Noun classes, commonly referred to as "genders," are not only as ambiguous as the fruit or vegetable quandary, but may even outstretch the relatively simple two-gender class system found in Romance languages. Those of you familiar with French, Spanish, or Italian will know what I mean by "two-gender class system" (a noun is either "male" or "female"). In German (which, by the way, is not a Romance language) there exist three "genders:" "male," "female," and "neuter."
But not all noun classifications are gender-based! Some common criteria for noun classes are:
- animate vs. inanimate (as in Ojibwe)
- rational vs. non-rational (as in Tamil)
- human vs. non-human
- human vs. animal vs. inanimate
- male vs. other
- male human vs. other
- masculine vs. feminine (as in Romance languages)
- masculine vs. feminine vs. neuter (as in German)
- strong vs. weak
- augmentative vs. diminutive
In Romance laguages, the gender of a noun is identified by the article "the" (Span.: el, la; Fr.: le, la; It.: il, la) and, usually, by the suffix (Sp.: -o, -a; Fr.: [no ending], -e; It.: -o, -a). But there are exceptions. For example, Spanish masculine nouns that are derived from Greek tend to end in -a, despite being masculine (ie: "el problema"). The reverse may also be true in some Spanish words (ie: "la mano").
Romance languages do not always agree on whether a certain noun is male or female. For instance, in French the sea is called "la mer," which is feminine, while in Spanish "el mar" is masculine.
In all of the Bantu languages (Bantu is a branch of the Niger-Congo language family) there are not two or three but over ten noun classes. None of these classes are gender-based as in European languages. In Luganda, for example, nouns are sorted into "Categories 1-10" that are charecterized as "people," "long objects," "animals," "miscellaneous objects," "large objects and liquids," "small objects," "languages," "pejoratives," "infinitives," "mass nouns," plus four "'locative' classes."
Swahili has eighteen classes of nouns. The prefix of a noun indicates the class it falls in. For instance "mtoto" (child) has a prefix of m- and falls into the category of "singular persons." "Kitabu" (book) has a prefix of ki- and falls in the class of "singular things." Three of the eighteen classes are locative, and the rest are all either "singular" or "plural" items ("singular persons" class and a "plural persons" class, "singular fruits" and "plural fruits," "singular things" and "plural things," etc.).
The Australian Aboriginal language of Dyirbal has four noun class categories: 1. animate objects, men; 2. women, water, fire, violence; 3. edible fruits and vegetables; 4. anything that does not fall into the first three categories.
Ojibwe and other Algonquian languages, similar to Dyirbal, distinguish nouns based on animate and inanimate objects. Plants and almost all living things fall in the "animate" category, though such assignments are still arbitrary: a "raspberry" falls in the "animate" class while a "strawberry" is considered "inanimate."
Languages that do not have noun classification systems include (but are not limited to) English, Mandarin, Japanese, Bengali, Farsi, Afrikaans, Tagalog, Turkish, Armenian, and Yoruba.