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Luca Mangiat wrote:
   "I was wondering about a conlang I'm sketching down. I'd like to insert a
male-female gender distinction. How would this happen? In which gender would
inanimate objects go? How do Arabic and Hebrew treat inanimate objects,
plants, flowers, animals ? Is each category tied to a special gender, or is
their ending to determinate it? What distinction could there be between male
and female in the oldest stage of the tongue? PIE seems to treat female
nouns as a inanimate plural (but I'm sure feminists would rather call it 'a
group plural' : ). How is the whole thing in PSemitic?"

    The gender system in Semitic languages is rather complicated.  Generally
speaking, in the Semitic languages, substantives can be marked as feminine
(*-at or *-t) or unmarked.  Most unmarked substantives are masculine, but
quite a few are always treated as feminine.  In each language, there are
some substantives that may be treated as either feminine or masculine (60 or
so in Arabic; in Hebrew, you can find baqar "cattle," 'orach, "way" 'aron,
"ark," gan, "garden").  Also, in all Semitic languages you can find proper
names that are marked as feminine and treated as if they were masculine.
    Some collective nouns take a feminine marker to indicate one out of the
collective mass (the so-called "nomen unitatis").  This is especially common
in Arabic, but examples can be found in every Semitic language.  Also,
apparently the feminine marker can be used to indicate a neuter concept -
Akk. damiqtum "a good thing," Hebrew ra'a "evil (thing), Ge'ez 'ekit
"wickedness."
    In all of those Semitic languages, the "unmarked" substantives that are
interpreted as feminine include words denoting animate females (e.g.
"mother"), paired parts of the body (!), and a disparate group of other,
inanimate objects, that varies from language to language (and in Arabic, all
inanimate plurals are construed as feminine singular!).
    It is uncertain what the status of gender was in PSemitic.  The ending
-at appears to have originally been associated with verbal adjectives.  It
is also, interestingly enough, the marker of the fem. sing. predicative
adjective/suffix conjugation.  So, in essence, the marker -at/-t appears to
have originally been a way of deriving forms from a root, and only later
came to be associated with the feminine gender.

-Chollie
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