously derive directly from existing roots like "phone"?
posted by AmbroseChapel to Writing & Language (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
This was just asked the other day!
posted by auto-correct at 9:44 PM on February 23, 2011 [5 favorites]


In Germanic languages, they're usually neuter.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:52 PM on February 23, 2011


In French, I would say the tendency is generally masculin (un starter, le timing, le parking, un happy end). But for example, a Passat is feminine in French (probably because it has the harder ending sound).

It's neat, because you would think that would cause more problems than it does.
posted by fantasticninety at 10:09 PM on February 23, 2011


> This was just asked the other day!

Oops! How embarrassing.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:03 PM on February 23, 2011


In Germanic languages, they're usually neuter.

Hold on, that's not true for some mainland Scandinavian languages.
posted by squid patrol at 11:45 PM on February 23, 2011


Well, in French it's actually more based on the gender of the parent (so to speak). For instance, it's "un" iPhone because "téléphone" is masculine. "Passat" is feminine because "voiture" is feminine.

I've found this holds true in the vast majority of cases. Ask yourself what the new thing is at its base, find its gender, and you've got a great shot at getting new thing's gender correct. Can be a bit confusing in cases of more unique stuff, but still holds true in general: for instance, tablet PCs. "Un ordinateur", masculine, but "une tablette", feminine. The iPad is masculine, but Archos tablets are feminine. Probably a bit of marketing differentiation going on there too, I'd bet.
posted by fraula at 12:42 AM on February 24, 2011 [3 favorites]


but Archos tablets are feminine
Amusingly, the Archos website is inconsistent. The Archos 7 is a "he" and the Archos 8 switches gender several times in the text. It seems that the object inherits its type's gender only when the speaker is thinking (or writing) about the object as a type (phone, tablet). But when the type becomes secondary in the speaker's mind, or other unspoken rules apply. Objects that belong to several types can switch gender too: cars are typically feminine (since "voiture" is feminine) but monospaces, 4WDs or SUVs may all be masculine: une Renault Espace and un Renault Espace are both common.
It can be complicated: the Caravelle plane was feminine, but the Constellation plane was masculine: in the first case the winning gender is name's gender, while in the second case the type's gender wins, even though Caravelle and Constellation are both feminine words.
posted by elgilito at 1:30 AM on February 24, 2011


In Spanish, many newer items have a different gender in different countries, and sometimes one gender will 'stick,' but not always.

Since I just woke up and Spanish is not my first language, I'll have to find some examples.
posted by bilabial at 4:29 AM on February 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


In my mother's tongue (which I have little formal education in but simply intuitive knowledge) the pattern seems to be related to the sound with which the word ends. "aa" sounds are male and "ee" sounds are female.

I have also noticed how the gender ports over into english words if they are thrown in and used informally in a patois. Laptops are male because there's simply no local word for it as are radios, transistors and cable television. I have yet to come across new technology that has been female. On the other hand, a translation of an existing local word simply uses its existing gender.

Maybe other native language speakers can add whether its more to do with how it sounds and feels rather than any formal rules per se. After all, language came first, its formalization into structure and grammar later.
posted by infini at 8:09 AM on February 24, 2011


In German they usually join existing words together to make a new word. In that case, the gender of the root noun becomes the gender of the new word. For example Unterseeboot is neuter because Boot is neuter.

In other words, unter + see + Das Boot = Das Unterseeboot.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 8:26 AM on February 24, 2011


The iPad is masculine, but Archos tablets are feminine. Probably a bit of marketing differentiation going on there too, I'd bet.

Pardon the possible derail, but how much influence does a company like Archos have in such a situation? I would assume they would have to make a choice so they could create press releases, documentation, etc. but could they be overridden? I know the French are somewhat picky about how their language evolves.
posted by tommasz at 10:46 AM on February 24, 2011


In Spanish, many newer items have a different gender in different countries, and sometimes one gender will 'stick,' but not always.

Since I just woke up and Spanish is not my first language, I'll have to find some examples.
posted by bilabial at 7:29 AM on February 24 [1 favorite -] Favorite added! [!] No other comments.


like el televisor but la television, or el ordinador but la computadora, or la foto but el retrato.
posted by toodleydoodley at 4:18 PM on February 24, 2011


In Germanic languages, they're usually neuter.
Hold on, that's not true for some mainland Scandinavian languages.


It's not even true for German!
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 4:52 PM on February 24, 2011


Yeah, what I was going to say (to expand on the Scandinavian angle) was that the neuter gender (ett) is longer considered 'productive' in Swedish when it comes to new vocabulary. Most of the time, neologisms get common-gender (en) instead.

One odd exception is foreign-loaned abbreviations, which are often take neuter. en identitet but ett id.

The question of why common-gender is productive and neuter not is a good one. One factor might be the imbalance between en and ett words: the former are, what, 80-90% of the total vocabulary, but the few which are neuter are very common (hus, barn, etc.). So it may be natural to inflect rarely-used or hitherto-unknown nouns in common gender, and the practice thus applies to new words as well.
posted by squid patrol at 3:44 AM on February 25, 2011


I strongly doubt that statement about Germanic languages is true at all.

Dutch has two genders: neuter and common, so male and female nouns get the same article, unlike German. Neuter nouns get the article "het" as in "het hout" [the wood] and both male and female ones get "de" as in "de man, de vrouw" [the man, the woman].

(All dimunitives are neuter, so it's "het meisje" [the girl], compare "das Mädchen" in German.)

We say "neologisms", and often they are, but from the perspective of a given non-English language, they are effectively English loanwords. In Dutch at least, there is no standard for this.

This article in Onze Taal notes that English nouns used in Dutch generally become male (therefore common), with a few structural exceptions, such as words ending in "-ment" and "-ism(e)", and the compound noun example noted above: we say "het copyright" because it's a compound on English "right" and Dutch already has "het recht" as neuter.

There are a few controversial cases such as "de/het modem" and "de/het (we)blog" that instill religious fervor in their respective proponents. For these specific ones, I feel anything other than "de modem" and "het weblog" sounds completely wrong, but lots of people disagree with me.

I have a private theory that speakers of Dutch, especially ones proficient in English, simply gravitate to using "de" unconsciously because it sounds very similiar to the English definite article, much more than "het" at least. But I know of no credible research to stand this up.

Bonus: list of conjugations of English verbs used in Dutch. Because past participles in Dutch have to end in a "d" or a "t", English loan verbs are amended to fit this regime. Except, nobody actually adheres to this rule. "To update" is a notorious example: because it ends in a "t" sound, people will often write "geüpdate" or "ge-update" [updated], but the proper spelling is "geüpdatet".

Because almost no-one seems to actually write this way, one might wonder whether the "official" spelling is only official in a prescriptive sense and hardly indicative of the way people actually write.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:59 AM on July 9, 2011


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