Storage of gender information in native speakers’ brains

18 November 2006

Native speakers of a language with genders don’t have to look up that information in a dictionary. They just know the correct gender of any word and apply it automatically to what they say or write. Sometimes a word can have more than one gender, with or without difference in meaning. It can also happen that large groups of speakers feel that a word can have two different genders, although dictionaries only recognise one of them for the standard language.

An example of this is the Dutch word ‘module’. The monolingual dictionary Van Dale (I have the 13th paper edition), and the spelling word lists of 1995 and 2006 say it has the ‘de’ gender.
(Northern varieties of Dutch largely have only two genders, neuter and non-neuter, southern varieties also distinguish masculine and feminine.)

According to my own linguistic instinct however, both ‘de module’ and ‘het module’ are possible, even with a slight preference for the latter. Now when writing (i.e. translating) for money, I prefer to follow the standard language, and avoid any dialectal influences. So when I want to use this word ‘module’, I have to look up the correct gender in the dictionary. I have to look it up every time again, I have great difficulty in remembering it. It’s even more difficult than learning and remembering genders in a foreign language (say German or Portuguese), because here my linguistic instinct keeps contradicting the official gender information.

Recently, I ran into this problem again, having to chose between ‘elk module’ and ‘elke module’ (‘elk’ is the Dutch word for ‘each’ or ‘every’). I looked up the gender and found it was officially ‘de’. But now comes the interesting part: knowing this didn’t help me to decide whether to use add the inflection -e to the word ‘elk’ or not! I had to try it out with other words with known gender: elke man, elke vrouw, elk kind, so if it is ‘de module’, I should write ‘elke module’.

This means that what is stored inside a native speaker’s brain is not the gender of each word, but there is separate information as to how to use articles (here: ‘de’ or ‘het’), and to how to inflect adjectives and pronouns!

Even stranger is that in German, (which I learnt as a foreign learner, at a much later age) I don’t have this problem: knowing or looking up the gender is enough to know how to use and inflect articles, adjectives and (where necessary) nouns. So apparently, this non-native information is remembered in a different way.

P.S. I have the same problem with words like ‘deksel’, (meaning: lid, cover) where the double gender is officially recognised. But then the problem arises when I try to be consistent in the same document or set of documents, and use either the neuter or non-neuter gender everywhere.

Addition 22 July 2011: The Dutch word ‘melange’ (it means ‘blend’ and it’s from French ‘mélange’, obviously) works the same as ‘desksel’: it can have neuter or feminine gender, and I have trouble making the choice and sticking to it.

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