Thursday March 26

Speaker: Mirjam Hachem(Utrecht Institute of Linguistics)

Title: Gender Classifies Mass

Date: Thursday March 26                      

Venue: Huizinga 4

Time: 15:15 – 16:30 hrs



In this talk, I will deal with both the syntactic and semantic dimension of grammatical gender in Germanic languages focusing on German and Dutch. The phenomenon of grammatical gender is related to two long-standing questions in Germanic linguistics:

  1. Does grammatical gender have semantic meaning or does it only serve to instantiate syntactic agreement?
  2. Is grammatical gender represented in syntax by projecting its own phrase?

According to the standard view gender distinctions do not entail semantic distinctions. While singular and plural morphology is correlated with a singular and plural interpretation, masculine, feminine, and neuter morphology seem to yield no comparable semantic distinctions. With respect to phrase structure, the two most common assumptions are (a) that gender either doesn’t project a phrase at all or (b) that it involves one syntactic head which can have two or three values, depending on the language.

In this talk, I will argue that the standard assumptions summarized above are incorrect. The main point of my argument will be that grammatical gender does have a semantic dimension and that its original function was to classify nouns into different kind of mass types. I will furthermore argue that this function is still active but mostly intransparent. To prove this point, I will present substantial evidence from the morphological gender and case paradigms of German and Dutch determiners as well as diachronic data from Old Germanic languages and Indo-European. I will then propose a decomposition of the lower part of the DP into three successive projections of distinct mass types – unbounded mass, bounded mass and collection – which I will then correlate with what is traditionally thought of as feminine, masculine and neuter gender. An implicit consequence of this proposal will be that biological gender and grammatical gender are entirely unrelated.

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