Many languages have grammatical gender, according to which every object has a gender that determines what form of articles to use with that noun, how to decline adjectives modifying that noun, etc. These genders are grammatically the same in the language as the genders of people, although there are some surprising cases like the German word for girl (das Mädchen) being grammatically neutral rather than feminine.

There are political movements to change the way we use language surrounding gender to make it more inclusive. The details of these movements differ from one language to another, not just in the particular words, but in the structural features. But one common feature across many European languages is the move to add more pronouns. One area where they differ is coming up with gender-neutral ways of saying certain things, which in English is either straightforward to do or was never an issue in the first place.

Things are a little simpler in English because of the lack of grammatical gender. The existence of grammatical gender in other languages usually strikes native English speakers as strange at first. But to the native speakers of Spanish or German or Russian, it seems normal and without philosophical import, to the best of my observation.

My question is about the possibility of critiques of grammatical gender itself, based on the motivation of progressive ideas about gender. The argument would be something like the male/female dichotomy is too centralized in human thought, not only in creating social norms and excluding deviations, but that people have gone so far as to impose this dichotomy on the whole framework for talking about the world, applying it to domains where it doesn’t make sense. People talk about sex and gender being on a spectrum. Well there are also many ways of being a table, and we should not try to fit tables into a narrow masculine category with “der Tisch.” Does this argument make sense, and have versions of it been put forward by philosophers before?

EDIT: I’m not saying that grammatical gender actually causes German speakers to think of tables as boys and French speakers to think of them as girls. The argument I’m putting forward is that the gender dichotomy has been so structurally ingrained in some languages to make speaking outside the dichotomy somewhat tricky, when it comes to non-binary-ness or inclusivity. It all started with those forgotten ancestors who couldn’t stop themselves from using their animal urges to frame everything they saw…

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    Not sure this works. I don't speak one of these languages fluently. But I've always thought the grammatical gender thing for inanimate objects was completely arbitrary... ie: using "la table" is just a convention... it gives no feminization to tables. Do French speakers think of tables as being somehow feminine? Actually, if there was such a connection (masulinisation or femininisation of inanimate objects), this might actually lend support to using grammatical gender. But without that sexual connection grammatical gender appears completely pointless. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 13:07
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    French speakers have done more than others, I thinkvhttps://www.economist.com/europe/2018/05/17/language-activists-are-trying-to-make-french-gender-neutral The general topic is covered here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 13:33
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    What is perhaps a greater moral concern is the implicit assumption such criticism is motivation for cultural engineering from those who consider themselves enlightened on issues with no correct answer – ironically, a kind of cultural colonialism from “progressives”. Another moral concern is the push for hegemony at the expense of pluralism. Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 13:37
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    @JustSomeOldMan (apologies - I deleted my initial post while you were replying - I'd spotted the oblique nature of my comment!) Commented Aug 9, 2021 at 15:05
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    As a french native who got to learn other gendered languages where names gender don't match with French, it is indeed the arbitrariness of genders applied to objects that helped me understand the arbitrariness of genders and pronouns applied to people. I think we would in fact make ourselves a disservice by removing object gendered names. What we show do is use it as a device to illustrate how the application of names to objects and people is arbitrary, like why in French a gueridon is male but also, as a table, female.
    – armand
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 5:33

1 Answer 1


I can't think of any functional purpose of grammatical gender, except that it tags nouns differentially and any differential tagging of terms is potentially clarifying. Like, for example, if you had a sentence in one of these grammatically gendered languages, containing two nouns of opposite genders, and if the sentence or the interlocutor's response sentence used a pronoun, you can more easily tell which noun was being referred to by the pronoun by the gender of the pronoun. Similar situations arise with adjectives and, in some languages, verbs, and possibly other parts of speech. It just puts an arbitrary tagging on terms, which could help parse sentences by corresponding taggings on other words syntactically linked to those words in a sentence or series of sentences. As for the morality of it, the grammatical meaning of "gender" predates the meaning of "gender" that defines itself in reference to and distinction from biological sex (henceforth referred to as "sex gender"). So I think it's kind of putting the cart before the horse to implicate grammatical gender on the basis of the (legitimate) criticisms of sex gender. In fact, one could go further and consider it anglocentric/colonialist/xenophobic to propose eliminating grammatical gender from grammatically gendered non-English languages on the basis of English-speakers' preoccupation with personal pronoun preferences and sex gender. I know there are some little-known languages that have more than two or three grammatical genders, and there are sex-gender theorists who have cited that fact in support of the view that the two-(sex-)gender societal convention is baseless, but I think that's plumbing evidence from the wrong toilet. I agree with the first proposition (i.e. there are such languages) and I agree with the second proposition (i.e. the two-sex-gender convention is baseless), but I don't think there's any evidential connection between those two propositions. It's just an accident of the history of the word "gender" that it came to refer to sex gender as well as grammatical gender. (It's from the Greek root genos, from which we also get "genus," "general," gene," "generation," "genre," "generic," "genesis"--it just meant type/category/kind, but type was understood back then as being determined by origin, so the words derived from it split into two types/genuses/genres: words related to the sense "type" like "genus," "genre," "general," etc. and words related to the sense of "originating" like "generating," "genesis," "gene," etc. Maybe "gene" straddles the split.)

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    I find this quite implausible, the idea that grammatical gender “predates” sex-gender. Sex is built into the body, organizes life, and predates language itself. The grammatical genders have always been called “masculine/feminine” (though some have another, like German’s Neutrum). There are also animate/inanimate grammatical declinations, for example in Japanese, and apparently in proto-indoeuropean (now extinct). This is not called “gender” nor are “sex-gender” categorical words used to describe it. Your post lacks evidence.
    – mbsq
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 5:23
  • The “two-(sex-) gender societal convention” in dozens of languages is baseless? The sophomoric hubris of this is off-putting, like a blind man saying colors don’t exist because he can’t see them, or a technocrat demolishing a two-thousand year-old temple because it is an inefficient use of space and represents old-fashioned beliefs. Thousands of years of culture are behind what trendy theorists find “baseless” while scratching their chin on a couch. It’s cultural chauvinism. Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 6:00
  • Proto-Indoeuropean started with just one genus, and then introduced a two-way genus split. That was not a split between masculine and feminine nouns, but a split between neuter and non-neuter nouns. So the genus system of very early PIE was not at all related to sexual differences
    – Uwe
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 6:08
  • mbsq: I was saying the grammatical sense of the term "gender" predates the "sex-gender" sense of the term, not saying that biological sexual differences and their culturally variable gender expressions predate grammatically gendered languages. Just Some Old Man: I said "two-(sex-)gender" to refer to the meaning of gender as opposed to sexuality, not the meaning of gender in grammar. I tried to define my terms (said "henceforth...'sex gender'"); apologies for not landing on more felicitous expressions; I'm drunk...
    – Dayv87
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 6:22
  • Uwe: Thank you for clarifying the point with further detail there. That's what I was trying to say but got misinterpreted by other commenters: the grammatical use of the term "gender" predates the sexual-difference use of the term "gender."
    – Dayv87
    Commented Aug 10, 2021 at 6:31

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