Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter (A) November 5, 2020

Nominal and pronominal gender: Putting Greenberg’s Universal 43 to the test

  • Thomas Berg EMAIL logo


The aim of this study is to scrutinize Greenberg’s Universal 43, which predicts pronominal gender in the presence of nominal gender. On the basis of a sample of 500 gendered and ungendered languages, gender marking is examined in nouns, personal pronouns, possessors and possessums. Ungendered languages outnumber gendered languages. Eight out of 12 logically possible gender constellations are attested in the database. In keeping with Greenberg, languages with nominal gender show a strong bias towards gendered pronouns. There is a strong correlation between gendered personal pronouns and gendered possessors. Gendered possessums are cross-linguistically uncommon. The empirical patterns are brought about by a small set of theoretical principles. Gender is independently specified for each category. Gender marking is an effort. The strength of the correlation depends on the “distance” between two given gender sites. Coding gender twice in the same time frame creates a processing difficulty. Natural and grammatical gender conspire to generate the gender sensitivity of individual categories.

Corresponding author: Thomas Berg, University of Hamburg, Institute of English and American Studies, Überseering 35, 22297 Hamburg, Germany, E-mail:


A preliminary report was delivered at the University of Münster on a day in July 2017 which I will not forget for the rest of my life. Johanna Stahnke made a useful suggestion in the early stages of this project which had a significant impact on the later stages. Florian Dolberg’s and the reviewers’ comments contributed to making this a better paper. Charlotte Lehr took perfect care of all the small and not-so-small chores which I was unwilling or unable to do myself. Several student assistants, including Tamara Nehls, Sebastian Anderβen, Britta Zemke and Marlene Sagebiel, helped me locate the large number of sources on which this project rests. The following people are almost all native speakers of languages which have found their way into this study: Simone Lechner (Afrikaans), Adelina Krasniqi (Albanian), Getie Gelaye (Amharic), Phillip Rogers (Bitur), Júlio Matias (Brazilian Portuguese), Elena Kireva (Bulgarian), Arndt Wigger (Celtic), Petr Málek (Czech), Olivia Kelly (Danish), Yaron Matras (Domari), Jannis Androutsopoulos (Greek), Daniel Weissmann (Hebrew), Harumi Matsumura (Japanese), Shakiripur Sridhar (Kannada), Ram Prasad Bhatt (Konkani), Marija Borisevic (Lithuanian), Nicholas Reid (Ngan’gityemerri), Ekaterina Padaliak (Russian), Nevena Zaric (Serbian) and Sumera Ahmad (Urdu). All these people deserve my sincere thanks.









neuter 1


neuter 2






The sample of gendered languages
LanguageMacroareaFamilyGenusNominal genderPersonal-pronoun genderPossessor genderPossessum gender
AbauPapunesiaSepikUpper Sepik+++
AbkhazEurasiaNorthwest CaucasianNorthwest Caucasian+++
AlamblakPapunesiaSepikSepik Hill+++
Arapesh (Mountain)PapunesiaTorricelliKombio-Arapesh++++
ArawakSouth AmericaArawakanCaribbean Arawakan+++
ArboreAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic++++
BarasanoSouth AmericaTucanoanTucanoan++++
BaréSouth AmericaArawakanInland Northern Arawakan+++
Berber (Rif)AfricaAfro-AsiaticBerber++
Berber (Siwa)AfricaAfro-AsiaticBerber++
BiluaPapunesiaSolomons East PapuanBilua++
Bininj Gun-WokAustraliaGunwinyguanGunwinygic+++
BiturPapunesiaTrans-New GuineaTirio++++
BoraSouth AmericaHuitotoanBoran++
BurungeAfricaAfro-AsiaticSouthern Cushitic++
Campa (Axininca)South AmericaArawakanPre-Andine Arawakan+++
Chinantec (Lealao)North AmericaOto-MangueanChinantecan+
ChoroteSouth AmericaMatacoanMatacoan++
CulinaSouth AmericaArauanArauan+++
DhaasanacAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic+
DiyariAustraliaPama-NyunganCentral Pama-Nyungan++
EmmiAustraliaWestern DalyWagaydy++
GalelaPapunesiaWest PapuanNorth Halmaheran++
Halkomelem (Upriver)North AmericaSalishanCentral Salish++
HausaAfricaAfro-AsiaticWest Chadic+++
IraqwAfricaAfro-AsiaticSouthern Cushitic++
Jur MödöAfricaCentral SudanicBongo-Bagirmi++
KadiwéuSouth AmericaGuaicuruanKadiwéu+++
KannadaEurasiaDravidianSouthern Dravidian+++
KarimojongAfricaEastern SudanicNilotic+
KatiEurasiaTrans-New GuineaNuristani+++
KeraAfricaAfro-AsiaticEast Chadic+++
Khoekhoe (Hottentot)AfricaKhoe-KwadiKhoe-Kwadi++
KolamiEurasiaDravidianCentral Dravidian+++
Kwoma (Washkuk)PapunesiaSepikMiddle Sepik++
LavukalevePapunesiaSolomons East PapuanLavukaleve++
LeleAfricaAfro-AsiaticEast Chadic++++
MalakmalakAustraliaNorthern DalyNorthern Daly++
MalayalamEurasiaDravidianSouthern Dravidian+++
MarindPapunesiaMarindMarind Proper+++
MaybratPapunesiaWest PapuanNorth-Central Bird’s Head+++
MianPapunesiaTrans-New GuineaOk+++
Mixtec (Chalcatongo)North AmericaOto-MangueanMixtecan++
MiyaAfricaAfro-AsiaticWest Chadic++++
MoseténSouth AmericaMosetenanMosetenan++++
MotunaPapunesiaEast BougainvilleEast Bougainville++
Murrinh-PathaAustraliaSouthern DalyMurrinh-Patha++
Ngan’gityemerriAustraliaSouthern DalyNgankikurungkurr+++
NgankikurungkurrAustraliaSouthern DalyNgankikurungkurr+++
OneidaNorth AmericaIroquoianNorthern Iroquoian++
OnondagaNorth AmericaIroquoianNorthern Iroquoian++
OromoAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic+++
PáezSouth AmericaPáezanPáezan++
PaumaríSouth AmericaArauanArauan++
PengoEurasiaDravidianSouth Central Dravidian+++
PirahãSouth AmericaMuraMura++
PiroSouth AmericaArawakanPurus+++
Pomo (Eastern)North AmericaHokanPomoan++
Pomo (Northern)North AmericaHokanPomoan++
Pomo (Southeastern)North AmericaHokanPomoan++
QuileuteNorth AmericaChimakuanChimakuan+++
RendilleAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic+++
RetuarãSouth AmericaTucanoanTucanoan+++
RonAfricaAfro-AsiaticWest Chadic++++
SavosavoPapunesiaSolomons East PapuanSavosavo++++
SenecaNorth AmericaIroquoianNorthern Iroquoian++
ShekoAfricaAfro-AsiaticNorth Omotic+++
ShinasshaAfricaAfro-AsiaticNorth Omotic+++
SidaamaAfricaAfro-AsiaticHighland East Cushitic+++
SomaliAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic++++
Taiap (Gapun)PapunesiaGapunGapun+++
TamilEurasiaDravidianSouthern Dravidian+++
Teso (Ateso)AfricaEastern SudanicNilotic+
TicunaSouth AmericaTicunaTicuna++
TidorePapunesiaWest PapuanNorth Halmaheran++
Ts’amakkoAfricaAfro-AsiaticLowland East Cushitic++++
TunicaNorth AmericaTunicaTunica++++
WarekenaSouth AmericaArawakanInland Northern Arawakan+++
Wari’South AmericaChapacura-WanhamChapacura-Wanham+++
YimasPapunesiaLower Sepik-RamuLower Sepik+
Zapotec (Zaniza)North AmericaOto-MangueanZapotecan++


Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. 2016. How gender shapes the world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198723752.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Ariel, Mira. 2000. The development of person agreement markers: From pronouns to higher accessibility markers. In Michael Barlow & Suzanne Kemmer (eds.), Usage-based models of language, 197–260. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.Search in Google Scholar

Audring, Jenny. 2008. Gender assignment and gender agreement: Evidence from pronominal gender languages. Morphology 18. 93–116. in Google Scholar

Audring, Jenny. 2013. A pronominal view of gender agreement. Language Sciences 35. 32–46. in Google Scholar

Bakker, Dik & Siewierska Anna. 2009. Weighing semantic distinctions in person forms. In Johannes Helmbrecht, Yoko Nishina, Yong-Min Shin, Stavros Skopeteas & Elisabeth Verhoeven (eds.), Form and function in language research, 25–56. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Bauer, Laurie. 1992. Scalar productivity and –lily adverbs. In Geert Booij & Jaap van Marle (eds.), Yearbook of morphology 1991, 185–191. Dordrecht: Kluwer.10.1007/978-94-011-2516-1_11Search in Google Scholar

Bender, Ernest. 1967. Urdu grammar and reader. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.10.9783/9781512800272Search in Google Scholar

Berg, Thomas. 1992. Prelexical and postlexical features in language production. Applied Psycholinguistics 13. 199–235. in Google Scholar

Berg, Thomas. 1998. The resolution of number conflicts in English and German agreement conflicts. Linguistics 36. 41–70. in Google Scholar

Berg, Thomas. 2004. Similarity and contrast in segmental phonology. Linguistics 42. 1049–1103. in Google Scholar

Bock, Kathryn, Janet Nicol & J. Cooper Cutting. 1999. The ties that bind: Creating number agreement in speech. Journal of Memory and Language 40. 330–346. in Google Scholar

Bunn, Gordon. 1974. Golin grammar. Workpapers in Papua New Guinea, vol 5. Ukarumpa: Summer Institute of Linguistics.Search in Google Scholar

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/tsl.9Search in Google Scholar

Cablitz, Gabriele H. 2006. Marquesan. A grammar of space. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110197754Search in Google Scholar

Cinque, Guglielmo. 2005. Deriving Greenberg’s universal 20 and its exceptions. Linguistic Inquiry 36. 315–332. in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 1979. The agreement hierarchy. Journal of Linguistics 15. 203–224. in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 1991. Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139166119Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2000. Number. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.10.1017/CBO9781139164344Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2006. Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville G. 2013. Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig. Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.Search in Google Scholar

Cysouw, Michael. 2003. The paradigmatic structure of person marking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Doak, Ivy G. 1997. Cœur d’Alene grammatical relations. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. Austin, TX: University of Texas.Search in Google Scholar

Dolberg, Florian. 2019. Agreement in language contact: Gender development in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/slcs.208Search in Google Scholar

Dryer, Matthew S. 1992. The Greenbergian word order correlations. Language 68. 81–138. in Google Scholar

Dryer, Matthew S. 2013. Prefixing vs. suffixing in inflectional morphology. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.Search in Google Scholar

Duke, Janet. 2009. The development of gender as a grammatical category. Five case studies from the Germanic languages. Heidelberg: Winter.Search in Google Scholar

Forchheimer, Paul. 1953. The category of person in language. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.10.1515/9783111562704Search in Google Scholar

Frajzyngier, Zygmunt. 2001. A grammar of Lele. Stanford, CA: Center for the Study of Language and Information.Search in Google Scholar

Garnham, Alan, Ute Gabriel, Oriane Sarrasin, Gygax Pascal & Jane Oakhill. 2012. Gender representation in different languages and grammatical marking on pronouns: When beauticians, musicians, and mechanics remain men. Discourse Processes 49. 481–500. in Google Scholar

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Joseph H. Greenberg (ed.), Universals of language, 73–113. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Search in Google Scholar

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1978. How does a language acquire gender markers? In Joseph H. Greenberg, Charles A. Ferguson & Edith A. Moravcsik (eds.), Universals of human language, vol. 3, 47–82. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Haspelmath, Martin. 1999. Explaining article-possessor complementarity: Economic motivation in noun phrase syntax. Language 75. 227–243. in Google Scholar

Haspelmath, Martin, Matthew S. Dryer, David Gil & Bernard Comrie. 2005. The world atlas of language structures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Heine, Bernd & Kyung-An Song. 2010. On the genesis of personal pronouns: Some conceptual sources. Language and Cognition 2. 117–148. in Google Scholar

Helmbrecht, Johannes. 2004. Personal pronouns – Form, function, and grammaticalization. Germany: Unpublished postdoctoral thesis, University of Erfurt.Search in Google Scholar

Henderson, James. 1995. Phonology and grammar of Yele, Papua New Guinea. Canberra: The Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Hockett, Charles F. 1958. A course in modern linguistics. New York: Macmillan.10.1111/j.1467-1770.1958.tb00870.xSearch in Google Scholar

Huber, David E. & Randall C. O’Reilly. 2003. Persistence and accommodation in short-term priming and other perceptual paradigms: Temporal segregation through synaptic depression. Cognitive Science 27. 403–430. in Google Scholar

Ibrahim, Muhammad Hasan. 1973. Grammatical gender. Its origin and development. The Hague: Mouton.10.1515/9783110905397Search in Google Scholar

Jones, Morris & Alan R. Thomas. 1977. The Welsh language. Cardiff: University of Cardiff Press.Search in Google Scholar

Joosten, Frank, Gert de Sutter, Denis Drieghe, Stef Grondelaers, Robert J. Hartsuiker & Dirk Speelman. 2007. Dutch collective nouns and conceptual profiling. Linguistics 45. 85–132. in Google Scholar

Kibrik, Andrej A. 2019. Rethinking agreement: Cognition-to-form mapping. Cognitive Linguistics 30. 37–83. in Google Scholar

Köpcke, Klaus-Michael, Klaus-Uwe Panther & David A. Zubin. 2009. Motivating grammatical and conceptual gender agreement in German. In Hans-Jörg Schmid & Susanne Handl (eds.), Cognitive foundations of linguistic usage patterns, 171–194. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110216035.171Search in Google Scholar

Langacker, Ronald W. 1995. Possession and possessive constructions. In John R. Taylor & Robert E. MacLaury (eds.), Language and the cognitive construal of the world, 51–79. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110809305.51Search in Google Scholar

Layton, Bentley. 2004. A Coptic grammar. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.Search in Google Scholar

Levelt, Willem J.M. 1989. Speaking. From intention to articulation. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Search in Google Scholar

Love, Nigel. 2004. Review of Corbett, Greville G.: Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Word 45. 202–208.Search in Google Scholar

Macaulay, Monica. 1996. A grammar of Chalcatongo Mixtec. Berkeley: University of California Press.Search in Google Scholar

MacKay, Donald G. 1987. The organization of perception and action. New York: Springer.10.1007/978-1-4612-4754-8Search in Google Scholar

Menn, Lise & Brian MacWhinney. 1984. The repeated morph constraint: Toward an explanation. Language 60. 519–541. in Google Scholar

Moravcsik, Edith A. 1988. Agreement and markedness. In Michael Barlow & Charles Ferguson (eds.), Agreement in natural language, 89–106. Stanford: Center for the Study of Language and Information.Search in Google Scholar

Obata, Kazuko. 2003. A grammar of Bilua, a Papuan language of the Solomon Islands. Canberra: The Australian National University.Search in Google Scholar

Opgenort, Jean Robert. 2005. A grammar of Jero. Leiden: Brill.10.1163/9789047415084Search in Google Scholar

Pawley, Andrew. 2002. Using he and she for inanimate referents in English: Questions of grammar and world view. In Nick J. Enfield (ed.), Ethnosyntax. Explorations in grammar and culture, 110–137. Oxford: Oxford University Press.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199266500.003.0006Search in Google Scholar

Pickett, Vema, Cheryl Black & Vicente Marcial Cerqueda. 1998. Grammatica popular del Zapoteco del Istmo. Juchitán, Oaxaca, Mexico: Centro de Investigación y Desarrolle Binnizá.Search in Google Scholar

Pillinger, Steve & Letiwa Galboran. 1999. A Rendille dictionary. Cologne: Köppe.Search in Google Scholar

Plank, Frans & Wolfgang Schellinger. 1997. The uneven distribution of genders over numbers: Greenberg Nos. 37 and 45. Linguistic Typology 1. 53–101. in Google Scholar

Popjes, Jack & Popjes Jo. 1986. Canela-krahô. In Desmond C. Derbyshire & Geoffrey K. Pullum (eds.), Handbook of Amazonian languages, vol. 1, 128–199. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110850819.128Search in Google Scholar

Rennison, John R. 1997. Koromfe. London: Routledge.Search in Google Scholar

Schlüter, Julia. 2005. Rhythmic grammar: The influence of rhythm on grammatical variation and change in English. Berlin & New York: De Gruyter.10.1515/9783110219265Search in Google Scholar

Seiler, Hansjakob. 1983. Possession as an operational dimension of language. Tübingen: Narr.Search in Google Scholar

Shimizu, Kiyoshi. 1983. The Zing dialect of Mumuye. Hamburg: Buske.Search in Google Scholar

Siewierska, Anna. 2013. Gender distinctions in independent personal pronouns. In Matthew S. Dryer & Martin Haspelmath (eds.), The world atlas of language structures online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.Search in Google Scholar

Silverstein, Michael. 1976. Hierarchy of features and ergativity. In Robert M. W. Dixon (ed.), Grammatical categories in Australian languages, 112–171. Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.10.1515/9783110871661-008Search in Google Scholar

Soppitt, C. A. 1885. A short account of the Kachcha Naga (Empeo) in the North Cachar Hills, with an outline grammar, vocabulary, and illustrative sentences. Shillong: Assam Secretariat Press.Search in Google Scholar

Stemberger, Joseph P. 1981. Morphological haplology. Language 57. 791–817. in Google Scholar

Stolz, Thomas, Sonja Kettler, Cornelia Stroh & Aina Urdze. 2008. Split possession. An areal-typological study of the alienability correlation and related phenomena in the languages of Europe. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins.10.1075/slcs.101Search in Google Scholar

Svärd, Eric. 2019. Gender in new Guinea. In Francesca Di Garbo, Bruno Olsson & Bernhard Wälchli (eds.), Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity. Vol. 1: General issues and specific studies, 225–276. Berlin: Language Science Press.Search in Google Scholar

Taylor, John R. 1989. Possessive genitives in English. Linguistics 27. 663–686. in Google Scholar

Thráinsson, Höskuldur, Hjalmar P. Petersen, Jógvan í Lon Jacobsen & Zakaris Svabo Hansen. 2004. Faroese. Tórshavn: Foroya Fróthskaparfelag.Search in Google Scholar

Ultan, Russell. 1978. Toward a typology of substantival possession. In Joseph H. Greenberg, Charles A. Ferguson & Edith A. Moravcsik (eds.), Universals of human language, vol. 1, 11–49. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Valiouli, Maria. 1997. Grammatical gender clash: Slips of the tongue or shift of perspective? Linguistics 35. 89–110. in Google Scholar

Vigliocco, Gabriella & Julie Franck. 1999. When sex and syntax go hand in hand: Gender agreement in language production. Journal of Memory and Language 40. 455–478. in Google Scholar

Werner, Heinrich. 1997. Die ketische Sprache. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2020-11-05
Published in Print: 2020-11-26

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 6.12.2023 from
Scroll to top button