Gender as classification

Part I: Mussies (1971) on Greek gender
Part II: Gender as classification
Part III: Reconciling two approaches
Part IV: Toward a cognitive view of Greek gender

Languages with gender systems like Greek are not like gender in English. The Greek gender system is not a sex-based gender system the way English is. This reality can be difficult to grasp for English speakers. It is a natural tendency to interpret another language’s grammatical system in terms of our own, where gender refers to biological/social categories. As Corbett (1991:7) notes, people whose language lacks a semantic gender system seem to behave as if speakers of such languages, “simply have to remember the gender of each noun.” For example, Bloomfield (1933: 280) disappointing draws the concludes, “There seems to be no practical criterion by which the gender of a noun in German, French, or Latin could be determined.” This sort of perspective still exists. As recently as 2011, we find linguists describing grammatical gender as “junk” (Trudgill 2011:165), where grammatical gender might have historically served a purpose, following Lass (1990). But over a third of the world’s language have some kind of classificatory gender system and gender systems are incredibly stable over time (Dahl 2004:198-200).

Everyone can agree that grammatical gender is hard. It is complicated. It is, in fact and in a scientific sense, a complex system. Now I am under no illusion that I can solve grammatical gender in Greek here. What matters for our purposes is that gender in Ancient Greek constitutes an under studied topic.

Yet we know more broadly from languages with gender systems that native speakers rarely make mistakes in their use of grammatical gender, which suggests there is more going on here. Corbett (1991:7-8) describes two additional pieces of evidence that illustrate the grammatical gender systems are about category structures in a language. When languages with gender systems adapt borrowed words into the language, those borrowed words will receive a specific gender. Similarly with invented words, native speakers assign grammatical gender to them. Both these types of gender assignment are performed with remarkable consistency.

These category structures can involve formal linguistic categories, where aspects of word-structure or phonological structure influence gender assignment (words with similar derivational morphology, inflectional patterns, or shared syllable patterns) guide the assignment of a gender. They can also be semantic categories, where the mental lexicon of the language has an internal conceptual structure. Some languages take one of these approaches. Other languages take the other. Many languages integrate some combination of formal categorization and semantic categorization.

These facts should give us pause whenever we see mention or discussion of how grammatical gender does or does not impact an interpretation or exegetical decision. They also function as the larger context within which we need to evaluation Mussies’ proposal for gender assignment for substantive adjectives and participles.

Mussies’ (1971:123-124) account frames the assignment of gender for these substantives in terms of an asymmetrical relationship between women (feminine) → persons (masculine) → persons & non-persons (neuter). If Mussies is correct and the general linguistic views of grammatical gender as category systems are also correct, then we need to reconcile these two together.

We need to move past simply looking at how persons are referred to with gender in these substantives, to see the larger system and its patterns. Outside the narrow constraints that Mussies places on his description, Greek grammatical gender evinces additional patterns. We need to be able to reconcile what Mussies observes, examples like what we see in (1), where a neuter adjective refers to a person (ἄνθρωπος, ου, ὁ) with data like we what see in example (2).

  1. χωρὶς δὲ πάσης ἀντιλογίας τὸ ἔλαττον ὑπὸ τοῦ κρείττονος εὐλογεῖται
    It is beyond dispute that the inferior (=Abraham) is blessed by the superior (=Melchizedek) (Heb 7:7).
  2. καὶ ἀπʼ ἀγορᾶς ἐὰν μὴ βαπτίσωνται οὐκ ἐσθίουσιν καὶ ἄλλα πολλά ἐστιν ἃ παρέλαβον κρατεῖν βαπτισμοὺς ποτηρίων καὶ ξεστῶν καὶ χαλκίων καὶ κλινῶν
    and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions (=ἔθος, ους, τό, ‘custom/habit’) that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles (Mark 7:4).

Example (1) is representative of Mussies’ asymmetrical account of gender in adjectives & participles. Example (2) lays out something more expected in the context of semantic gender systems: a word that does not have an innately assigned gender class (ἄλλα πολλά, ‘many others’) has a context-derivable conceptual referent. And that referent has a gender class that follows Greek’s semantic gender system.

So there is another pattern in the data for Greek gender in adjectives and participles. In the next part of this series, we will examine how it works.

Works cited

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. George Allen & Unwin Ltd.

Corbett, Greville G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dahl, Östen. 2004. The growth and maintenance of linguistic complexity. Studies in language companion series. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Lass, Roger. 1990. How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics 26: 79-102.

Mussies, Gerhard. 1971. The morphology of Koine Greek as used in the Apocalypse of St. John: A study in bilingualism. Novum Testamentum supplements 27. Amsterdam: Brill Academic.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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