A Bit of Background
The Indo-European family is a big group of languages that are spoken all over the world. There’s a good chance that, if you are learning a foreign language at the moment, it belongs to this family.
Indo-European languages are united in their descent from a single, prehistoric language, which we call Proto-Indo-European. This was a language with two important grammatical characteristics, which have percolated down to some, but not all, of its descendants.
Indo-European languages, in general, require that their nouns have grammatical gender; for example, French nouns are either masculine or feminine, while German has masculine, feminine and neuter genders. English has none, bucking the trend, but Old English also has three.
Working back in time from the oldest sources for Indo-European languages, we believe that the common ancestor of the family had a system of three genders, which had itself emerged from an earlier stage of only two. The gender that was constant throughout the lifespan of Proto-Indo-European was the neuter, also known as the inanimate gender, borne by nouns that referred to insentient or unreal things (more or less).
Proto-Indo-European was also a language with several grammatical cases for its nouns, a system that has survived very well in some languages, but has died out in others, including French and English. The case of a particular noun is shown by its ending, typically one or two sounds at the end of the word. Two of the cases of PIE were the nominative and accusative – you might be familiar with these two concepts, as the nominative and accusative are found still in a whole host of modern languages. The nominative case is typically given to the subject of a sentence, the noun that ‘does’ the verb, committing the action it describes. The accusative, is in a sense, its opposite; accusative nouns are the objects of verbs, affected or changed by the event in question. For example, in the following English sentence,
the cat walks
the cat would be nominative in Indo-European languages that have cases, because the cat is committing the action of walking. Meanwhile, in the sentence
you see the cat
those languages would put the cat in the accusative case, typically with a different ending, because the cat is now the one being seen.
A Useful Rule for Learners
Now, here is a rule that will come in handy for the Indo-European language you’re learning, be it Latin, Ancient Greek, Russian, German, Sanskrit – or even English:
In Indo-European languages, neuter nouns are always the same in the nominative and accusative cases.
So, what does this mean? Let’s break this long rule down with some examples, starting with Latin.
Ferrum is a Latin noun; it belongs to the neuter gender and means ‘iron’. If you want to say the iron melts in Latin, ferrum would be the subject of the sentence and so would need to be in the nominative case. The sentence would look so:
However, the iron would need to be accusative in the sentence I hold the iron, as it is the object, the thing being held.
Despite going from subject to object, ferrum does not change its appearance, because the nominative and accusative forms of ferrum are the same. The rule applies to all Latin neuter nouns, including those constructed differently to ferrum, like nōmen ‘name’.
nōmen crēscitthe name grows
audiō nōmenI hear the name
Compare this with a non-neuter noun, like Latin urbs ‘city’, which is feminine.
urbs est pulchrathe city is pretty
videō urbemI see the city
Urbs and urbem have different appearances, because one is nominative and the other accusative, and, since urbs is feminine, our rule does not apply.
Jumping across now to Czech, a Slavic language only very distantly related to Latin, we find the pattern obeyed once more. Like Latin, Czech has three genders, and město ‘city’ belongs to the third, the neuter.
město je hezkéthe city is pretty
vidím městoI see the city
Likewise, with Greek vivlío ‘book’,
to vivlío eínai kalóthe book is good
diavázo to vivlíoI am reading the book
Moreover, across the Indo-European family, the rule holds even if the neuter noun is plural. Here are two unrelated neuter words, Latin flūmen ‘river’ and Czech prase ‘pig’, in the plural.
flūmina fluunt celeriterthe rivers flow quickly
amō flūminaI love the rivers
prasata letíthe pigs are flying
hledáme prasatawe seek the pigs
If (and it is only if) an Indo-European language has both the neuter gender and nominative and accusative cases, this identity will hold. However, it goes further still. The words we have seen here are all nouns, but it’s not only nouns that obey this rule – if neuter, adjectives, pronouns (e.g. it, she), determiners (the, a) and demonstratives (that, those) do too.
For example, across the family, the word for what, the interrogative pronoun for impersonal things, does not change according to whether it is ‘doing’ or ‘being done to’.
was war das?what was that?
was willst du?what do you want?
quid venit?what is coming?
quid videt homō?what does the man see?
Likewise, in languages that use definite articles, the neuter forms will be the same for the nominative and accusative case – compare the masculine and neuter definite articles in German.
der Mann ist schönthe man is beautiful
ich sehe den MannI see the man
das Buch ist schönthe book is beautiful
ich sehe das BuchI see the book
The universality of this rule means we even find its effects in languages that, for all intents and purposes, have lost their grammatical cases. One such language is English, which has no case endings for its nouns, but does still have words that change their form according to their function in the sentence. These words change, because they are the last remnants of the old case system of English. Here is one good example:
he is nice. I know him.
she is nice. I know her.
In these four sentences, the masculine and feminine pronouns have to change their appearance to be grammatical. Yet:
it is nice. I know it.
Behold! The English pronoun it, which refers to inanimate (specifically non-human) things, and which we can therefore think of as neuter, does not change. Another example of this is English interrogative pronouns. Even though it is now archaic, who has an accusative variant, whom.
who is she?
whom does the woman see?
The neuter interrogative, meanwhile, has never been needed to make such changes.
what is she?
what does the woman see?
Hopefully, this all makes sense, and it is clear why this rule can help your language learning. Languages with cases and genders can harass the learner with a long list of different forms for every noun – every Latin noun has twelve possible forms, while Latin relative pronouns have thirty six. However, by remembering the rule that the nominative and accusative of the neuter gender will be the same, we can reduce that list a little.
7 thoughts on “The Neuter Gender – A Very Useful Rule!”
So, what gender is (or was) “who” in Old English? And when it had gender, what word was used for nouns that were not of the gender “who” was?
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This is a great question – and something I feel I should’ve addressed! Going all the way back to Old English and beyond, ‘who’ has always been both masculine and feminine in gender. This means interrogative pronouns in English (and other Germanic languages) are really split into a binary distinction between animate ‘who’ vs. inanimate ‘what’, rather than the three-way gender system of most nouns and pronouns. Does that answer your question?
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Thanks, Danny! Your answer clarifies things. I did a (very) little Old English in school, but I never understood that interrogative pronouns could be both masculine and feminine.
I never thought about it, but you are right – German has wer (animate) and was (inanimate). But is it limited to Germanic languages? Russian makes the same distinction with кто and что, and so does Spanish with quién vs. qué. Fascinating, really. Thanks 🙂
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In Czech ‘who’ (*kdo*) joins the (generic) masculine-singular form of gendered participles and adjectives, i. e. “Kdo tam byl? Kdo to udělal? Kdo našel lásku, bude šťastný” (Who was there? Who did that? Who found love, will be happy). I am pretty sure Russian is the same and would wager the rest of Slavic.
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Same in Polish.