Grammatical gender assignment (contact)

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Gramatical gender assignment in borrowing scenarios may depend on two principles: (1) semantics and (2) form, the latter consisting of (2a) morphological properties (both derivational and inflectional) and (2b) phonological characteristics (Consider however the objections of Corbett 1991, 77-82). Languages generally use different combinations of these principles, but, as it was often remarked, “there is always some semantic basis to the grouping of nouns into gender classes, but languages vary in how much semantic basis there is” (Aikhenvald 2004, 1031). Such a semantic basis usually involves animacy, humanness, and sex, which may be restricted to humans and higher animate referents and may also override formal assignment. Therefore, we could also say that all systems of gender assignment are mixed.
Obviously, these principles of gender assignment also work in situations of language contact: if a language has a gender system, every new word entering that language will be allotted to a specific gender, based on semantic or formal criteria, depending on its gender assignment system (cf. Weinreich 1953, Corbett 1991, 70-75). However, when loanwords are involved, special assignment rules may come into play, e.g. semantic analogy, according to which loanwords take the gender of nouns of similar meaning already existing in the replica language (Corbett 1991, 75-77).
Other factors that are sometimes believed to determine the unexpected gender assignment of a loanword4 could be (1) the tendency to take the unmarked gender in the replica language (i.e. the most common one), (2) the existence, in the replica language, of a noun class that is preferentially selected to receive loanwords (the so-called “automatic” assignment), and (3) the gender that the noun borrowed has in the model language.
The existence of alternative rules or tendencies, which may also conflict with the formal principles of gender assignment operating in a given language, could determine a situation of instability and gender fluctuation that may require some time to stabilise.


When the substantive ahrušhi enters Hittite as a loan from Hurrian, it does so both as a direct loans and as a mediated loan via Luwian. Luwian assigns neutral gender to Hurrian stems in -i, and since i-neutra are an unusual class in Luwian, they are reanalyzed as neutral (i)t-stems. Hittite on the other hand accepts Hurrian loans as common gender nouns. When the Luwian dental stem noun also passes into Hittite, the situation results in two different competing stems (Giusfredi and Pisaniello, fthc):

Relevant cases aḫrušḫi- c. aḫrušḫit- n. NA NA aḫrušḫin NA
indirect cases dat. aḫrušḫiya
dat. aḫrušḫi
abl. aḫrušḫiyaz
dat. aḫrušḫiti NA aḫrušḫi NA NA


Aikhenvald, A. 2004. Gender and noun class, in G. Booij, Ch. Lehmann, J. Mugdan (eds.), Morphologie / Morphology. Ein internationales Handbuch zur Flexion und Wortbildung / An international handbook on inflection and word-formation (Handbücher zur Sprach- und Kommunikationswissenschaft 17), Berlin: de Gruyter, pp. 1031-1045. Corbett, G.G. 1991. Gender, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Giusfredi, F. and Pisaniello, V., fthc. Grammatical categories in contact: Gender assignment criteria in Hittite borrowings from the neighbouring languages. Paper presented at the Arbeitstagung der Indogermanischen Gesellschat in Ljubljana, 2019. Weinreich, U. 1953. Languages in contact (Publications of the Linguistic Circle of New York 1), New York: Linguistic Circle of New York.