French gender: it's not (all) about sex

Margaret H A'Beckett

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review

Abstract

Why are some French nouns masculine and others feminine? The French gender system seems to have defied all efforts to describe it comprehensively. Biological distinctions account for only a small percentage of nouns in the language, even humans. Word-final phonology does not prove, of itself, to be sufficient explanation of gender. In a Beckett (2010) it is argued that French gender assignment and word-final pronunciation can be explained more adequately with reference to semantic principles similar to those of the morpho-syntactically complex classifier systems found in many languages of the world, including Africa, Asia, Australia and South America. The present paper suggests that French involves two separate, independent noun classification systems. The primary system relates to gender, which is semantically determined in terms of a limited number of oppositional features (dead:alive, hard:soft, closed:open, harmful:protective, fixed:changeable, etc.) expressed in masculine/feminine agreements outside the noun. An equally important secondary nominal classification system, also semantically determined, reflects other oppositions (part:whole, textured:smooth, slow:speedy, dull:shiny, spotted:striped, etc.) that are expressed directly on nouns via word final contrasting vowel/consonant pronunciations (not orthography). This contribution to the festschrift for Keith Allan illustrates these semantic principles at work among the animal and plant kingdoms and the world beyond.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationWrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan
EditorsKate Burridge, Reka Benczes
Place of PublicationClayton VIC Australia
PublisherMonash University Publishing
Pages71 - 100
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9781922235312
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Cite this

A'Beckett, M. H. (2014). French gender: it's not (all) about sex. In K. Burridge, & R. Benczes (Eds.), Wrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan (pp. 71 - 100). Clayton VIC Australia: Monash University Publishing.
A'Beckett, Margaret H. / French gender: it's not (all) about sex. Wrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan. editor / Kate Burridge ; Reka Benczes. Clayton VIC Australia : Monash University Publishing, 2014. pp. 71 - 100
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A'Beckett, MH 2014, French gender: it's not (all) about sex. in K Burridge & R Benczes (eds), Wrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan. Monash University Publishing, Clayton VIC Australia, pp. 71 - 100.

French gender: it's not (all) about sex. / A'Beckett, Margaret H.

Wrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan. ed. / Kate Burridge; Reka Benczes. Clayton VIC Australia : Monash University Publishing, 2014. p. 71 - 100.

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (Book)Researchpeer-review

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A'Beckett MH. French gender: it's not (all) about sex. In Burridge K, Benczes R, editors, Wrestling with Words and Meanings: Essays in Honour of Keith Allan. Clayton VIC Australia: Monash University Publishing. 2014. p. 71 - 100