Skip to content

The Indo-European neuter

Proto Indo-European, the hypothetical language from which all IE languages evolved, had three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Most modern descendents have retained 2 or 3 of these genders.

English is fairly unusual because it has done away with purely grammatical gender and applies gender instead to semantic categories. Female animals are feminine, male animals are masculine and just about everything else is neuter. The only time you notice the genders is in the third person singular personal pronouns “he, she, it”. It’s one of the easiest things to learn about English!

Latin had all three genders, and so do most modern Germanic and Slavic languages. Most of the Romance languages have only masculine and feminine because in Vulgar Latin the differences between masculine and neuter forms gradually vanished. But there are some curious remnants. Spanish has retained a neuter definite article “lo” which is used for things which are not nouns. (“Lo mejor es enemigo de lo bueno” – the best is the enemy of the (merely) good). It also has a neuter pronoun for “it”, again where no noun is referred to: “ello” might refer to a situation or idea. And there are three corresponding demostratives: esto, eso, aquello. Portuguese has lost everything except these demonstrative pronouns: isto, isso, aquilo (for which the masculine and feminine forms are este/esta, esse/essa, aquele/aquela). Catalan has just one general purpose “això”, French has “ce” and Italian ciò.

A curious fact I read somewhere about the Indo-European neuter case is that the nominative and accusative forms are always identical, whether it be in pronouns, nouns or adjectives. Some example:

Language Masc. Fem. Neut.
Latin – this hic/hunc haec/hanc hoc/hoc
Latin – these hi/hos hae/has haec/haec
German – the der/den die/die das/das
Russian – he, she, it он, его
(on, yev’o)
она, ее
(an’a, yey’o)
оно, оно

This is probably something to do with the distinction between animate and inanimate. Inanimate things are not expected to be “doing” things, i.e. to be the subject of a clause.

Does anybody have any counterexample?

Related Posts