August 12, 2015
German proper names divide in two large classes, with and without obligatory definite articles: die Bismarck ‘the (feminine) Bismarck – a ship’ vs. Ø Rheinhausen ‘ Ø Rheinhausen (neuter) – a town’. Since proper names are inherently definite, the article cannot express definiteness. Rather, the article is part of a classifier system which provides information about the referent: names of ships, rivers and mountains always take the definite (onymic) article whereas names of towns, states and continents do not take the article. Furthermore, the inherited three-gender system in combination with the presence or absence of the article is used to create a new system of six proper name classes: a) with article: names of ships always are feminine ( die Bismarck ), names of cars are masculine ( der Corona ), and names of restaurants are neuter ( das Heiliggeist ); b) without article: names of towns are neuter ( Ø Rheinhausen ), names of males are masculine ( Ø Sascha) , and names of females are feminine ( Ø Sandra ). Thus gender also provides information about the referent. This article deals with the diachronic change from empty categories (“junk”) to a new classifier system and argues for a case of degrammaticalisation with respect to gender and for one of exaptation with respect to the article. This development towards a real classifier system is rather new. Its consolidation can be observed in present German.