The grammatical gender of a noun affects the form of other words related to it. For example, in Spanish
, determiners, adjectives, and pronouns change their form depending on the noun to which they refer. Spanish nouns have two genders: masculine and feminine, represented here by the nouns gato
In languages with grammatical gender, each noun is assigned to one of the classes called genders, which form a closed set. Most such languages usually have from two to four different genders, but some are attested with up to 20.
The division into genders usually correlates to some degree, at least for a certain set of nouns (such as those denoting humans), with some property or properties of the things that particular nouns denote. Such properties include animacy or inanimacy, "humanness" or non-humanness, and biological sex.
Few or no nouns can occur in more than one class. Depending on the language and the word, this assignment might bear some relationship with the meaning of the noun (e.g. "woman" is usually feminine), or may be arbitrary.
Gender is considered an inherent quality of nouns, and it affects the forms of other related words, a process called “agreement”. Nouns may be considered the “triggers” of the process, whereas other words will be the “target” of these changes.
These related words can be, depending on the language: determiners, pronouns, numerals, quantifiers, possessives, adjectives, past and passive participles, articles, verbs, adverbs, complementizers, and adpositions. Gender class may be marked on the noun itself, but will also always be marked on other constituents in a noun phrase or sentence. If the noun is explicitly marked, both trigger and target may feature similar alternations.
Common systems of gender division include:
- masculine–feminine: Here nouns that denote specifically male persons (or animals) are normally of masculine gender; those that denote specifically female persons (or animals) are normally of feminine gender; and nouns that denote something that does not have any sex, or do not specify the sex of their referent, have come to belong to one or other of the genders, in a way that may appear arbitrary. Examples of languages with such a system include most of the modern Romance languages, the Baltic languages, the Celtic languages, Hindustani, and the Afroasiatic languages.
- masculine–feminine–neuter: This is similar to the masculine–feminine system, except that there is a third available gender, so nouns with sexless or unspecified-sex referents may be either masculine, feminine, or neuter. There are also certain exceptional nouns whose gender does not follow the denoted sex, such as the German Mädchen, meaning "girl", which is neuter. This is because it is actually a diminutive of "Magd" and all diminutive forms with the suffix -chen are neuter. Examples of languages with such a system include later forms of Proto-Indo-European (see below), Sanskrit, Norwegian in most dialects and in both written forms (Bokmål and Nynorsk), Marathi, Greek, Latin, Romanian, German, standard Dutch and some dialects and the Slavic languages.
- animate–inanimate: Here nouns that denote animate things (humans and animals) generally belong to one gender, and those that denote inanimate things to another (although there may be some deviation from that principle). Examples include earlier forms of Proto-Indo-European and the earliest family known to have split off from it, the extinct Anatolian languages (see below). Modern examples include, to some extent, Basque, and Ojibwe.
In Northern Kurdish language (Kurmanji), the same word can have two genders according to the context. For example, if the word dar (meaning wood or tree) is feminine, it means that it is a living tree (e.g. dara sêvê means "apple tree"), but if it is masculine, it means that it is dead, no longer living (e.g. darê sêvê means "apple wood"). So if one wants to say a certain table is made of the wood from an apple tree, he or she can not use the word dar in a feminine gender, and if he or she wants to refer to the apple tree in his or her garden can not use dar with masculine gender.
- common–neuter: Here a masculine–feminine–neuter system previously existed, but the distinction between masculine and feminine genders has been lost (they have merged into what is called common gender). Thus nouns denoting people are usually of common gender, whereas other nouns may be of either gender. Examples include Danish and Swedish (see Gender in Danish and Swedish), and to some extent Dutch (see Gender in Dutch grammar). The dialect of the old Norwegian capital Bergen also uses common gender and neuter exclusively. The common gender in Bergen and in Danish is inflected with the same articles and suffixes as the masculine gender in Norwegian Bokmål. This makes some obviously feminine noun phrases like "a cute girl", "the well milking cow" or "the pregnant mares" sound strange to most Norwegian ears when spoken by Danes and people from Bergen since they are inflected in a way that sounds like the masculine declensions in South-Eastern Norwegian dialects. The same does not apply to Swedish common gender, as the declensions follow a different pattern than both the Norwegian written languages. Norwegian Nynorsk, Norwegian Bokmål and most spoken dialects retain masculine, feminine and neuter even if their Scandinavian neighbours have lost one of the genders. As shown, the merger of masculine and feminine in these languages and dialects can be considered a reversal of the original split in Proto-Indo-European (see below).
Other types of division or subdivision may be found in particular languages. These may sometimes be referred to as classes rather than genders; for some examples, see Noun class. In some of the Slavic languages, for example, within the masculine and sometimes feminine and neuter genders, there is a further division between animate and inanimate nouns – and in Polish, also sometimes between nouns denoting humans and non-humans. (For details, see below.) A human–non-human (or "rational–non-rational") distinction is also found in Dravidian languages. (See below.)