Mark Twain was bewildered by German, or, at least, he pretended to be:
In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.
German has three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, and all three are found in items of tableware. In German, spoon is masculine, fork feminine and knife neuter. Latin also has three, and so, once, did English. Many other languages have at least two. This is as much a mystery to English speakers coming for the first time to another European language as it seems to have been to Mark Twain. Why is the French for chair, chaise, feminine, while the French for armchair fauteuil, is masculine? And why is the French for love, amour, masculine in the singular, but often feminine in the plural? These are reasonable questions (and I certainly don’t know the answer to the second).
Confusion arises from the use of the very terms, masculine, feminine and neuter. The question of grammatical gender might have been much easier to grasp if something like Type A nouns, Type B nouns and Type C nouns had been used instead. In some cases, a noun will relate to what it describes. It’s not hard to see why un homme might be masculine and une femme feminine. Most of the time, however, there is no such correlation. In Romance languages, a word will very often be masculine or feminine because that’s what it was in Latin, with the Latin neuters perhaps being parcelled out on some kind of morphological basis. But that only pushes the question further back. How did nouns fall into these categories in the first place?
The main thing to understand in pursuing the question is that masculine, feminine and neuter are only three possible genders. As Guy Deutscher points out in ‘The Unfolding of Language’, some languages also have genders for ‘long objects’, ‘dangerous things’ and ‘edible parts of plants’. This makes it clear that grammatical gender is to be understood as ‘type’ or ‘kind’, and not simply as male or female. Deutscher goes on to suggest how words might have grouped themselves in this way with the startling revelation that in the Australian aboriginal language Gurr-goni the gender of the word for aeroplane is that of ‘edible vegetables’, a gender found in many aboriginal languages.
The explanation goes like this. The gender ‘edible vegetables’ would have extended to include all plants, including trees. It would then have gone on to include within its domain things made of wood, including wooden canoes. A canoe was a form of transport, so forms of transport were also included. You can see where this is going. Aircraft are a form of transport, so they, too, have to have the gender of edible vegetables.
A similar story might be told of the origins of masculine, feminine and neuter genders. Maybe back in the Indo-European day, or beyond, some things appeared to have, say, a feminine characteristic and the gender was extended and extended so that we end up in German with a feminine fork, just as we end up with an edible vegetable aeroplane in Gurr-goni. Alternatively, maybe words that just sounded like the words for women or female animals started to take on a feminine identity. Either way, English speakers who trouble to learn a gendered language are still going to have to memorise the differences between nouns that those foreign johnnies insist on. There was once a successful stage show called ‘No Sex, Please, We’re British’. In this case it won’t do to say ‘No Gender, Please, We Speak English.’