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In a previous question about making a language easy to learn as a second language I suggested that grammatical genders have very little usefulness. A couple of people, however, suggested that grammatical genders have more usefulness than I think. Because of this I am interested in hearing about any potential uses for grammatical genders.

Usefulness can be identified by looking at what happens when the grammatical gender is removed. If the speaker needs to communicate the lost information through other means then the grammatical gender is deemed useful.

  • Are you asking about gender-like grammatical gender (male vs. female, maybe neuter) or about noun classes, which can be very complex (ranging from animate vs. inanimate to several hundred different classes)? – Richard Aug 22 '18 at 14:49
  • @Richard I am mainly interested in grammatical genders with a small number of classes (2, 3, or 4) since the inspiration for my question came from French and German. That said, I would be fine with an answer that talks about noun class systems with a larger number of classes. – Kevin Aug 22 '18 at 16:00
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The generic term for genders is "word classes". In some languages male/female isn't the main way to divide up the world.

Word classes are useful for co-ordination. If a language lacks gender, (or animacy, what have you), then you need some other way to know what adjective goes with what noun, which antecedent a pronoun refers to and so on. A language with lousy coordination might be English, with things like "He saw him hit him with it."

They make languages hard for language learners because the semantic relationship between the word classes overtime becomes increasingly arbitrary and creates a lexical burden for language learners, i.e. you just have to memorize the word class for each word. Also, gender marker is obligatory, so you have a high entry cost-- you can't say anything until you work out the genders of the relevant words.

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Grammatical gender, along with noun classes, are often used in word derivation. Of course, the more categories you have, the more productive this can be.

They also allow a larger number of 3rd person pronouns, allowing for multiple 3rd persons (or objects) to be referred to simply with pronouns without as much confusion arising as to which pronoun refers to who. Though this is more useful in systems where everything has gender. In English for example, this is only useful in about 20% of cases, because only people can be referred to as he and she (everything else just gets 'it', except for maybe pets). In French however, where every noun is referred to as either he or she, this helps out about 80% of the time.

And as people have mentioned, gender agreement can help tie nouns and adjectives together, allowing you to put them in any order. Though any form or noun-adjective agreement can accomplish this. Case agreement, for instance, is much more effective at this.

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