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There is a peculiarly regular contradiction between the presentation of gender in English by theoretical treatises and practical manuals. Whereas theoretical treatises define the gender subcategorisation of English nouns as purely lexical or 'semantic', practical manuals of English grammar do invariably include the description of the English gender in their subject matter of immediate instruction.
In particular, a whole ten pages of A. I. Smirnitsky's theoretical 'Morphology of English' are devoted to proving the non-existence of gender in English either in the grammatical, or even in the strictly lexico-grammatical sense On the other hand, the well-known practical 'English grammar' by M. A. Ganshina and N. M. Vasilevskaya, after denying the existence of grammatical gender in English by way of an introduction to the topic, still presents a pretty comprehensive description of the would-be non-existent gender distinctions of the English noun as a part of speech [Ganshina, Vasilevskaya, ff.].
That the gender division of nouns in English is expressed not as variable forms of words, but as nounal classification (which is not in the least different from the expression of substantive gender in other languages, including Russian), admits of no argument. However, the question remains, whether this classification has any serious grammatical relevance. Closer observation of the corresponding lingual data cannot but show that the English gender does have such a relevance.
The category of gender is expressed in English by the obligatory correlation of nouns with the personal pronouns of the third person. These serve as specific gender classifiers
of nouns, being potentially reflected on each entry of the noun in speech.
The category of gender is strictly oppositional. It is formed by two oppositions related to each other on a hierarchical basis.
One opposition functions in the whole set of nouns, dividing them into person (human) nouns and non-person (non-human) nouns. The other opposition functions in the subset of person nouns only, dividing them into masculine nouns and feminine nouns. Thus, the first, general opposition can be referred to as the upper opposition in the category of gender, while the second, partial opposition can be referred to as the lower opposition in this category.
As a result of the double oppositional correlation, a specific system of three genders arises, which is somewhat misleadingly represented by the traditional terminology: the neuter (i.e. non-person) gender, the masculine (i.e. masculine person) gender, the feminine (i.e. feminine person) gender.
The strong member of the upper opposition is the human subclass of nouns, its sememic mark being 'person', or 'personality'. The weak member of the opposition comprises both inanimate and animate non-person nouns. Here belong such nouns as tree, mountain, love, etc.; cat, swallow, ant, etc.; society, crowd, association, etc.; bull and cow, cock and hen, horse and mare, etc.
In cases of oppositional reduction, non-person nouns and their substitute (it) are naturally used in the position of neutralisation. E.g.:
Suddenly something moved in the darkness ahead of us. Could it be a man, in this desolate place, at this time of night? The object of her maternal affection was nowhere to be found. It had disappeared, leaving the mother and nurse desperate.
The strong member of the lower opposition is the feminine subclass of person nouns, its sememic mark being 'female sex'. Here belong such nouns as woman, girl, mother, bride, etc. The masculine subclass of person nouns comprising such words as man, boy, father, bridegroom, etc. makes up the weak member of the opposition.
The oppositional structure of the category of gender can be shown schematically on the following diagram (see Fig. I).
Feminine Nouns Masculine Nouns
A great many person nouns in English are capable of expressing both feminine and masculine person genders by way of the pronominal correlation in question. These are referred to as nouns of the 'common gender'. Here belong such words as person, parent, friend, cousin, doctor, president, etc. E.g.:
The President of our Medical Society isn't going to be happy about the suggested way of cure. In general she insists on quite another kind of treatment in cases like that.
The capability of expressing both genders makes the gender distinctions in the nouns of the common gender into a variable category. On the other hand, when there is no special need to indicate the sex of the person referents of these nouns, they are used neutrally as masculine, i.e. they correlate with the masculine third person pronoun.
In the plural, all the gender distinctions are neutralised in the immediate explicit expression, though they are rendered obliquely through the correlation with the singular.
Alongside of the demonstrated grammatical (or lexico-grammatical, for that matter) gender distinctions, English nouns can show the sex of their referents lexically, either by means of being combined with certain notional words used as sex indicators, or else by suffixal derivation. Cf.: boy-friend, girl-friend; man-producer, woman-producer; washer-man, washer-woman; landlord, landlady; bull-calf, cow-calf; cock-sparrow, hen-sparrow; he-bear, she-bear; master, mistress; actor, actress; executor, executrix; lion, lioness; sultan, sultana; etc.
One might think that this kind of the expression of sex runs contrary to the presented gender system of nouns, since the sex distinctions inherent in the cited pairs of words refer not only to human beings (persons), but also to all the other animate beings. On closer observation, however, we see that this is not at all so. In fact, the referents of such nouns as
jenny-ass, or pea-hen, or the like will in the common use quite naturally be represented as it, the same as the referents of the corresponding masculine nouns jack-ass, pea-cock, and the like. This kind of representation is different in principle from the corresponding representation of such nounal pairs as woman — man, sister — brother, etc.
On the other hand, when the pronominal relation of the non-person animate nouns is turned, respectively, into he and she, we can speak of a grammatical personifying transposition, very typical of English. This kind of transposition affects not only animate nouns, but also a wide range of inanimate nouns, being regulated in every-day language by cultural-historical traditions. Compare the reference of she with the names of countries, vehicles, weaker animals, etc.; the reference of he with the names of stronger animals, the names of phenomena suggesting crude strength and fierceness, etc.
As we see, the category of gender in English is inherently semantic, i.e. meaningful in so far as it reflects the actual features of the named objects. But the semantic nature of the category does not in the least make it into 'non-grammatical', which follows from the whole content of what has been said in the present work.
In Russian, German, and many other languages characterised by the gender division of nouns, the gender has purely formal features that may even 'run contrary' to semantics. Suffice it to compare such Russian words as as well as their German correspondences das Glas — es, die Tasse — sie, der Teller — er, etc. But this phenomenon is rather an exception than the rule in terms of grammatical categories in general.
Moreover, alongside of the 'formal' gender, there exists in Russian, German and other 'formal gender' languages meaningful gender, featuring, within the respective idiomatic systems, the natural sex distinctions of the noun referents.
In particular, the Russian gender differs idiomatically from the English gender in so far as it divides the nouns by the higher opposition not into 'person — non-person' ('human non human'), but into 'animate —inanimate', discriminating within the former (the animate nounal set) between masculine, feminine, and a limited number of neuter nouns. Thus, the Russian category of gender essentially divides the noun into the inanimate set having no
meaningful gender, and the animate set having a meaningful gender. In distinction to this, the English category of gender is only meaningful, and as such it is represented in the nounal system as a whole.
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