The Use of Gender Markers in Animals

As Demonstrated by Issues of National Geographic

by Ludmila Zemková (Author)
©2016 Thesis 169 Pages


This book is a contribution to the study of the linguistic concept of gender. It focuses on the problem of assigning gender to animal nouns. This problem is topical in view of the fact that in present-day English, gender is a marginal grammatical category and therefore recedes into the background in descriptions of today’s English. Grammatical gender is a rare topic of research, scientific discussions or papers. The detailed analysis of gender assignment to animal names is based on two subcorpora: the English edition of National Geographic and the English edition of the Journal of Zoology. The book closes with a contrastive analysis of gender markers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. Theoretical background
  • 2.1 The History of Gender
  • 2.2 An Overview of Gender in English
  • 2.2.1 History
  • 3. Gender Assignment in Animal Nouns
  • 3.1 Gender in Present-Day English
  • 3.2 An overview of gender in animals in modern reference grammars
  • 3.3 Gender in animals in the world’s languages
  • 3.3.1 Basic types of assigning gender to animal nouns in languages with strict semantic or predominantly semantic systems
  • 3.3.2 Assigning gender to animal nouns in languages with formal assignment systems
  • 4. Material Analysis
  • 4.1 Introductory information
  • 4.2 The analysis of gender of animals based on National Geographic articles
  • 4.2.1 Insect
  • 4.2.2 Sea Species
  • 4.2.3 Reptiles and Amphibians
  • 4.2.4 Birds
  • 4.2.5 Big cats
  • 4.2.6 Bear
  • 4.2.7 Elephant
  • 4.2.8 Apes
  • 4.2.9 Final chart and material analysis
  • 4.3 The analysis of gender markers in animals based on Journal of Zoology
  • 4.3.1 Journal of Zoology
  • 4.4 The comparison of gender markers in animals included in the corpora of National Geographic and Journal of Zoology
  • 4.4.1 Praying Mantis
  • 4.4.2 Cricket
  • 4.4.3 Spider
  • 4.4.4 Crab
  • 4.4.5 Turtle
  • 4.4.6 Lizard
  • 4.4.7 Snake
  • 4.4.8 Bat
  • 4.4.9 Albatross
  • 4.4.10 Seal
  • 4.4.11 Wild dog
  • 4.4.12 Wolf
  • 4.4.13 Fox
  • 4.4.14 Lynx
  • 4.4.15 Bear
  • 4.4.16 Horse
  • 4.4.17 Crayfish, Possum, Mongoose
  • 4.4.18 Final charts and material analysis
  • 4.5 The analysis of gender in juvenile animals
  • 4.5.1 Youngsters in National Geographic
  • 4.5.2 Youngsters in Journal of Zoology
  • 4.5.3 Material analysis of gender in juvenile animals
  • 4.6 The Comparative analysis of the use of gender markers by Czech students and native speakers
  • 4.6.1 The use of gender markers by Czech students
  • 4.6.2 The use of gender markers by native speakers
  • 4.6.3 The use of gender markers by Czech students and native speakers
  • 5. Summary
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables
  • Bibliography

← 8 | 9 →

1.  Introduction

“Gender is the most puzzling of the grammatical categories. It is a topic which interests non-linguists as well as linguists and it becomes more fascinating the more it is investigated” (Corbett 1991: 1).

The thesis aims to be a contribution to gender studies. Out of the many potential research challenges in this area, I have chosen to explore the problem of assigning gender to animal nouns.

The introductory part of the thesis will discuss the origin and history of gender to set the scene for more practically oriented parts. Chapter 2 will establish the theoretical background information for my further research.

In the following part the focus is predominantly on gender in animals. Subchapter 3.1. (“Gender in present-day English”) summarizes recent descriptions of gender assignment in animal nouns. Subchapter 3.2. will look at grammarians’ treatment of “gender in present-day English”. Subchapter 3.3. describes basic types of assigning gender to animals in the world’s languages. Detailed analyses of gender assignment in the corpora of this study will be at the core of Chapter 4. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →

2.  Theoretical background

To avoid possible misunderstanding, the term of gender must be initially defined, because it is used to refer to a variety of concepts in linguistic literature. When the research focus is on gender as manifested in language, the usual objectives are to discuss the differences between male and female use of language, or the differences in the representation of women and men in a language.

2.1  The History of Gender

This chapter attempts to give a short overview of the history of gender, both generally and in comparison with selected languages. In this context, the following questions need to be answered:

  • What is gender?
  • What is the history and development of gender systems?
  • What is the position of gender in the language system?

As Baron points out (1986: 91): “The history of gender has never been satisfactorily explained.”

Studies of gender as a linguistic category have a long history. To understand the meaning of the linguistic term “gender”, Hockett’s definition could be a good starting point: “Genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behaviour of associated words” (Hockett 1958: 231). Saying that means that the determining criterion of gender is agreement. A language may have two or more classes of gender. The classification frequently corresponds to a real- world distinction of sex, at least in part, but often too it does not (Corbett 1991: 1).

The word gender is derived from Latin “genus” via Old French “gendre”, meaning “class”, “kind” or “sort” and it referred to the division of Greek nouns into three classes: masculine, feminine and neuter. These classes have nothing to do with the meaning of the word. They just label the formal properties. The word “gender” is used either for a group of nouns or for the whole category. The first theories of grammatical gender rely heavily on the connection between grammar and physiology. Many early grammarians noticed that gender may be a function of the form of a word rather than its meaning (Corbet 1991: 92). According to Aristotle “the first of the Greek grammarians to isolate the category of gender was Protagoras, who classified names as masculine, feminine and inanimate according to the sex, or lack of sex, of their referents” (cited in Baron 1986: 92). Aristotle himself classified nouns according to their terminations rather than referential ← 11 | 12 → meaning. (ibid.: 92). Masculine gender and men’s language were considered as primary of creation and in importance, “the most important” (Goold Brown 1851- cited in Baron 1986: 3) and “the superior and more excellent” (James Harris 1751 cited in Baron 1986: 3). As Spender (1980: 3) points out, treating the masculine as the linguistic norm has been called “one of the most pervasive and pernicious rules that has been encoded”.

Even today, many linguists assume that the masculine is “the normal, or unmarked” gender and that all English nouns are masculine unless specially marked.(ibid.: 97)

2.2  An Overview of Gender in English

2.2.1  History

English inherited a formal gender system from Germanic three-way grammatical classification. Between 10th and 14th centuries it was replaced by the semantic “natural” or “logical” gender system. This gradual change was completed in Early Middle English (cf. Dekeyser 1980: 102). The phonetic changes in the syllable led to the loss of most inflectional endings of the noun. It is probably not correct to classify the Old English gender system as a purely formal category, because “many suffixes were affiliated to more than one gender” (Kastovsky 2000: 712). The distribution of nouns into the three genders had a semantic basis in Old English, thus most male nouns were masculine, most female nouns feminine and the majority of neuter nouns were “asexual” (Jones 1988: 35). Moore (1921: 91) claims that “natural gender did not replace grammatical gender in Middle English but survived it”. On the other hand, scholars like Mitchell (1985: 29) do not consider this analysis representative of the respective periods.

According to Curzan (2000), Latin grammar, its terminology and classification was the core of early English grammars. Feminine old English noun endings were generally more distinctive than masculine or neuter. The feminine gender thus lingered longer than the other two, and this continued association led to the persistence of feminine pronominal reference with some nouns to the present day (Fennell 2001: 64). The concrete developments of dative-accusative levelling in English is treated in Visser (1963: 427) and Howe (1996: 114).

The conclusion from these observations is resumed by Wagner in her dissertation thesis (2002: 41):

The only conclusion to be drawn from those observations is that there was a rather extended period of time in the history of the English language when the choice of a ← 12 | 13 → supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) said nothing about the gender or sex of the referent. It could be masculine, male, neuter, or asexual – and every combination of those three.

Table 2.1:  The distribution of nouns into the genders in Wagner (2002)


Although the English gender system is based on semantic criteria, where the meaning of a noun determines its gender and gender is reflected only in personal, possessive and reflexive pronouns, it is not totally dependent on the straightforward criteria of humanness and biological sex but may also be affected by pragmatic factors. For centuries, it has been confused with the biological category of sex.

Fortunately most English grammars did not worry their readers too much when it came to gender. To mention just a few grammarians, Anderson (cited in Baron: 96) offers thirteen gender distinctions. He also refines the neuter category to include inanimates as well as “animals that have no sex at all, those whose sex is not apparent, and others still in which, though the sex be known, it is not at all considered“.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Distinctions Animal nouns Comparative analysis Assignment
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 169 pp., 44 tables, 48 graphs

Biographical notes

Ludmila Zemková (Author)

Ludmila Zemková is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Faculty of Education, University of South Bohemia, České Budějovice. She studied at the Faculty of Arts at Masaryk University in Brno. Her research interests include the linguistic concept of gender and gender in present-day English.


Title: The Use of Gender Markers in Animals
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171 pages