Sex-Denoting Patterns of Word Formation in the Romance Languages
- Franz RainerFranz RainerInstitute for Romance Languages, Vienna University of Economics and Business
Since sex distinctions are a basic fact of nature and society, any natural language must make available means to refer separately to males and females of humans as well as animals, to the extent that sex is salient or relevant with reference to animals. In each language, these means comprise a peculiar mix of the patterns used in enriching the lexicon, ranging from syntax to compounding, affixation, conversion, and sometimes devices that are even more exotic. In a minority of the languages of the world, such as Latin and its daughters, the distinction between the sexes has even been built into the grammar in the form of gender systems whose rules of gender assignment rely heavily on it for animate nouns. In these languages, the gender system itself can also be put to use in the creation of designations for males and females.
As is well known, the Indo-European gender system in origin reflected the animate/inanimate distinction, while the classification of animates along the feminine/masculine axis was a later development whose gradual expansion can still be observed in Latin and Romance. The demise, in spoken Latin, of one central pillar of feminization, namely, the suffix -trix, as well as other disruptive factors such as sound change and language contact, brought instability into the system. Each Latin and later Romance variety therefore had to adapt its system in order to cope with communicative needs concerning the expression of the male/female distinction. Different varieties did so in different ways, creating a large array of systems of sex-denoting patterns. In principle, it would be desirable to deal with each variety’s system on its own terms, describing as exactly as possible the domain of each pattern at the different stages of development as well as the mutual relationships among competing patterns and the mechanisms behind the changes. However, such an approach is unrealistic in the absence of detailed descriptions for many varieties, most notably the dialects.