REVIEW article

Revisiting masculine and feminine grammatical gender in spanish: linguistic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic evidence.

Anne L. Beatty-Martínez,

  • 1 Center for Language Science, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, United States
  • 2 Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA, United States

Research on grammatical gender processing has generally assumed that grammatical gender can be treated as a uniform construct, resulting in a body of literature in which different gender classes are collapsed into single analysis. The present work reviews linguistic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic research on grammatical gender from different methodologies and across different profiles of Spanish speakers. Specifically, we examine distributional asymmetries between masculine and feminine grammatical gender, the resulting biases in gender assignment, and the consequences of these assignment strategies on gender expectancy and processing. We discuss the implications of the findings for the design of future gender processing studies and, more broadly, for our understanding of the potential differences in the processing reflexes of grammatical gender classes within and across languages.


Linguistic factors have long been known to modulate word identification. Of relevance for the work presented here, studies examining grammatical gender provide evidence that information at one point in a sentence is used to anticipate other information downstream. Grammatical gender is a widespread feature in many of the world languages. Simply put, it refers to “classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words” ( Hockett, 1958 , p. 231; see also Comrie, 1999 ). Linguists agree that a language is said to have a grammatical gender system if there is evidence for gender outside the nouns themselves. One such type of evidence is gender agreement ( Corbett, 1991 ). Examples (1a) and (1b) from Spanish illustrate this:

(1) (a) La televisión es roj a

The FEM TV FEM is red FEM

“The TV is red”

(b) El teleférico es roj o

The MASC ski lift MASC is red MASC

“The ski lift is red”

In (1a), the form of the determiner is “ la” and of the adjective is “ roj a” because “televisión” is a feminine noun. In other words, the determiner and the adjective agree in gender with the noun they accompany. In (1b), the determiner “ el” and the adjective “ roj o ” agree with “teleférico” (a masculine noun).

A robust finding across languages with different gender systems (e.g., for Croatian, Costa et al., 2003 ; for French, Dahan et al., 2000 ; for German, Schmidt, 1986 ; for Italian, Bates et al., 1996 ; see Friederici and Jacobsen, 1999 , for a review of early studies) is that when the gender of an article or adjective is congruent with that of the following noun, recognition of the noun is enhanced relative to a neutral baseline; when it is incongruent, recognition is delayed. This gender congruency effect has been reported in visual tasks (e.g., Jescheniak, 1999 ; Cubelli et al., 2005 ) and auditory tasks (e.g., Faussart et al., 1999 ; Dahan et al., 2000 ) and for languages with two genders (e.g., Barber and Carreiras, 2005 ) and more than two genders (e.g., van Berkum, 1996 ; Jacobsen, 1999 ). For instance, in Serbo-Croatian, lexical decision is faster for nouns preceded by adjective primes that match the nouns in gender than for those with mismatched preceding adjectives ( Gurjanov et al., 1985 ). In addition, Cole and Segui (1994) reported that lexical decision is faster in French when primes are closed-class words (e.g., articles) relative to open-class words (e.g., adjectives), suggesting that the gender congruency effect changes as a function of word type. Results from Jakubowicz and Faussart (1998) have, in addition, shown that in a spoken lexical decision task, French adjectives phonetically marked for gender that intervened between an article and a noun (e.g., the adjective petit MASC [pәti] /petite FEM [pәtit], as in “le/*la petit chien,” the MASC /*the FEM little MASC dog MASC ) do not increase the magnitude of the gender congruency effect relative to an invariant adjective without gender marking (e.g., the adjective pauvre MASC/FEM [povʀ], as in “le/*la pauvre chien,” the MASC /*the FEM poor dog MASC ). This is significant because it highlights the central role of articles in setting gender agreement features for the entire noun phrase ( Jakubowicz and Faussart, 1998 ). For Spanish, the language under investigation in this review, Lew-Williams and Fernald (2007) showed that Spanish-speaking children and adults exploit gender information on articles to facilitate the processing of upcoming nouns. Using the looking-while-listening procedure, Lew-Williams and Fernald presented participants with two-picture visual scenes, in which objects either matched or differed in grammatical gender. Target items were embedded in fixed carrier phrases (e.g., “encuentra el / la ,” find the MASC /the FEM ), and participants were instructed to find the named object. Results revealed that on different-gender trials, participants oriented their eyes toward target objects more quickly than on same-gender trials, yielding an anticipatory effect.

Importantly, studies reporting effects of prenominal gender marking on subsequent word identification have generally assumed that different gender classes (e.g., feminine and masculine in Spanish) modulate these effects with equal strength. Thus, with few exceptions (e.g., Gurjanov et al., 1985 ; Grosjean et al., 1994 ), studies have collapsed gender classes into a single analysis. Despite this general practice, in the work presented here, we discuss evidence from linguistic, psycholinguistic, and neurolinguistic studies, suggesting that grammatical gender classes may differentially contribute to the identification of nouns. Central to this proposal is the assumption that individuals of all language backgrounds are equipped with the ability to develop sensitivity to distributional information in language ( Clayards et al., 2008 ; Gennari and MacDonald, 2009 ; Beatty-Martínez and Dussias, 2018 ). Our starting point is that words form relations along phonetic dimensions which contribute toward the creation of exemplar clusters. Categories are formed by placing exemplars in a conceptual space either closer to or further from each other depending upon the degree of dissimilarity of the members of a class (i.e., schematicity; Clausner and Croft, 1997 ). In the following sections, we provide evidence for this claim by examining distributional asymmetries between masculine and feminine gender in Spanish.

On the Differential behavior of Masculine and Feminine Gender in Spanish

Evidence from monolingual speakers.

In Spanish, masculine has an unmarked or default status that sharply distinguishes it from feminine. One piece of evidence comes from loanwords, which are overwhelmingly assigned masculine gender. In a study by De la Cruz Cabanillas et al. (2007) , 82% of the gendered loanwords in their corpus were masculine. In addition, masculine gender is also used in Spanish to refer to groups of individuals that include at least one male. As such, the noun phrase “los padres de Ana” (the MASC fathers of Ana) can refer to Ana’s father and mother; “mis hijos” (my sons) can include daughters but not vice-versa; and “los estudiantes” (the MASC students) can refer to groups of students in which all but one person are male. 1 The unmarked status of Spanish masculine gender is further highlighted by agreement phenomena. When prepositions, conjunctions, and other non-gender marked words are used as nouns, they take masculine prenominals (e.g., reemplaza este “aunque” por un “sin embargo”, replace this MASC “still” for a MASC “nevertheless”) and masculine determiners are used in nominalizations (e.g., “ el fumar mata,” the MASC smoking kills). A study by Eddington and Hualde (2008) presented intriguing evidence showing that native speakers of Spanish make errors when assigning gender to certain Spanish feminine nouns. In Spanish, the phonological pattern most typically associated with feminine gender is the presence of a final /a/ phoneme, illustrated in nouns such as “ casa” (house), “ mesa” (table), “ arpa” (harp), and “ águila” (eagle). Endings for masculine nouns include the vowels -o and -e , as well as a number of consonants (e.g., -l [“ caracol, ” snail MASC ], -n [“ tren ,” train MASC ], -j [“ reloj ,” watch MASC ]), reflecting the fact that Spanish masculine phonological endings are less restricted. Feminine nouns, however, have an additional complicating rule. When the onset of a Spanish feminine noun is a stressed /a/, singular definite determiners (“ la ,” the FEM ) and determiners ending in /-una/ (“ una ,” a FEM ; “ alguna ,” some FEM ; “ ninguna ,” none FEM ) must carry masculine gender if they immediately precede the noun. 2 The reason appears to be a phonetic infelicity involving word-final /a/ immediately followed by stressed word-initial /a/. This is shown in the examples (2a) and (2b) below:

(2) (a) un a costos a arp a

a FEM expensive FEM harp FEM

“an expensive harp”

(b) un arp a costos a

a MASC harp fem expensive fem

What Eddington and Hualde (2008) found is that this variation produces confusion in native speakers, which results in the (incorrect) use of masculine prenominal modifiers appearing to the left of these nouns and feminine post-nominal modifiers appearing to the right:

(3) (a) Echa tod o el agu a frí a en el barreño

pour all MASC the MASC water FEM cold FEM in the basin

“pour all the cold water in the basin”

(b) Echa tod a el agu a frí a en el barreñopour all FEM the MASC water FEM cold FEM in the basin

( Eddington and Hualde, 2008 , p. 4)

Psycholinguistic evidence also highlights the unmarked status of Spanish masculine gender. Domínguez et al. (1999) found that for masculine and feminine words closely matched in frequency, mean reaction times during a lexical decision task were shorter for the masculine than the feminine forms. Another source of linguistic evidence comes from studies on Spanish gender acquisition. Pérez-Pereira (1991) observed that monolingual Spanish-speaking children made use of a noun’s phonological shape (i.e., whether nouns ended in - a or - o ) when assigning gender to determiners. However, Pérez-Pereira also observed that children were more likely to assign masculine gender to nouns with irregular (i.e., ambiguous) phonological cues, suggesting a masculine default strategy in gender assignment ( Harris, 1991 ). One question raised by these results is whether the preference for masculine gender stems from distributional frequency differences in language input to children. Smith et al. (2003) examined a corpus of child-directed speech and developed a connectionist model of gender assignment to mirror the type frequency patterns to which a child is exposed over time. Analysis of the corpus revealed an equal number of masculine and feminine nouns. However, upon closer inspection, distributional frequency differences between regular (i.e., nouns ending in - a or - o ) and irregular nouns emerged: “while regular feminine nouns were slightly more frequent than regular masculine nouns, irregular masculine nouns outnumbered irregular feminine nouns by roughly 2 to 1” ( Smith et al., 2003 , p. 306). The model, which was incrementally trained on this input, produced a similar bias toward masculine gender when tested on novel words, suggesting that the frequency distribution, particularly the interaction between gender and word form ambiguity, plays a direct role in gender assignment.

A potential limitation of the Smith et al. (2003) study is that it did not examine the role of phonological factors beyond the word-final phoneme in determining gender assignment. Contrary to previous claims in the literature ( Harris, 1985 ; Roca, 1989 ), the correspondence between the gender of a noun and its phonological shape is not fortuitous. Eddington (2002) used an exemplar-based model to determine the gender of a noun based on its phonological shape. The database for the simulation included a list of highly frequent nouns in Spanish taken from Juilland and Chang-Rodríguez’s (1964) frequency estimates. Each noun was encoded to include its phonemic makeup (e.g., the word’s final phoneme) and the syllabic structure of the penultimate and final syllables. When the penultimate rhyme and final syllable variables were included in the model, the algorithm successfully assigned gender to 95% of nouns. To determine whether native speakers were able to exploit the same systematic correspondences as the model, Eddington tested a group of monolingual Spanish-speaking adults on a gender assignment task using novel words with ambiguous endings (i.e., final phonemes other than - a and - o ). The results produced a clear bias toward masculine gender assignment, replicating previous findings. Notably, an assessment of success and error rates for each of the variables confirmed a high degree of association between the model and native speakers’ intuitions.

Altogether, the Eddington (2002) results suggest that speakers establish and make use of phonological factors besides word-final phonemes to assign grammatical gender. Eddington suggests that the structure of the nouns themselves provides an explanation for speakers’ bias toward masculine due to a markedness asymmetry between the two genders. In a marked/unmarked relation, the marked member of the opposition (i.e., feminine gender) has a densely clustered category, settling on a tighter range of variance. The unmarked category (i.e., masculine gender), on the other hand, covers a wider range of configurations ( Greenberg, 1966 ). “[W]hat this means for gender is that a random throw of the dart onto a map of nouns organized according to phonological similarities, has a much higher probability of landing in a neighborhood of masculine nouns, even if they do not dominate feminine nouns numerically” ( Eddington, 2002 , p. 66). We return to the role of morphological markedness on gender processing in the section devoted to electrophysiological evidence.

Evidence From Bilingual Speakers

The evidence presented above raises the question of whether Spanish masculine and feminine articles differentially affect the time course of noun processing. One potential disadvantage of the current monolingual work is that most studies have employed offline grammaticality judgments or speech elicitation experiments with novel words out of context, which are artificial tasks. In this respect, bilingualism can be used as a tool to examine questions that are sometimes not easily studied with monolingual populations. We adopt a broad definition of bilingualism to include speakers who actively use two or more languages, regardless of whether those languages were acquired in early childhood or later in life. In this section, we will review gender assignment strategies in bilingual speakers with a special emphasis on codeswitching 3 , the alternation between languages within and between utterances in bilingual discourse. Like monolinguals, bilingual speakers of Spanish and another language have been shown to have a similar preference to assign masculine gender to determiners for loanwords ( Smead, 2000 ; Aaron, 2015 ), with the exception of established loanwords that are strongly morphologically integrated in Spanish (e.g., “la troca,” the truck; Clegg and Waltermire, 2009 ). However, a characteristic of many bilingual communities of the Spanish-speaking world is to routinely switch between Spanish and another language when speaking to other bilinguals. We propose that codeswitching provides a special testbed for the study of distributional asymmetries in gender assignment while circumventing some of the obstacles outlined above ( Myers-Scotton and Jake, 2015 ). Specifically, codeswitched noun phrases (NPs) are abundant in Spanish-English codeswitched speech ( Timm, 1975 ; Pfaff, 1979 ; Poplack, 1980 ). Because “mixed” NPs (i.e., NPs that appear in two languages) are highly frequent in the everyday speech of some bilingual populations, they provide a valuable alternative for examining gender assignment strategies as a means to reveal the underlying mechanisms that are responsible for asymmetrical distributions. How so? Because when bilinguals codeswitch, they make opportunistic decisions about how to integrate the two linguistic systems on the fly ( Green and Wei, 2014 ). Their production choices provide, in turn, a window on speakers’ prior linguistic experience ( Beatty-Martínez et al., 2018a ). For example, corpus studies on Spanish-English codeswitching have noted that bilinguals are more likely to produce mixed NPs with Spanish determiners and English nouns (e.g., “ el dog,” the SPAN dog ENG ) over mixed NPs with the opposite configuration (e.g., “the perro ,” the ENG dog SPAN ; Jake et al., 2002 ; Valdés Kroff, 2016 ; Beatty-Martínez et al., 2018a ; Królikowska et al., 2019 ; cf. Blokzijl et al., 2017 ). Similarly, many studies have reported a masculine tendency in the assignment of grammatical gender for Spanish-English mixed NPs similar to the sentences in (4a) and (4b) below ( Montes-Alcalá and Lapidus Shin, 2011 ; Valdés Kroff, 2016 ; cf. Liceras et al., 2008 ). What makes this observation particularly interesting is that many English nouns in mixed NPs have a clear Spanish translation equivalent, so the opportunity to examine how these switches are integrated in spontaneous conversation sheds light on the asymmetrical relationship between masculine and feminine by revealing which linguistic mechanisms are at play in a way that is otherwise obscured in monolingual speech.

(4) (a) La señora colocó un knife next to every plate

The woman placed a MASC knife MASC

(b) La señora colocó un   spoon next to every plate

The woman placed a MASC spoon FEM

Current work in our research group is aimed at determining the extent to which codeswitching patterns are community-specific or generalizable across different speech communities of the Spanish-speaking world. To explore this issue, we have designed a conversational paradigm to obtain spontaneous speech samples of bilingual speakers ( Beatty-Martínez and Dussias, 2017 ; Beatty-Martínez et al., 2018a ). In the task, participants are assigned the role of director and are instructed to communicate to a matcher addressee how to arrange a series of images printed on a map. To maximize ecological validity, no language restrictions are imposed; that is, participants are free to use whichever language they choose. The project resulted in four comparable corpora of over 100 Spanish-English bilingual young adults from four linguistically distinct interactional contexts (San Juan (PR), El Paso (TX), State College (PA), and Granada (Spain)). Based on these data, Królikowska et al. (2019) asked whether all groups showed the attested preference for masculine determiners before switching to an English noun, regardless of the gender of the translation equivalent.

Figure 1 illustrates an asymmetric relation between masculine and feminine grammatical gender assignment across all four groups. For bilinguals in San Juan and State College, the data show an overwhelming preference for masculine determiners, regardless of the grammatical gender of the Spanish translation equivalent. Moreover, while bilinguals in Granada and El Paso also exhibited higher rates of masculine determiners overall, they also produced higher rates of feminine determiners than the other two groups. Specifically, masculine and feminine determiners were produced at similar rates for nouns with feminine translation equivalents (e.g., “ la spoon,” the FEM spoon FEM ).

Figure 1 . Distribution of mixed NPs across four bilingual communities in Królikowska et al. (2019) .

Although more work is needed to unpack these results, one possible explanation for the variability between these four contexts is that bilinguals from these communities exhibit different rates of codeswitching overall. Figure 2 depicts rates of unilingual (e.g., English: “the dog”; or Spanish: “el perro”) and mixed (e.g., “el dog”) NPs across the four testing locations. Bilinguals from San Juan had the highest rate of codeswitching at almost 24%, while bilinguals from Granada had the lowest at 2%. Therefore, one possibility is that the more the bilinguals engage in codeswitching, the greater the tendency to assign the default masculine gender to mixed NPs. This is an important observation that supports previous claims that codeswitching preferences reflect community norms and are therefore not necessarily generalizable across bilingual populations, even when examining the same language pair ( Poplack, 1988 ; Aaron, 2015 ; Beatty-Martínez et al., 2018a ).

Figure 2 . Rates of expression of unilingual and mixed NPs across four bilingual communities in Królikowska et al. (2019) .

Because most English words differ from typical Spanish words with respect to their phonological shape ( Clegg, 2010 ; Butt and Benjamin, 2013 ), it is difficult to determine whether the masculine default strategy is, at least to some degree, driven by phonological factors ( Poplack et al., 1982 ; DuBord, 2004 ; Montes-Alcalá and Lapidus Shin, 2011 ). Below, we consider two recent studies that examined how the phonological shape of nouns from different source languages (i.e., Basque and Purepecha) can influence the choices speakers make in terms of the choice of gender assignment.

Parafita Couto et al. (2015) examined grammatical gender assignment strategies of Spanish-Basque NPs in naturalistic speech and auditory judgement data. Basque differs from Spanish and English in its morphological behavior and NP word order. In Basque, the definite determiner - a appears suffixed to the noun (e.g. “sagarr- a,” the apple) which is coincidentally homophonous with the regular feminine endings in Spanish (e.g., “la manzana”). The naturalistic data indicated a preference for the feminine determiner when it was congruent with the Basque phonological ending - a , providing converging evidence for the role of a noun’s phonological shape in gender assignment.

In a similar study, Bellamy et al. (2018) examined gender assignment in Spanish-Purepecha mixed NPs using a production task and an online acceptability judgement task. Like Basque, Purepecha has bound suffixes terminating in - a that coincides with phonological cues to feminine gender assignment in Spanish. In the production task, participants overwhelmingly preferred to use masculine determiners, irrespective of the noun ending or Spanish translation equivalent. In the acceptability judgement task, participants also preferred masculine assignment except in cases where nouns ended in - a . Bellamy et al. interpreted this result to indicate that orthography can lead speakers to re-interpret the - a ending suffix, a marker of feminine gender. Furthermore, the discrepant findings of these tasks provide evidence that the modality of the task can influence gender agreement strategies in Spanish speakers. Taken together, these studies highlight how preferences in gender agreement are susceptible to both cross-language effects and the type of task. In the next section, we consider how bilingual language experience can lead to the same adaptive consequences in predictive processing.

Implications for Language Processing

Eye-tracking evidence.

We discussed earlier how the study of codeswitching provides a unique lens through which the differential status of masculine and feminine gender in Spanish can be examined. The distributional patterns outlined in the “Evidence From Bilingual Speakers” section on the use of grammatical gender in Spanish-English mixed noun phrases raise the question of whether the asymmetries observed in Spanish-English mixed NPs has consequences for the comprehension system, as would be predicted by experience-based models of language processing (e.g., MacDonald, 2013 ; Dell and Chang, 2014 ). Initial results indicate that they do. In a series of eye-tracking experiments, Valdés Kroff et al. (2016) capitalized on competitor ( Allopenna et al., 1998 ) and anticipatory ( Lew-Williams and Fernald, 2007 ) effects reported in studies of spoken language processing using the visual world paradigm ( Tanenhaus et al., 1995 ) to examine whether the overwhelming preference for the Spanish masculine article in codeswitched noun phrases had any consequences for the comprehension system. Target items in the codeswitching condition were made up of a Spanish preamble (“Encuentra el / la ,” find the MASC /the FEM ) followed by an English target noun, yielding mixed NPs such as “ Encuentra el candy .” To provide a test of the hypothesis that speakers exploit feminine but not masculine cues on determiners to anticipate upcoming nouns, they incorporated an additional manipulation. The mixed NPs contained pairs of items that were phonological competitors in English. For example, candy and candle overlap phonologically in the first syllable [kæn], but critically their Spanish translations differ in grammatical gender; candy is English for dulce MASC or caramelo MASC and candle is English for vela FEM . Because in mixed NPs, the pattern from corpus studies suggests that the definite article el surfaces with English nouns whose Spanish translations are both masculine and feminine, the prediction was that the gender information encoded in the article would not facilitate the processing of sentences such as “Encuentra el candy.” Instead, the presence of phonological competitors should evince a competitor effect, and this is precisely what they found. When a masculine article was heard in the presence of the picture pair candle - candy , the results showed a clear competitor effect, suggesting that the masculine article el was not informative when bilinguals were asked to select a noun. In other words, it functioned as a default article in Spanish-English codeswitching. When a feminine article was heard in the presence of the same two pictures (i.e., “Encuentra la candle”), the results showed a different pattern. Participants failed to display an anticipatory effect and instead experienced an extended delay in processing for target items that did not match in grammatical gender (e.g., la candy) likely reflecting the rarity of this type of mixed NP in Spanish-English codeswitching.

Electrophysiological Evidence

Thus far, we have argued that the distributional asymmetry between masculine and feminine gender reflects underlying differences in the representation of the two genders. In this section, we turn to electrophysiological studies of grammatical gender to examine possible differences in processing and representation for masculine and feminine nouns in unilingual and mixed NPs. In contrast to behavioral measures, which reflect the cumulative outcome of several processes, the event-related potentials (ERPs) technique can provide high temporal resolution indices at different stages of processing, which is reflected in modulations of distinguishable components. Importantly, ERPs have been found to be modulated by different linguistic processes, including morphological markedness ( Deutsch and Bentin, 2001 ; Kaan, 2002 ; Alemán Bañón and Rothman, 2016 ), making this technique particularly suitable to uncover potential differences in the processing of masculine and feminine grammatical gender.

ERPs have been widely employed to investigate the time course of noun phrase grammatical gender processing in both monolingual ( Wicha et al., 2004 ; Barber and Carreiras, 2005 ; Caffarra and Barber, 2015 ) and bilingual ( Caffarra et al., 2017a ) speakers. The general finding is that grammatical gender violations in Spanish elicit a biphasic pattern, consisting of a Left Anterior Negativity (LAN) around 300 ms after stimulus onset and a subsequent P600 after 500 ms. 4 The LAN effect has been suggested to reflect initial processes for detection of a morphosyntactic violation ( Osterhout, 1997 ). The P600 effect has been linked to processes of reanalysis and repair of syntactic anomalies ( Osterhout and Holcomb, 1992 ; Friederici et al., 1996 ; Kaan et al., 2000 ).

Caffarra and Barber (2015) investigated whether distributional gender cues conveyed by Spanish noun endings (i.e., - a for feminine and - o for masculine) can influence gender processing in native Spanish speakers. Nouns with regular endings elicited a greater sustained negativity around 200 ms after the stimulus onset suggesting that Spanish speakers are sensitive to noun endings (see Halberstadt et al., 2018 for related findings with second language speakers of Spanish using eye-tracking methodology). Notwithstanding, a LAN-P600 biphasic pattern was similarly reported for gender violations for both regular and irregular nouns. Based on these findings, the authors concluded that grammatical gender agreement processes rely mostly on the representation of gender, regardless of distributional gender cues conveyed by noun endings. Using the same paradigm, Caffarra et al. (2017a) replicated these results with Spanish-Basque bilinguals but observed that participants who reported using Spanish more regularly were able to detect violations for irregular nouns earlier and more easily than those who were Basque dominant. These results highlight the role of regular correspondence between the word form and a specific gender class and, more broadly, of experience that users have with language in category learning and representation. At the same time, these findings also suggest that lexical representations may become more entrenched with greater language experience, resulting in more efficient processing.

A few studies have investigated gender agreement processes of masculine and feminine genders separately using ERPs. Alemán Bañón and Rothman (2016) examined the brain’s sensitivity to noun-adjective agreement violations during online sentence comprehension. ERPs were time-locked to adjectives appearing predicatively in relative clauses. In their design, half of the items were masculine and the other half were feminine. They found that both types of gender agreement violations yielded robust P600 effects albeit earlier for feminine-marked adjectives. Alemán Bañón and Rothman interpreted the difference in latency as evidence that violations realized on marked predicates are easier to detect and thus revised more quickly, consistent with previous work on syntactic processes of diagnosis and repair (e.g., Friederici, 1998 ; Kaan, 2002 ). Notwithstanding, the processing of noun-adjective agreement has been shown to differ from the processing of gender assignment with nouns ( Dewaele and Véronique, 2001 ; Barber and Carreiras, 2003 ; Kupisch et al., 2013 ), and while adjectives and nouns have overlapping cues to gender, there are differences in marking consistency between the two elements. It follows that a manipulation of gender agreement ultimately addresses a different question than the one we ask here: If the attested distributional asymmetries in gender assignment reflect differences intrinsic to the structure of nouns (e.g., Eddington, 2002 ) and speakers have been shown to attend to and make use of these cues in production, what consequences do these adjustments have for lexical processing and representation?

To our knowledge, only two studies have compared gender processes in nouns as a function of their gender in Spanish. Beatty-Martínez and Dussias (2017) examined gender processing in mixed NPs for bilinguals differing in codeswitching experience (i.e., codeswitchers and non-codeswitchers). In their design, the gender of the target noun (i.e., the gender of its translation equivalent in Spanish; e.g., masculine: “knife,” cuchillo MASC or feminine: “spoon,” cuchara FEM ) was manipulated such that it either agreed in gender with the preceding determiner (congruent condition: “ el knife,” the MASC knife MASC ) or not (incongruent condition: “ la knife,” the FEM knife MASC ). For codeswitchers, masculine targets in incongruent mixed NPs (e.g., “ la knife”) were more difficult to integrate relative to masculine targets in congruent mixed NPs (e.g., “ el knife”; Figure 3A ). Importantly, incongruent mixed NPs with masculine determiners (e.g., “ el spoon”) did not result in processing difficulties ( Figure 3B ). The authors interpreted this result as evidence for bilinguals’ sensitivity to distributional codeswitching patterns (i.e., incongruent mixed NPs with feminine determiners are rarely attested in naturalistic codeswitching; Valdés Kroff, 2016 ; Beatty-Martínez et al., 2018a ). Non-codeswitchers, on the other hand, only showed sensitivity to agreement violations for mixed NPs involving feminine translation equivalents: incongruent mixed NPs (e.g., “ el spoon”) elicited a P600 effect ( Figure 3D ). While the absence of the P600 in incongruent mixed NPs involving masculine translation equivalents (e.g., “ la knife”; Figure 3C ) is likely due to substantial variability in participants’ responses ( McLaughlin et al., 2010 ; Qi et al., 2017 ), these differences in themselves are likely indications of the differential representation of masculine and feminine gender.

Figure 3 . ERPs time-locked to the onset of masculine (A,C) and feminine (B,D) nouns for codeswitchers (A,B) and non-codeswitchers (C,D) at the electrode site Cz. Figure adapted from Beatty-Martínez and Dussias, 2017 , Copyright (2017), with permission from Elsevier.

An alternative explanation proposed in the Caffarra et al. (2017a) study is that knowledge and usage of a second language may influence the strength of gender lexical representation, and that therefore, bilinguals may not rely on gender features in the same way as native speakers. We would like to take this proposal a step further and assume that variability in grammatical gender processing exists even among monolinguals processing their native language (see Tanner et al., 2014 , for a discussion on “native-like” processing). We consider a recent study whose findings may provide insights into this issue. Beatty-Martínez et al. (2018b) examined the electrophysiological correlates of masculine and feminine gender violations in native monolingual Spanish speakers. Specifically, ERPs were recorded while participants read sentences in Spanish that were either well-formed or contained grammatical gender violations. Half of the target nouns were masculine (e.g., “cuchillo,” knife) and half were feminine (e.g., “cuchara,” spoon) in gender. When collapsed across gender, the gender violation showed the classical LAN-P600 biphasic pattern. However, splitting the data by noun gender revealed different ERP patterns to masculine and feminine gender. Responses to masculine grammatical gender violations had far greater variability and showed a reduced P600 ( Figure 4A ). This is consistent with previous studies showing reduced sensitivity to morphological violations involving unmarked elements ( Deutsch and Bentin, 2001 ; Kaan, 2002 ; Alemán Bañón and Rothman, 2016 ). As illustrated in Figure 4B , feminine gender violations elicited a more robust P600 response that was modulated by vocabulary knowledge: individuals with higher Spanish vocabulary were more sensitive to grammatical gender violations with feminine nouns. We interpret this finding to suggest that as vocabulary increases, so does the strength of the representation of noun clusters, supporting the more general idea that experience with language affects the structure of categories and has an impact on cognitive representations (e.g., Bybee, 2010 ). Together, the results in this section provide support for a differential representation between masculine and feminine gender by demonstrating that variability in gender processing exists even among groups traditionally assumed to be homogenous.

Figure 4 . ERPs time-locked to the onset of masculine (A) and feminine (B) nouns at F3 and Pz electrode sites adapted from Beatty-Martínez et al. (2018b) .

The main objective of this paper was to examine distributional asymmetries between masculine and feminine gender, the resulting biases in gender assignment, and the consequences of these assignment strategies on gender expectancy and processing. While the available evidence is not conclusive, a striking feature that emerges from this review is an underlying difference in the representation and processing of masculine and feminine gender in Spanish. What does this difference mean for our understanding of grammatical gender? The processing results reported here, together with the acquisition data, suggest that assumptions made in past processing literature, which have treated different gender classes similarly, is unwarranted. Grammatical gender has been extensively studied in a wide variety of disciplines, yet there is often little crosstalk between different fields of study. Within the second language processing literature for example, grammatical gender has served as the benchmark of native-like attainment, with some studies reporting differential sensitivity in the second language and others arguing against such differences. The evidence presented here contributes to this debate through a consideration of distributional factors in explaining differences in grammatical gender processing.

While distributional asymmetries are not necessarily language specific, we caution against generalizing the specific biases arising in Spanish across other gendered languages for several reasons. First, languages differ with respect to how gender classes are distributed. While masculine and feminine gender are distributed approximately equally in Spanish ( Bull, 1965 ), other languages with a binary gender system have a less balanced distribution (e.g., about 3:1 ratio for masculine and neuter nouns in Dutch; van Berkum, 1996 ). Gendered languages also differ in the degree to which gender assignment can be made in terms of phonological shape or morphological composition. For example, historical sound change in French turned regular feminine endings to schwas (e.g., “fenestra → fenêtre,” window), resulting in greater phonic ambiguity in the endings of masculine and feminine nouns ( Nelson, 2005 ). Moving forward, we suggest that more interdisciplinary studies are needed to exploit the consequences of distributional regularities on language processing. More broadly, processing research must proceed from a distinct set of assumptions regarding the status of grammatical gender, adopting an approach in which gender is not viewed as a single concept but rather recognized as a complex and granular phenomenon, whose processing reflexes may exhibit surprising asymmetries.

Author Contributions

Both authors have contributed equally to the manuscript and approved it for publication.

The writing of this paper was supported in part by A Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship to AB-M and by NSF grants BCS-1535124 and OISE-1545900 to PD.

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.


We are grateful to Rena Torres Cacoullos and Christian A. Navarro-Torres for helpful comments and discussions during the preparation of this manuscript. We would also like to thank the editor and the reviewers for the comments on the earlier versions of the manuscript.

1. Although not the focus of the current view, there is also some evidence of grammatical gender asymmetries when referring to human beings (or animate beings in general). More specifically, some have argued that the generic use of masculine forms in gendered languages may lead to biased representations of gender during language processing (Spanish: Carreiras et al., 1996 ; see Gabriel and Gygax, 2016 , for a detailed discussion on this issue).

2. While exceptions exist (e.g., ‘ el dí a ’, the MASC day MASC ; ‘l a man o ’, the FEM hand FEM ), − a and - o endings been shown to be highly correlated with masculine and feminine gender respectively ( Bull, 1965 ; Harris, 1991 ; Eddington, 2002 ; Clegg, 2010 ). We refer to - a and - o endings as predictor variables for gender assignment rather than gender morphemes. These variables are probabilistic, some being more reliable than others (see Table 1 in Eddington, 2002 , for a list of other phonemic variables interpreted as relevant for gender assignment).

3. For ease of exposition, we adopt a broad definition of codeswitching to include single word and multiword constituents.

4. We note that the LAN is not consistently observed across studies examining morphosyntactic violations (e.g., Wicha et al., 2004 ; Alemán Bañón et al., 2012 ). Recent reports have questioned whether this effect even exists ( Tanner, 2015 ), although others disagree ( Molinaro et al., 2015 ; Caffarra et al., 2017b ).

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Keywords: grammatical gender, gender assignment, language processing, language variation, Spanish

Citation: Beatty-Martínez AL and Dussias PE (2019) Revisiting Masculine and Feminine Grammatical Gender in Spanish: Linguistic, Psycholinguistic, and Neurolinguistic Evidence. Front. Psychol . 10:751. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00751

Received: 05 February 2019; Accepted: 18 March 2019; Published: 05 April 2019.

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*Correspondence: Anne L. Beatty-Martínez, [email protected]

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Article contents

  • Jenny Audring Jenny Audring Leiden University
  • Published online: 07 July 2016

Gender is a grammatical feature, in a family with person, number, and case. In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender. A typical example is Italian, which has masculine words for male persons ( il bambino “the. m little boy”) and feminine words for female persons ( la bambina “the. f little girl”). However, gender systems may be based on other semantic distinctions or may reflect formal properties of the noun. In all cases, the defining property is agreement: the behavior of associated words. In Italian, the masculine gender of the noun bambino matches its meaning as well as its form—the noun ends in – o and inflects like a regular –o class noun—but the true indicator of gender is the form of the article. This can be seen in words like la mano “the. f hand,” which is feminine despite its final - o , and il soprano “the. m soprano,” which is masculine, although it usually refers to a woman. For the same reasons, we speak of grammatical gender only if the distinction is reflected in syntax; a language that has words for male and female persons or animals does not necessarily have a gender system.

Across the languages of the world, gender systems vary widely. They differ in the number of classes, in the underlying assignment rules, and in how and where gender is marked. Since agreement is a definitional property, gender is generally absent in isolating languages as well as in young languages with little bound morphology, including sign languages. Therefore, gender is considered a mature phenomenon in language.

Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features. For example, it may be limited to the singular number or the third person, and it may be crosscut by case distinctions. These and other interrelations can complicate the task of figuring out a gender system in first or second language acquisition. Yet, children master gender early, making use of a broad variety of cues. By contrast, gender is famously difficult for second-language learners. This is especially true for adults and for learners whose first language does not have a gender system. Nevertheless, tests show that even for this group, native-like competence is possible to attain.

  • morphosyntax
  • classification

1. What is Grammatical Gender?

In everyday speech, the word “gender” is associated with the biological and social differences between women and men. In addition, people might know that languages can have masculine and feminine words . So at first blush, it may seem that grammatical gender is a reflection of natural gender in grammar.

1.1 Kinds and Concepts

The view that grammatical gender mirrors natural gender has been widespread since antiquity and is still evident in the terms “masculine,” “feminine,” and “neuter” (historically meaning “neither”), which are used to label individual gender distinctions, especially in Indo-European languages. Indeed, many languages show a match between natural and grammatical gender. Clear examples from across the world are Tamil in India, Dizi in Ethiopia, Diyari in Southern Australia (now extinct), and Bagvalal in the Caucasus (Corbett, 1991 ; Kibort & Corbett, 2008 ). In these and many other languages, nouns denoting male persons are masculine, and nouns denoting female persons are feminine. Other nouns are treated in varied ways: they may be added to the masculine or the feminine gender or may occupy one or several genders of their own.

However, not all languages function like this. First, many languages—slightly more than half of the languages in a representative sample (Corbett, 2013a )—do not have grammatical gender at all. Of those that do, some disregard the difference between male and female and assign all words for humans or for living beings to the same class. Yet other languages have a special “vegetable” gender for plants, a gender for foodstuffs, a gender for large or important things, a gender for liquids or abstracts, and many more. Such patterns remind us that the word gender (Greek: γένος ‎) originally meant “kind” rather than “sex.” While the split into male and female is the most common semantic base of gender systems (Corbett, 2013b ), it is by no means the only option.

Relaxing the expectation that grammatical gender is always related to biological sex also opens up the possibility that a language may have more than two or three genders. Indeed, systems can be far richer, with a maximum of around 20 different genders found in Fula, a language of the Niger-Congo family spoken in Nigeria. In descriptions of such large systems, it is common practice to label the various classes with numbers rather than names. This is not only more practical, it also reflects the fact that not all of these classes are meaningful. In fact, most classes in Fula do not have a clear semantic content (Breedveld, 1995 , p. 297).

The observation that gender does not always perfectly align with meaning holds for almost half of the relevant languages (47% of the 112 gender languages in Corbett, 2013c ). This may mean either that one or two classes are meaningful while the others are not, or that all classes contain words for semantic as well as non-semantic reasons. The first situation can be seen in the Nakh-Daghestanian language Tsez (Comrie, 1999 , example 1 ), the second in the Indo-European language Latvian (example 2 ).

(1) Tsez (Nakh-Daghestanian): Open in new tab Gender I – male persons Gender II – female persons + various other Gender III – various Gender IV – various Open in new tab
(2) Latvian (IE, Baltic, Heiko Marten p.c.): Open in new tab vecā māte ‘old mother’ – feminine for semantic reasons vecā māja ‘old house’ – feminine for formal reasons vecais tēvs ‘old father’ – masculine for semantic reasons vecais koks ‘old tree’ – masculine for formal reasons Open in new tab

The imperfect match between gender and meaning has inspired two diverging lines of thinking, both dating back to the early Greek scholars (see Kilarski, 2013 for an overview of the scientific history). The first sought to restore the match with the help of hidden layers of meaning attributed to metaphorical extension, personification, or culture-specific classification often inaccessible to the outside observer (notable advocates of this view were Grimm, 1831 and von Humboldt, 1822 ), but the idea also appears in Lakoff ( 1987 ). The second acknowledges that gender is, to a large extent, a matter of grammar—a classification of nouns rather than of kinds and concepts.

1.2 Classifying Nouns

Gender is one of the systems of noun classification, alongside classifiers on one end (3) and inflectional classes on the other (4).

(3) Classifiers in Jacaltec (Kanjobalan Mayan: Craig, 1992 , p. 284; adapted from Aikhenvald, 2000 , p. 82). Open in new tab xil naj xuwan no7 lab’a saw CL:MAN John CL:ANIMAL snake ‘(man) John saw the (animal) snake’ Open in new tab
(4) Inflectional classes in Latin (from Haspelmath & Sims, 2010 , p. 159) Open in new tab o-class u-class Nominative singular hort-us grad-us Genitive singular hort-ī grad-ūs Open in new tab

In (3), the classifiers naj “man” and no7 “animal” indicate that John is a person, while the snake is an animal. In (4), the nouns hortus “garden” and gradus “step” have the same ending in the nominative singular, but different endings in other cases. The different forms used to express the same feature, here genitive singular, show that the two nouns belong to different inflection classes or “declensions.” While both classifiers and declensions are means to classify nouns, they differ in many respects. Among other things, classifiers are meaningful, while most inflectional class systems have at best weak links with semantics.

Gender seems to have affinities with both systems. We find historical evidence that gender may develop out of classifier systems (see section 3.1, The Birth of Gender Systems). On the other hand, genders often partially match inflectional classes when a language has both, leading linguists to think that the systems strive to cooperate or—arguably—that one determines the other (Doleschal, 2000 ; Faarlund, Lie, & Vannebo, 1997 ; Bittner, 2000 ; Kürschner & Nübling, 2011 ; see Enger, 2004 and Thornton, 2001 for critical discussion, and Aronoff, 1994 on the general relation between inflectional class and gender).

Gender also has links with derivational morphology. Many languages have morphological means of deriving words for male and female persons and animals, with morphemes that resemble the gender markers found elsewhere in the language. For example, the South-American language Mosetén has pairs of nouns as in (5), whose endings, – si’ (feminine) and – tyi’ (masculine), also appear as agreement markers on adjectives, relative clause markers, numerals, and other words (Sakel, 2004 , pp. 86–88, translations adjusted).

(5) nanasi’ ‘girl’ nanatyi’ ‘boy’ minsi’ ‘female person’ mintyi’ ‘male person’

The argument for analyzing nominal – si’ and – tyi’ in (5) as derivational morphemes rather than as gender markers is that the language does not usually express gender overtly on the noun (Sakel, 2004 , p. 86).

In addition, derivational suffixes are typically associated with a fixed gender value. For example, French nouns ending in - elle are feminine: ruelle “alleyway,” dentelle “lace.” Such regularities may even override semantic motivations in favor of another gender value. A classic example is the French noun sentinelle “guard,” which often denotes a male person but is feminine nonetheless.

1.3 Agreement Classes

The property that sets gender apart from other types of noun classification is agreement, the morphological expression on words other than the noun. While languages can mark gender on the noun itself—such systems are called overt gender systems—this is not a necessary characteristic. Marking on associated words, however, is required: without agreement, we have no evidence for gender (Corbett, 1991 ; Hockett, 1958 , p. 231; see Audring ( 2011 ) for a number of key references from the extensive literature on gender agreement). Common places where gender agreement shows up are adjectives, verbs, and pronouns, and many languages also mark gender on articles, numerals, and question words (see example 6 from Russian).

(6) Russian, gender agreement on numerals, adjectives, and verbs (Stephan Audring, p.c.) Open in new tab odn-a pust-aja butylka upal-a one- empty- bottle( f)sg fall.over. pst - ‘one empty bottle fell over’ Open in new tab

More rarely, gender agreement can be found on adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and even words for “yes” and “no”—see example ( 7 ) from a variety of Dutch spoken in Belgium.

(7) Wambeek Dutch, gender marked on “yes” (Van Craenenbroeck, 2010 , p. 211) Open in new tab Kom Marie mergen? – Jui-s. come. prs.3sg Mary tomorrow – yes- ‘Is Mary coming tomorrow? – Yes, she is.’ Open in new tab

Agreement is what makes gender a morphosyntactic feature, together with number and person, and distinguishes it from inflectional class and from classes of derived words. Examples ( 8 ) and ( 9 ) illustrate the difference.

(8) Gender vs. inflectional class (Italian; Thornton, 2001 , p. 485) Open in new tab Gender Class 1 Class 2 Class 3 Class 4 Class 5 Class 6 sg. – o , sg. – a , sg. – e , sg. – a , sg. – o , invariable pl. - i pl. - e pl. - i pl. - i pl. - a Masculine libro – padre papa uovo bar ‘book’ ‘father’ ‘pope’ ‘egg’ ‘coffee shop’ Feminine mano casa madre ala uova star ‘hand’ ‘house’ ‘mother’ ‘wing’ ‘eggs’ ‘famous person’ Open in new tab

Table ( 8 ) shows that the relation between gender and inflectional class in Italian is not 1 to 1—every inflectional class except class 2 contains nouns of both genders, although there are large statistical tendencies (e.g., class 1 nouns are typically masculine). For gender, agreement is decisive; although mano inflects like a masculine noun, it takes feminine agreements, while papa looks like it should be feminine but takes masculine agreements.

(9) Gender vs. classes of derived words (German) Open in new tab Suffix Example Gender - heit die Freiheit ‘the freedom’ feminine - ung die Ordnung ‘the order’ feminine - (i)tät die Kontinuität ‘the continuity’ feminine - nis die Finsternis ‘the darkness’ feminine das Gedächtnis ‘the memory’ neuter - tum der Reichtum ‘the wealth’ masculine das Wachstum ‘the growth’ neuter Open in new tab

In Table ( 9 ), we see that gender and suffix classes are not equivalent; the suffixes - heit, -ung , and -(i)tät take the same gender agreement in German, while the suffix - nis is found in both feminine and neuter nouns, and the suffix - tum is associated with masculine or neuter gender. Again, agreement is what is decisive for gender, not the noun’s own morphology.

Summing up, gender can be viewed from three basic angles. First, it can be seen as a classification system for concepts, based on properties such as sex or animacy, or shape and size. Second, it can be taken as a system for classifying nouns, which highlights its affinities with inflectional and derivational morphology as well as with classifiers. Third, gender can be viewed as a system of agreement classes, defined via the behavior of associated words. The last view, which takes a syntactic rather than a semantic criterion as foundational, is prevalent in the current linguistic literature.

1.4 Gender and Other Grammatical Features

Gender interacts in various ways with other grammatical features, especially person, number, and case, but also tense. These interactions often manifest themselves in the form of conditions; gender marking may be restricted to a part of the paradigm. A well-known condition has been formulated as one of Greenberg’s universals: “A language never has more gender categories in nonsingular numbers than in the singular” (Greenberg, 1963 , p. 112; Universal 37). While a number of counterexamples have been found (Plank & Schellinger, 1997 ), it appears to be generally true that many languages mark fewer genders in the plural than in the singular, or that they neutralize gender completely in non-singular environments. Similar conditions can be found between other features. Another proposed universal is that “[i]f a language has gender distinctions in the first person, it always has gender distinctions in the second or third person, or in both” (Greenberg, 1963 , p. 96; Universal 44). This means that gender marking in pronominal paradigms is often present in the second and/or third person, but absent in the first. In other cases, conditions apply between gender and tense. In Russian, for example, verbs agree in gender (example 6 ), but only in the past tense.

A further complexity in many languages is the interaction between gender and case. Especially when the same morphological markers express both features at once, children may have a harder time figuring out the forms and functions of the two systems (see section 4.1 below).

1.5 A Canonical Gender System

Languages across the world vary widely and interestingly. In some instances, there may be doubts whether a language has grammatical gender or not. Therefore, it is useful to look at a few basic properties expected in a gender system, and some common divergences (for more on canonical agreement, canonical features, and canonical gender, see Corbett, 2006 , Corbett, 2012 , and Corbett & Fedden, 2015 ).

First, we expect that if a language has grammatical gender, then every noun in that language should belong to exactly one gender. This means that the system accommodates all nouns (rather than just a subset) and that, in principle, each noun has only one fixed gender value. Divergences from this ideal can be sporadic or systematic. In sporadic cases, we find individual nouns varying in the agreements they trigger. For example in Hebrew, a few nouns are reported to have either feminine or masculine gender, for instance, dereh “road, way” (Aikhenvald, 2000 , p. 44). This is an example of a double-gender noun (Corbett, 1991 , pp. 181–182). A different case is hybrid nouns (Corbett, 1991 , pp. 183–184) such as the Dutch diminutive zusje “(little) sister,” which belongs to the neuter gender but often takes feminine pronouns.

Especially interesting are more systematic cases of variation, where the gender of nouns can be manipulated by the speaker. For example, in languages that associate certain genders with size, high value, or importance, it may be possible to upgrade or downgrade a person or object by placing it into another gender. Example ( 10 ) comes from the Nigerian Bantu language Herero (also known as Otjiherero). The noun for “knife” belongs to class 11, as indicated by the prefix (o)ru - (10a), but it can be used with the class 7 prefix (o)tji - to mean “big knife” (10b). The new class prefix is added before the existing one. Note how the class change is reflected in the agreement on the possessive pronoun.

(10) Herero (Kavari & Marten, 2009 ; glosses simplified) a. oru-vyó rw-ándje 11-knife 11-my ‘my knife’ b. otji-ru-vyó tjá-ndje 7-11-knife 7-my ‘my big knife’

In systems such as this, gender may be difficult to distinguish from (or indeed be intertwined with) diminution and/or augmentation, as well as lexical derivation. Similar difficulties may arise when there is overlap between gender and number (see Corbett & Hayward, 1987 , for a famous case, the Cushitic language Bayso, whose plural is sometimes analyzed as a gender).

A second expected property of a gender system is that it has a semantic core (Corbett, 1991 , p. 63). This means that even when many or most nouns are assigned to a gender on the basis of their form (see section 2.2 below), some alignment between gender and semantics is expected. Even in languages for which the gender of nouns has been regarded as arbitrary (famously French and German, but see again 2.2), the system is semantically motivated to some degree, especially for persons and higher animals (11).

(11) Semantically motivated feminine/masculine noun pairs in French and German Open in new tab German (F/M) French (F/M) Translation die Frau/der Mann la femme/l’homme ‘the woman/the man’ die Nichte/der Neffe la nièce/le neveu ‘the niece/the nephew’ die Stute/der Hengst la jument/l’étalon ‘the mare/the stallion’ die Kuh/der Stier la vache/le taureau ‘the cow/the bull’ Open in new tab

On the other hand, when gender systems are perfectly semantic, researchers sometimes separate them from grammatical gender and speak of “semantic gender,” “natural gender,” “agreement in sex” or “animacy agreement,” which may be unhelpful, as it introduces artificial splits between otherwise equivalent systems.

A third canonical property is that gender agreement should occur in the form of affixes or (more rarely) clitics, and in more than one lexical category or more than one syntactic domain. This means that we expect languages to show gender on several words in the utterance, for instance on adjectives, verbs, and pronouns. The Bantu language Chichewa, for example, is highly canonical in this respect: in addition to marking gender on the noun itself, it clocks up the following list of agreement targets (Bentley & Kulemeka, 2001 ; Mchombo, 2004 ,):

Finite verbs (subject and object agreement).


Demonstrative pronouns.

Relative pronouns.

Possessive pronouns.

Indefinite/quantitative pronouns.

Question words.

Associative markers (comparable to prepositions).

In general, more agreement results in an easier to recognize gender system. If agreement in a particular language is restricted to a single category, like pronouns, then the existence of grammatical gender in that language might be debatable. The most famous case is English, which only shows evidence for gender on personal and possessive pronouns, leading researchers (and laypersons) to argue about whether English has a gender system or not.

By looking at just three of the many ways in which gender systems can meet or defy expectations, the usefulness of typological knowledge about cross-linguistic variation becomes evident—an indispensable tool in analysis and theory.

2. Gender in the Languages of the World

In a sample of 257 languages from different geographical areas and linguistic families, 112 are shown to have a gender system (Corbett, 2013a ). Their distribution across the world is heterogeneous. Gender systems are common in Europe, in Africa, and in Australia, but they are comparatively rare in the Americas and practically absent in large parts of Asia and in the Pacific (Aikhenvald, 2000 , p. 78; Corbett, 2013a ). In the linguistic literature, the best-represented and most widely researched gender systems are those of the Indo-European and the Niger Congo languages, in particular from the Bantu genus. Aside from these, individual fame is enjoyed by languages such as Arapesh (Fortune, 1942 ; but especially thanks to Aronoff, 1994 ; see also Dobrin, 2012 ), Bayso (Corbett & Hayward, 1987 ), Dyirbal (Dixon, 1972 ; popularly known through Lakoff, 1987 ; but see also Plaster & Polinsky, 2010 ), Miraña (Seifart, 2004 ), Ngan’gityemmeri (Reid, 1997 ), Russian (Corbett, 1991 ), Yimas (Foley, 1991 ), and Zande (Aikhenvald, 2000 ; Claudi, 1985 ). These languages have gender systems that are seen as especially informative or challenging for various reasons, such as their many genders (Arapesh, Ngan’gityemmeri), their complex or unusual assignment systems (Arapesh, Dyirbal, Yimas), their history (Ngan’gityemmeri, Zande), or their interaction between gender and other features (Bayso, Miraña, Ngan’gityemmeri, Russian).

Gender systems come in a broad variety of shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, we can distinguish three parameters of variation:

The number of gender values.

The type of assignment rules.

The amount and place of agreement marking.

Let us briefly look at each in turn.

2.1 How Many Gender Values?

The smallest possible number of gender values is two, and two-gender-systems are the most common worldwide (Corbett, 2013a ). On the upper end, languages with more than a dozen classes have been identified, for instance, Arapesh, spoken on Papua New Guinea, with 13 genders (Aronoff, 1992 , 1994 ; Fortune, 1942 ), Ngan’gityemerri, a Daly language spoken in Australia, with 15 genders (Reid, 1997 ), and Nigerian Fula with more than 20 genders depending on dialect and analysis (Arnott, 1970 ; Breedveld, 1995 ).

Establishing how many genders a language has is not always simple and straightforward. Since the indicators for gender are agreeing words, any inconsistencies or mismatches within or among these words can complicate the analysis. For example, there are languages in which not all agreeing words mark the same array of genders. A case in point is Dutch, where gender is marked on definite articles, attributive adjectives, and relative and demonstrative pronouns. All of these distinguish two gender values: common and neuter. Furthermore, gender is marked on personal and possessive pronouns, and here we find three values: masculine, feminine, and neuter (with syncretism between masculine and neuter in the possessives). This makes it hard to say how many genders Dutch has—two or three—and this is indeed a matter of debate in the linguistic and pedagogical literature (see Audring, 2009 for discussion). In other languages, the number of genders is difficult to state for other reasons, for example, because markers are syncretic or otherwise ambiguous (e.g., in Romanian, see Corbett, 1991 , pp. 150–152; Corbett, 2014 , pp. 93–94). Moreover, small clusters of nouns may behave exceptionally (see Corbett, 1991 , pp. 170–175 on “inquorate genders”) or the gender system may overlap with other systems, such as location marking, diminution/augmentation, or grammatical number (see, e.g., Di Garbo, 2014 ).

2.2 Types of Assignment Rules

In some languages, gender appears to be more clearly rule-based than in others. Rules for gender assignment have two basic functions: they serve to motivate the gender of existing words, and they can be used productively to select a gender for loanwords and novel coinages. Generally speaking, there are three types of assignment rule: semantic, phonological, and morphological.

Semantic rules—already mentioned in section 1—are often based on general conceptual splits such as male/female, human/non-human, or animate/inanimate. For example, languages might work like Kolami, a Dravidian language spoken in India (Emeneau, 1955 ; discussed in Corbett, 1991 , p. 10), which attributes masculine gender to nouns denoting male persons and feminine gender to all others. However, not all semantic rules are as straightforward. Many languages have genders that combine a rather heterogeneous set of items, some of which belong to smaller semantic classes such as plants, fruits, or body parts. An example is Isangu, a Niger Congo (Bantu) language mentioned in Comrie ( 1999 , p. 463). As is the custom for Bantu languages, genders are notated as singular/plural pairs with a designated number for each member of a pair.

(12) Isangu genders. Open in new tab Gender Noun Agreement Semantic Characterization Sg Pl Sg Pl 1/2 mu- ba- wu- ba- only (but not all) humans 3/4 mu- mi- wu- mi- most plants; also some animals, concrete nouns, abstract nouns 5/6 di- ma- di- ma- most body parts, most fruits; also some humans, plants, concrete nouns, abstract nouns 7/8 ( γ ‎)i- bi- γ ‎i- bi- most artifacts; also some humans, plants, concrete nouns, abstract nouns 9/10 Ø- Ø-/ba- yi- tsi- most animals; also some plants, concrete nouns, abstract nouns Open in new tab

For yet other languages, linguists have proposed gender assignment rules that—rather than describing the semantics of a whole class—only cover individual clusters of nouns. These are regularities like the following, suggested for German (Köpcke & Zubin, 1983 ; Steinmetz & Rice, 1989 ):

Nouns for stones and minerals are masculine.

Nouns for tropical fruit are feminine.

Such rules are small in scope, and if a language employs them, the number of different rules will be large, as each regularity accounts for only a limited subset of the nouns (a critical account of such rules is given in Enger, 2009 ).

While semantic rules seem to be primary in the sense that genders—we believe—are born as semantic classes (see 3.1 below), languages can develop associations between gender and formal properties of nouns. Such associations can make reference to nearly any formal property, be it phonological (word-initial or word-final sounds or sound sequences, mono-syllabicity, but also patterns of word accent) or morphological (inflectional classes as well as derivational patterns, e.g., certain affixes).

Examples of form-based gender assignment are the following:

Phonological: monosyllabic nouns ending in /ʃ/ are masculine (German, Köpcke, 1982 ).

Morphological (inflection): nouns of declensional types II and III are feminine (Russian, Corbett, 1991 ).

Morphological (derivation): nouns with diminutive suffixes are neuter (Dutch).

Again, we can see a difference between “large rules” of broad scope and “small rules” of narrow scope. A famous example for a language with large phonological rules is the Cushitic language Qafar, for which it is claimed that nouns ending in an accented vowel are feminine, while all others are masculine (discussed in Corbett, 1991 ; Parker & Hayward, 1985 ). These rules appear to cover nearly all of the nouns in the language. Of the three formal rules mentioned above, the first is obviously an example of a small rule, while the second and (to a lesser extent) the third account for a wider array of nouns.

Among the languages in the world, mixed systems of semantic and formal rules are in a slight majority (Corbett, 2013c ), though their prevalence can be more pronounced in certain macro-areas (see Di Garbo, 2014 for Africa). For more references on gender assignment, see Audring ( 2011 ).

2.3 Amount and Place of Marking

The third dimension of complexity lies in the formal expression of gender. Typically, the gender of a noun is not visible on the noun itself—though in some languages it is—but is expressed via agreement on other words, such as the adjective, the predicate, and various pronouns. In some languages, agreement is so ubiquitous that nearly every word in the sentence carries a gender marker. The following example is from Chichewa (Bantu, spoken in East-Africa), where 7, 1, and 9 indicate noun classes (Mchombo, 2004 , p. 87; glosses adapted). Note that Chichewa is one of the languages that mark gender overtly on the noun itself, as well as by agreement.

(13) Ichi ndi chitsílu chi-méné kalulú a-na-chí-lémbélá kálata 7. dem be 7.fool 7- rel 1.hare 1- pst 9.letter ‘This is the fool that the hare wrote a letter to/for.’

With the exception of the copula, all words in the sentence express gender: either their own inherent value or the value of the noun they agree with. Also, in Archi, a Nakh-Daghestanian language spoken in the Caucasus, “almost every part of speech can agree in gender” (Chumakina & Corbett, 2015 ; Corbett, 2014 , p. 107; although this does not hold for every item within the parts of speech).

At the other extreme, there are languages with sparse expression of gender. The best-known example is English, where gender is visible only on the personal and possessive pronouns, with not more than seven distinct forms: he/she/it, him/her , and his / its . As mentioned in 1.4 above, languages with frequent marking have gender systems that are easier to spot in fieldwork and easier to defend analytically. Pronominal gender languages like English provide less clear evidence for a gender system. Interestingly, the same considerations appear relevant for the acquisition of gender, which will be discussed in section 4.1.

2.4 Gender in Sign Languages

It makes sense to conclude this brief typological survey with a look at sign languages. Whether there are sign languages that have gender systems is a matter of debate. Many scholars argue that sign languages systematically lack grammatical gender (Pfau, Steinbach, & Woll, 2012 , p. 234), partly because they are generally young languages, while gender (agreement) takes time to develop (see section 3.1). Two exceptions have been proposed. First, many sign languages have classifying handshapes that encode various properties of a referent, for example that it is a person, an animal, or a vehicle, or that its shape is long and thin or broad and flat. What makes such handshapes candidates for gender is that they can be carried over into the verb, which then reflects properties of its subject or object reminiscent of the way gender agreement on the verb reflects properties of nouns. For example, in the Sign Language of the Netherlands (Nederlandse Gebarentaal), the verb meaning “to fall” has a different handshape depending on whether the falling entity is cylindrical, long and thin, or legged (Zwitserlood & Van Gijn, 2006 , which analyzes the phenomenon as gender agreement). However, a more common analysis is that these markers are classifiers rather than genders, since they are clearly semantic, involve a large (and potentially open-ended) variety of classes, and are often optional.

Moreover, there are suggestions that sign languages may mark gender on pronouns. For example, Smith ( 1990 ) and Fischer ( 1996 ) describe masculine and feminine handshapes in personal pronouns in Japanese and Taiwan sign language, respectively. Byun, Zwitserlood, & De Vos ( 2015 ) discuss the same phenomenon for Korean sign language. Still, the evidence is debatable, as the markers are only used for persons and are probably optional. A careful and convincing analysis of such phenomena, however, might provide evidence for pronominal gender systems as—albeit non-canonical—cases of gender in sign language.

3. Rise, Development, and Fall

The issue of “young languages” brings us from typology to diachrony, and the next question to address is how gender systems arise, as well as how they develop and—possibly—decline.

3.1 The Birth of Gender Systems

Gender systems do not arise overnight. Since the central characteristic is agreement, the growth of a gender system requires the development of (bound) gender morphology, either from scratch or by repurposing existing morphological material, such as derivational morphemes, case or number affixes, or locative markers (Aikhenvald, 2000 ). For this reason, gender is counted among the “mature elements of language,” involving long chains of evolutionary events (Dahl, 2004 , p. 112). The same reason accounts for why gender is allegedly absent in pidgin and creole languages (McWhorter, 2001 , p. 163). However, the APiCS database (Maurer, 2013 ) lists at least one example, the Canadian mixed language Michif (Bakker, 1997 ), which shows an agreement system described as “truly weird” by Corbett ( 2006 , p. 269), since it involves not only one gender system but actually two, from both lexifier languages, French and Plains Cree. Applying a broader definition and including sporadic agreement as well as pronominal genders might yield more young languages with grammatical gender (Maurer, 2013 ).

If agreement is developed “from scratch,” several possible pathways have been proposed. Figure 1 summarizes them graphically. In most cases, the original sources are nouns, in particular nouns with classifying potential, such as “man,” “animal,” or “thing.” Such words can develop into classifiers that are used with other nouns to indicate their class membership (see example 3 in section 1.2). From here on, developments can proceed in two directions. Classifiers can be used for derivational purposes, as in constructions like man child “son”; this may then cause them to merge with their nouns and resemble derivational affixes or noun class markers. This development does not result in agreement, but in overt marking of gender on nouns. However, classifiers can be repeated within the noun phrase or beyond, and as such, give rise to agreement, via intermediate stages such as pronouns or articles (Corbett, 1991 , pp. 310–312 for examples and details; see also Givón, 1976 ; Greenberg, 1978 ,).

Figure 1. Developmental pathways of gender agreement.

We have assumed that gender agreement involves bound morphology. This is the canonical situation. Due to this criterion, gender systems are not generally found in isolating languages. However, there may be intermediate cases. The Austroasiatic language Khasi, for example, has gender-sensitive particles that function as articles and personal pronouns. What is interesting is that these particles can be repeated before adjectives and verbs:

(14) Open in new tab a. Ka kynthei ka baihbha prt.f woman prt.f handsome ‘a handsome woman’ (Pryse, 1855 , p. 22) Open in new tab Open in new tab b. U briw u Thoh prt.m man prt.m write ‘The man writes’ (Pryse, 1855 , p. 36) Open in new tab

This situation resembles an agreement system, except that the use of the gender particles is optional. However, stronger bonds with neighboring words can arise. For example, the relative pronouns are given as fused forms ( uba “who/that, m ”) and kaba “who/that, f ”), and some sources also list question words as fused: uei “who?/which ( m )?,” kaei “who?/which ( f )?” (Roberts, 1891 [1995] , p. 47). While Khasi gender is not canonical and violates expectations in several ways, the language can be argued to have a nascent gender system, despite the nearly complete absence of bound morphology.

3.2 Change and Loss of Gender

Once a language has a gender system, it appears to be a relatively stable feature in diachronic terms (Dahl, 2004 , p. 199). Yet, feature systems develop and change in various ways.

With regard to assignment rules, gender can become more form-based or more semantic over time. In the first scenario, a particular gender value becomes associated with a specific formal characteristic of a number of nouns. Since it is believed that all gender systems start out as semantics-based, this process must have occurred in all languages with a mixed assignment system. The opposite tendency is (re)semanticization, a development in which semantic rules are strengthened or (re)introduced. Again, this can be triggered by a cluster of nouns, but also by a flagship instance (Corbett, 1991 , p. 314 uses the term “Trojan horse”) defecting to another gender, pulling other nouns along and changing the semantic profile of their new class.

Note that changes in assignment rules do not in themselves lead to the loss of gender—they merely restructure the system. More consequential are changes in the agreement system.

In agreement systems, the following types of change are commonly found:

The birth of new agreement targets by grammaticalization.

The strengthening of gender markers on the noun or in agreement.

The rise of new gender values by reconfiguration and reanalysis of existing morphological markers.

The loss of individual gender values by syncretism or loss of the markers.

An instance of the first change can be seen in West Flemish, where the agreement targets have recently been expanded to include conjunctions and the words meaning “yes” and “no” (as we saw for Wambeek Dutch in example 7 above) (Bennis & Haegeman, 1984 ; De Vogelaer & Van der Auwera, 2010 ). The pronominal source of the agreements is still transparently visible. The second type of development can be seen in the history of English: in late Old English, the feminine pronoun had the form heo and was near-syncretic with the masculine pronoun in various dialects. The introduction of the new feminine pronoun she increased the formal distinctiveness of the genders (Curzan, 2003 , p. 45). For a wider sample of similar cross-linguistic cases, consult Corbett ( 1991 , p. 312).

The third type of change constitutes a reiteration of the steps outlined in the previous section: by repurposing or redistributing case or number markers, but also locative markers, new gender values can arise. Again, Corbett ( 1991 , p. 313–314) supplies illustrative examples and discussion.

The fourth type of change is the most familiar: gender markers can be caught up in processes of losing inflectional morphology, which may make them indistinguishable by syncretism or cause them to erode altogether. As a consequence, distinctions between individual genders may be blurred and eventually lost. Deflection processes of this kind have been described for many Indo-European languages—they are evident in all languages in which the three genders characteristic of the family have been reduced to two. Well-known examples are Spanish, Italian, and French (see, e.g., Polinsky & van Everbroek, 2003 , for a model of the changes from Latin to French), but also Scandinavian and Dutch. An interesting observation is that gender reduction or loss proceeds in cross-linguistically predictable ways (Demuth, Faraclas, & Marchese, 1986 ; Marchese, 1988 ; Priestly, 1983 ). Distinctions are typically retained longest on personal pronouns (Corbett, 1991 , p. 143).

Complete erosion of the markers can eventually result in the loss of gender as a grammatical feature. Within Indo-European, this fate has befallen most Iranian and many Indic languages (Corbett, 1991 , p. 318). In other languages, too, we find morphological markers that are recognizable as remnants of former gender systems.

Having considered the nature, the distribution, and the history of gender systems across the languages of the world, the final section will consider gender in the speaker’s mind—in particular, in language acquisition.

4. Acquiring Gender

Gender is a famously difficult property to acquire as an adult learner. This fact has prompted extensive research. However, the feature has also attracted the attention of first language acquisition researchers and psycholinguists in general. The following section sketches a number of interesting issues and findings from the vast literature.

4.1 Gender in First Language Acquisition

The task of acquiring a gender system is complex, as gender involves an intricate mixture of semantics, morphology, and syntax. Children have to figure out the function of the markers, their distribution across words, as well as the underlying syntactic dependencies. Moreover, they have to learn which noun belongs to which gender and—ideally—why.

Despite the complexities in the languages for which the relevant information is available (the overwhelming majority are Indo-European; for notable exceptions see, for instance, Demuth, 2003 ; Deen, 2005 ; Gagliardi & Lidz, 2014 ), gender appears to be acquired early and largely error-free. The average age of mastery appears to be 3 years, though later ages are mentioned for individual languages, like German (Eichler, Jansen, & Müller, 2013 ) and Dutch (Blom, Polišenská, & Weerman; 2008 ; Cornips & Hulk, 2008 ; van Kampen & Wijnen, 2000 ). Unfortunately, accounts are difficult to compare, as the target state of acquisition is not always clearly defined. First, it could be the case that the regularities of agreement may be in place early, while children may take longer to figure out the gender of individual nouns (Blom, Polišenská, & Weerman, 2006 ; Orgassa & Weerman, 2008 ). Second, the use of articles and other adnominal targets may be mastered earlier than the use of pronouns (Mills, 1986 , p. 86). This pattern can be explained by the hypothesis that children start out acquiring determiner-noun pairs as chunks or constructions (MacWhinney, 1978 , p. 60–61; Mills, 1986 , p. 63). Tighter constructions consisting of neighboring words are likely to be easier to entrench in memory.

Generally speaking, there seem to be three factors that influence the speed of acquisition: the complexity of the assignment system, the quality of the cues, and the interrelations with other features. In addition, individual genders may be established later if the language shows a strongly unequal distribution of nouns over genders: Dutch children, for example, are exceptionally late in correctly identifying nouns of neuter gender, as common gender nouns make up about 65%–75% of the noun vocabulary in the language (van Berkum, 1996 , p. 35).

As we saw above, gender assignment rules can be semantic or formal in nature (section 2.2). Children appear to be more responsive to formal than to semantic cues (Karmiloff-Smith, 1979 ; Mills, 1986 ; Müller, 2000 ; Pérez-Pereira, 1991 ; but cf. Mulford, 1985 ). Comrie ( 1999 ) reports that children in the Bantu language Isangu overgeneralize gender both ways: in favor of more regular form patterns as well as more regular semantics.

Aside from their type, an important difference between assignment rules is their reliability. While some rules may be categorical, others have a mere stochastic value. For example, the rule that French nouns ending in -/Ʒ/are masculine is true for 94% of the cases (Tucker, Lambert, & Rigault, 1977 ), while the rule that German monosyllables ending in a nasal followed by a consonant are masculine only holds for 70% of the relevant nouns (Köpcke & Zubin, 1984 , p. 29). Various studies show that more reliable rules are acquired earlier. Further facilitation has been shown to come from cues in child-directed speech, for example the frequent use of diminutives (Kempe, Brooks, Mironova, & Fedorova, 2003 ).

On the other hand, straightforward assignment rules do not necessarily result in an easy-to-acquire gender system. While English has particularly clear assignment rules, English children are comparatively slow in mastering the system (Corbett, 1991 , p. 82; Mills, 1986 ,). One of the reasons is the amount of syntactic evidence available to the child, which is low in a pronominal gender language like English. In German, by contrast, “gender is marked on many parts of speech [so] the German child has more opportunities to learn it” (Corbett, 1991 , p. 85). Hence, clearer and richer agreement systems can be expected to be beneficial for learning (Audring, 2014 ).

A complicating factor in many languages is the crosscutting of gender with other features, mainly number and case. This results in a more complex task for the child, as the various functions need to be figured out simultaneously. Eichler, Jansen, & Müller, 2013 argues that the presence of a case system is the main reason why German gender is acquired more slowly than French, Spanish, and Italian gender. Besides, more dimensions of orthogonal features can make for more complex patterns of syncretism, which lower the validity of each form as a cue to the learner.

In view of the complexity of the task, first language acquisition of gender proceeds remarkably smoothly. This fact stands in stark contrast to the acquisition of gender in adults.

Gender in Second Language Acquisition

As is widely known, gender is notoriously difficult to master in a second language, especially for adult learners (see, e.g. Bartning, 2000 ; Blom, Polišenská, & Unsworth, 2008 ; Bruhn de Garavito & White, 2000 ; Carroll, 1989 ; Dewaele and Véronique, 2001 ; Franceschina, 2005 ; Hawkins, 2001 ; Holmes & Dejean de la Batie, 1999 ; Rogers, 1987 ; Sabourin, 2003 ). This fact has been linked to the critical period hypothesis, which assumes maturational constraints on certain grammatical features. With regard to gender, the hypothesis predicts that, if the feature is not part of the speaker’s L1 (native language), it cannot be properly acquired in the L2 (second language) after childhood (Hawkins & Chan, 1997 ). Several questions follow:

Are younger L2 learners better at acquiring gender?

Does successful L2 acquisition of gender presuppose an L1 that also has a gender system?

Can adult learners ever hope to reach native competence?

Regarding the age of onset, studies report that child L2 learners show the same error patterns as monolingual children, while older children and adult learners make other kinds of error (Andersson, 1992 ; Bartning, 2000 ; Blom, Polišenská, & Weerman, 2008 , Dewaele & Veronique, 2001 ; Franceschina, 2005 ; Granfeldt, 2003 ; Hawkins & Franceschina, 2004 ). This suggests that early—but not late—L2 gender acquisition may be native-like.

The second question addresses the issue of transfer from the first to the second language. Various studies, e.g. Herschensohn ( 2009 ) and Hopp ( 2010 ), take transfer rather than age to be the major cause of delayed or unsuccessful gender acquisition. Broadly speaking, transfer effects can be positive or negative. On the positive side, an L1 that already has a gender system can prepare the ground for gender in the L2. Especially helpful might be a first language that is similar to the second. Various studies, such as Foucart & Frenck-Mestre ( 2011 ); Franceschina ( 2005 ); Sabourin, Stowe, & de Hann ( 2006 ), show such positive transfer effects in gender acquisition. However, the existence of a gender system in the L1 is not a necessary prerequisite for the successful acquisition of gender in the L2; English learners of French were able to acquire gender with great accuracy (White, Valenzuela, Macgregor, Leung, & Ben-Ayed, 2001 ), even showing native-like brain responses to gender violations (Foucart, 2009 ).

On the negative side, transfer can be in the way of successful second-language acquisition if learners attempt to process a second in terms of the first, arriving at the wrong results where the systems differ. Such effects, too, have been reported in the literature (Foucart & Frenck-Mestre, 2011 ; Ganushchak, Verdonschot, & Schiller, 2011 ; Sabourin, Stowe, & de Hann, 2006 ; Sabourin & Stowe, 2008 ; Tokowicz & MacWhinney, 2005 ).

The last question, in turn, inquires about ultimate attainment—can L2 learners learn gender to a native-like degree? In the literature, this question has been approached from two sides: behaviorally and neurolinguistically. Behavioral studies report that even highly proficient second-language learners retain a certain percentage of errors (Alarcón, 2011 ; Franceschina, 2005 ; Grüter, Lew-Williams, & Fernald, 2012 ; Montrul, Foote, & Perpiñán, 2008 ). However, these errors seem to be associated with gender assignment rather than gender agreement, especially under (experimental) time pressure (Hopp, 2013 ). This suggests that the central issue is not the inability to acquire the grammar of gender, but rather the amount of experience with the L2 that allows the learner to find out and store the gender of every noun. Indeed, the acquisition of gender may be “for a large part word-learning” (Unsworth, 2008 , p. 365).

Recently, the behavioral results have been complemented by electrophysiological data. Studies of event-related potentials (ERPs) show that in native speakers, the brain’s response to gender agreement errors is a P600 effect associated with syntactic violations. Do non-native speakers show the same response? Results differ. Meulman, Stowe, Sprenger, Bresser, & Schmid ( 2014 ) report that highly proficient L2 learners of Dutch consistently fail to show the expected P600 pattern, regardless of their age of acquisition, their length of residence in the Netherlands, their proficiency, or their offline knowledge about gender. This matches earlier findings, but contrasts with others (see Meulman et al., 2014 for references). One of the explanations suggested is that native-like electrophysiological responses only appear in the latest stages of proficiency, beyond the point where language tests indicate full mastery.

Across studies, the general outcome is positive: even if grammatical gender is a hard feature to acquire as an adult learner, native-like proficiency can be attained.

5. Critical Analysis of Scholarship: Gender in Linguistic Theory

In the linguistic literature, gender is enjoying considerable fame as “the most puzzling of the grammatical categories” (Corbett, 1991 , p. 1). One of the main reasons is the widespread uncertainty about its function. While number, person and tense have clear semantic correlates, gender information seems to contribute little to the semantics of an utterance. Indeed, scholars have famously claimed that gender is little more than “an accident of linguistic history” (Ibrahim, 1973 , p. 50). Defenders of functionality have stressed the fact that gender can help to keep track of referents across a stretch of discourse (Heath, 1975 ; Lyons, 1977 , p. 288; but see Contini-Morava & Kilarski, 2013 for wider considerations). On a critical note, this effect is often overrated in languages that only have two or three genders—the disambiguating power of gender will only be convincing in languages with a larger number of gender values.

Another major issue has been the regularity of gender. With a research tradition focusing on Indo-European, especially French and German, some of the 20th century literature pessimistically claims that gender assignment is arbitrary. In reaction, a variety of studies have appeared attempting to prove that gender assignment is actually regular and predictable. Famous accounts are Köpcke, 1982 ; as well as Köpcke & Zubin, 1984 ; or Zubin & Köpcke, 1986 for German, and Tucker, Lambert, & Rigault, 1977 for French. Since then, the issue has come to appear in a different light by the availability of a broader range of cross-linguistic data (mainly thanks to Corbett, 1991 ). Once the biasing focus on Indo-European is overcome, it turns out that many languages have gender assignment systems that are in fact quite regular.

A related issue is the way gender is transferred or assigned in borrowing and contact; an extensive literature is available, especially on English loanwords (see Corbett, 1991 , pp. 70–82 for an overview, and Audring, 2011 for more references; useful studies are Baetens-Beardsmore, 1971 ; Carstensen, 1980 ; Kilarski, 2001 ; and Poplack, Pousada, & Sankoff, 1982 ). While the focus on English makes good sense—first, because English loans are copious in many languages; second, because a genderless source language helps to control the number of factors to consider—it is doubtful how deeply we understand the mechanisms, especially since many of the borrowing languages investigated have highly complex assignment systems.

Gender is also a much-discussed subject in psycholinguistics, though predominantly in language acquisition research (see section 4). Recently, however, research efforts have turned to gender in processing and production, particularly in relation to models of the mental lexicon, the principles of lexical access, and the processing of grammatical information. Major issues are gender priming (see Bates, Devescovi, Hernandez, & Pizzamiglio, 1996 ; Friederici & Jacobsen, 1999 ), gender in speech errors (Berg, 1992 ), gender in tip-of-the-tongue states (Vigliocco, Antonini, & Garrett, 1997 ), as well as the brain’s reaction to gender violations (an early influential study is Hagoort & Brown, 1999 ; see section 4.2 for more references). A disadvantage is the scarcity of links between experimental and typological studies, though attempts are made to bridge the gap (e.g., Tsegaye, Mous, & Schiller, 2014 ).

Finally, a new line of typological research is currently emerging that investigates the interaction of gender with classifier systems in languages that have both (see the project page of the Surrey Morphology Group, Guildford, U.K.).

Links to Digital Materials

Audring, J. ( 2011 ). Gender . In Oxford Bibliographies: Linguistics. This is an annotated online bibliography of the literature on gender.

Surrey Morphology Group, project Combining Gender and Classifiers in Natural Language , University of Surrey, Surrey, U.K.

World Atlas of Language Structures Online is the best online resource; gender is covered in topics 30 , 31 , and 32 , as well as 44 .

Further Reading

  • Aikhenvald, A. Y. (2000). Classifiers . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. A typological textbook that focuses on classifiers but also discusses gender.
  • Blom, E. , Polišenská, D. , & Unsworth, S. (Eds.). (2008). The acquisition of grammatical gender in Dutch [Special issue]. Second Language Research , 24 (3). On the acquisition of gender (mainly about Dutch, but of broader interest).
  • Corbett, G. G. (1991). Gender . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. The best source on grammatical gender—both a fascinating and readable introduction and an encyclopedic resource for advanced researchers.
  • Corbett, G. G. (2007). Gender and noun classes. In: T. Shopen (Ed.), Language typology and syntactic description (2d ed.), (pp. 241–279). Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. For readers looking for a shorter account than the 1991 monograph.
  • Corbett, G. G. (2014). The Expression of Gender . Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. A recent collection of articles on gender, from various perspectives.
  • Craig, C. G . (Ed.) (1986). Noun classes and categorization: Proceedings of a symposium on categorization and noun classification, Eugene, Oregon, October 1983 . Philadelphia: John Benjamins. A compilation of presentations of a symposium on Categorization and Noun Classification, held at the University of Oregon in October 1984.
  • Enger, H. O. , Nesset, T. , & Rice, C. (Eds.). (2006). The grammar of gender [Special issue]. Lingua , 116 (9). A special issue devoted to theoretical issues (mainly work by Scandinavian linguists).
  • Friederici, A. D. , Garrett, M. F. , & Jacobsen, T. (Eds.). (1999). Processing of grammatical gender [Special issue]. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research , 28 (5–6). On gender in language processing.
  • Senft, G . (Ed.) (2000). Systems of nominal classification . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Unterbeck, B. , & Rissanen, M . (Eds.). (1999). Gender in grammar and cognition . Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. This is a useful two-part volume of papers addressing gender theoretically as well as descriptively.
  • Aikhenvald, A. Y. (2000). Classifiers . Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Alarcón I. V. (2011). Spanish gender agreement under complete and incomplete acquisition: Early and late bilinguals’ linguistic behavior within the noun phrase. Bilingualism: Language and cognition , 14 , 332–350.
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Grammatical gender processing in bilinguals: An analytic review

  • Theoretical Review
  • Published: 22 April 2019
  • Volume 26 , pages 1148–1173, ( 2019 )

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dissertation grammatical gender

  • Ana Rita Sá-Leite   ORCID: 1 ,
  • Isabel Fraga 1 &
  • Montserrat Comesaña 2 , 3  

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In this review article, we analyze how grammatical gender is represented and processed in the bilingual mind. To that end, we review the data from 13 existing behavioral studies of mainly late second language (L2) learners on the so-called gender congruency (GC) effect (facilitated processing for translation equivalents with the same gender, in comparison to those with a different gender) in L2 production and comprehension. The majority of the results showed a GC effect, regardless of the type of language involved. However, the state of cognateness of the target nouns, as well as the similarity between the gender systems of the bilingual speakers and their L2 proficiency, modulated the results. Interestingly, a gender agreement context is not required in order to observe gender effects, in that they are also observed with bare nouns. Overall, the findings support an integrative view of bilingual gender representation, with competitive and inhibitory processes at different levels of language processing underlying cross-language GC effects.

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The representation and processing of grammatical gender in bilinguals has been examined in recent decades as a means of better understanding the cross-linguistic interactions that may take place at the lemma level during language production and comprehension. Lemma and lexeme retrieval compound the two major stages often described for lexical access (Kempen & Hoenkamp, 1987 ). Whereas the lexeme level is where the recovery of orthographic and phonological information takes place, lemma retrieval consists of the selection of semantic information, as well as of other grammatical features that define words, such as case, gender, and number. The interplay of these grammatical features during language processing is an important focus of research (e.g., Domínguez, Cuetos, & Seguí, 1999 ). Yet, each of these features is conceptually different and has its own idiosyncrasies (see, e.g., Barber & Carreiras, 2005 ; Harris, 1991 ; for experimental evidence on differences between number and gender selection during language processing, see also De Vincenzi, 1999 ; Igoa, García-Albea, & Sánchez-Casas, 1999 ). Hence, it is necessary to try to understand their representational characteristics separately. In the case of grammatical gender, this is particularly important because, as Corbett ( 1991 , p. 1) noted, it is “the most puzzling of the grammatical categories.”

The complexity of grammatical gender is visible in its short but rich definition: it is described as an arbitrary, abstract property of nouns, being both lexical and syntactic, that is present in every language that has a gender system (Schriefers & Jescheniak, 1999 ). A gender system classifies words according to different categories or classes called gender values (Corbett, 1991 ). The number and name of these gender values differs depending on the language itself, ranging from the two classes usually featured in Romance languages (i.e., masculine and feminine) to 17 or more in languages such as Wolof or Nigerian Fula (e.g., Babou & Loporcaro, 2016 ; Breedveld, 1995 ; for more details on other languages, see Corbett, 1991 ). As a formal feature of the lexicon, grammatical gender is inherent to nouns in the sense that it categorizes them according to an irreplaceable gender value. For instance, the European Portuguese noun mesa (“table” in English) is feminine and cannot be transformed into the masculine. Of note, grammatical gender is described as an arbitrary abstract characteristic because it is independent of its meaning (Lyons, 1968 ). In some cases, however, an exception must be made. In the majority of gendered languages there are some semantic rules, often based on general conceptual splits such as male/female, human/nonhuman, or animate/inanimate, to classify nouns according to gender (Audring, 2016 ). Specifically, it is very common for languages to link gender to the semantic information of words through the dichotomy male/female. Hence, gender here is no longer irreplaceable or abstract, in that it matches the sex of the referent (male or female) and should thus be called “natural gender” or “semantic gender” rather than “grammatical gender” (Tight, 2006 ). In fact, only nouns of natural gender change morphologically according to the sex of the referent (e.g., in European Portuguese, menin o [masculine] and menin a [feminine], “boy” and “girl,” respectively; see Corrêa, Augusto, & Castro, 2011 , and Harris, 1991 , for details). Thus, in general, with the exception of those animate nouns with natural gender, nouns have no conceptual basis for the distinction of grammatical gender (Barber & Carreiras, 2005 ). In addition, grammatical gender is not related to the morphological form of nouns, but can be partially related to their phonological form. More specifically, in some languages labeled as transparent (e.g., Romance ones), we find statistical–phonological regularities in the distribution of the nominal endings in function of their gender value (e.g., in European Portuguese, Italian, or Spanish, nouns ending in - a tend to be feminine; Bates, Devescovi, Pizzamiglio, D’Amico, & Hernandez, 1995 ). These regularities are cues that facilitate gender acquisition and processing, but they must not be interpreted as rules since there are many exceptions (e.g., ambiguous or opaque endings exist for both gender values, such as - e in European Portuguese, in torre “tower” [feminine] and corte “cut” [masculine], or irregular endings, such as the - o in a feminine word like tribo “tribe,” or the - a in a masculine word like programa “program”; see Pérez-Pereira, 1991 ). Finally, the main function of grammatical gender is to establish agreement between the different elements of speech (e.g., in European Portuguese, Um copo [masculine] pequen o “A small cup” but Um a casa [feminine] pequen a “A small house”). Consequently, the status of gender-irreplaceability does not apply for words such as articles and adjectives, among others. Words of this kind have to agree with the gender value of a main noun, for which they have to adopt every gender value in a particular language. To achieve this, articles and adjectives change morphologically through gender inflections (i.e., in the previous example, um [masculine indefinite article, “a”], but um - a [feminine indefinite article, “a”]). As a result, grammatical gender is primarily a lexical property, but since it determines the form of other words during syntactic assembling, it is also defined as a syntactic property. Because its syntactic implications are essential in language comprehension and production, agreement relationships between the different elements of speech have received special attention in literature (see, e.g., Wicha, Moreno, & Kutas, 2004 ), particularly in comparison to the study of grammatical gender in its most lexical dimension.

In the present review, we are interested in the studies that have been carried out thus far on grammatical gender as an abstract lexical property, to determine how the gender systems of a bilingual interact (or do not interact) during the lexical access of second language (L2) nouns. From a theoretical point of view, as can be seen in Figs. 1 and 2 , two perspectives are commonly contrasted in bilingual gender representation: the integrative versus the autonomous view. According to the integrative proposal (Klassen, 2016 ), the representation of grammatical gender values is shared across languages in a unique integrated gender system; therefore, the gender activation of words in a given language influences the gender activation of words in the other language. Conversely, the autonomous proposal (Costa, Kovacic, Franck, & Caramazza, 2003 ) claims that each language has its own specific gender system, and thus the fact that two translations either have or do not have the same gender value is irrelevant for the organization of L2 grammatical knowledge. That is, since gender values are not shared across languages, the gender of the target word would not receive any activation from the gender of its translation equivalent.

figure 1

Representation of the gender-integrated hypothesis for words of the same gender across languages (A) and those of different genders (B). Jabuka and mela mean “apple” in Croatian and Italian, respectively. Rajčica and pomodoro mean “tomato.” Gender features (feminine [fem] and masculine [masc]) are shared across the languages. Figure taken from “On the Autonomy of the Grammatical Gender Systems of the Two Languages of a Bilingual,” by A. Costa, D. Kovacic, J. Franck, and A. Caramazza, 2003, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition , 6 , pp. 181–200. Copyright 2003 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.

figure 2

Representation of the gender-autonomous hypothesis for words of the same gender across languages (A) and those of different genders (B). Jabuka and mela mean “apple” in Croatian and Italian, respectively. Rajčica and pomodoro mean “tomato.” Gender features (feminine [fem] and masculine [masc]) are independent for both languages. Figure taken from “On the Autonomy of the Grammatical Gender Systems of the Two Languages of a Bilingual,” by A. Costa, D. Kovacic, J. Franck, and A. Caramazza, 2003, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition , 6 , pp. 181–200. Copyright 2003 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission.

Theoretical basis for bilingual grammatical gender representation

Because cross-linguistic interactions have been consistently observed at the lemma level during semantic processing, as well as at the lexeme level during phonological and orthographical encoding (e.g., Comesaña et al., 2018 ; Comesaña et al., 2015 ; Costa & Caramazza, 1999 ), it would be reasonable to expect an interaction to occur during bilingual L2 gender processing. Indeed, in light of the findings here, the most influential models of bilingual language processing predict cross-linguistic interactions at every level of lexical access. For example, the bilingual interactive activation models (i.e., BIA and BIA+) are connectionist yet localist in nature, presenting four layers of nodes for written word recognition (features, letters, words, and language nodes; BIA model: Dijkstra, van Heuven, & Grainger, 1998 ; BIA+ model: Dijkstra & van Heuven, 2002 ; see Fig. 3A for a representation of the BIA+ model) and production (Multilink; Dijkstra et al., 2018 ).

figure 3

(A) The BIA+ model. Arrows indicate activation flowing from different representational levels. Inhibitory connections within those levels are graphically omitted. Figure taken from “The Architecture of the Bilingual Word Recognition System: From Identification to Decision,” by T. Dijkstra and W. J. B. van Heuven, 2002, Bilingualism: Language and Cognition , 5 , pp. 175–190. Copyright 2002 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with permission. (B) The RHM model. Dashed lines represent weaker links between levels. Figure taken from “Category Interference in Translation and Picture Naming: Evidence for Asymmetric Connections Between Bilingual Memory Representations,” by J. F. Kroll and E. Stewart, 1994, Journal of Memory and Language , 33 , pp. 149–174. Copyright 1994 by Elsevier B.V. Reprinted with permission

Regarding the bilingual interactive activation models, at the level of the languages’ nodes, there is one different node for each of the languages of a bilingual person (L1 and L2). Importantly, when we recognize letters, those letters send activation up to the word level. According to these models, words from both languages are simultaneously activated as they are fully connected to each other. Hence, the authors of these models have argued for the existence of an integrated lexicon with nonselective lexical access. Thus, for instance, according to the network architecture of the multilink model of word production, the semantic level would activate the levels of orthography and phonology (i.e., words phonemes and letters) through bidirectional links, regardless of the language that is being spoken. In the BIA and BIA+ models, the language nodes, influenced by many factors (especially the linguistic context) would have to inhibit the words from the other language so that production is made in the language that is intended. Another classical model of bilingual language production, the revised hierarchical model (RHM; Kroll & Stewart, 1994 ; see Fig. 3B for its representation), does not support an integrated lexicon for both languages, but it does predict direct influence between the two languages at the level of lexical representation. Specifically, it proposes a unidirectional link between the concept (lemma) and the word-form levels. At the level of word forms, two separate lexicons (L1 and L2) would influence each other (these influences are assumed to be stronger in the forward direction [from L1 to L2] than in the reverse direction [from L2 to L1]).

Although interesting, neither of the aforementioned models explicitly addresses the issue of how grammatical gender is represented and processed in the bilingual mind. In fact, in neither of them is the location of grammatical features clearly identified. Since grammatical features occur at the lemma level, along with semantics, they might be included in the semantic/conceptual level for bilingual interactive activation models (indeed Mulder, Dijkstra, & Baayen, 2015 , consider that grammatical morpheme effects such as those of morphological family size in bilinguals are driven mainly by semantic factors) as well as for the RHM. Thus, in sum, we can only speculate as to what might occur during abstract grammatical gender selection in bilinguals. Indeed, although there is strong evidence in favor of an integrated lexicon and nonselective lexical access (see van Heuven, Dijkstra, & Grainger, 1998 ; see also Comesaña et al., 2018 ), interference at the point of gender selection during the processing of nouns might not occur, mainly because there are many differences between what gender itself is, depending on the language. This highlights the importance of being cautious when considering grammatical gender to be the same grammatical feature for the two languages of a bilingual person (Costa et al., 2003 ). In particular:

It is possible that the structure of the gender systems of the two languages differ. Thus, the number of gender values might vary across languages.

It is also possible that the correlation between the phonology of a word’s nominal ending and its gender value might vary across languages. Thus, some languages classify nouns depending on their phonological gender transparency (e.g., with - a being the most common nominal ending for feminine in Romance languages), whereas others do not follow such a classification (e.g., Dutch). The absence of these phonological cues hampers and slows down the acquisition and processing of grammatical gender (see Gathercole & Thomas, 2005 ; see also Unsworth, 2013 ).

It is possible that grammatical and semantic gender would coincide for one language but not for the other. For instance, in languages in which gender values are “masculine” and “feminine,” such as Romance languages, nouns that refer to living entities have natural gender related to biological sex. This does not occur in languages in which the grammatical gender values are “common” and “neuter,” such as in Dutch (e.g., “man” and “woman” in Dutch, man and vrouw , are both of common gender, whereas in a Romance language such as European Portuguese, homem is masculine and mulher is feminine), and as a result, semantic mediation does not exist in the same way during gender acquisition and processing.

It is possible that the morphological gender inflections that occur for agreement extend to different classes of words for each language (e.g., contrary to Romance languages, Slavic languages tend to mark verb tenses by gender).

It is possible that in one language (e.g., Spanish) the gender value of a given word will have consequences for the selection of definite/indefinite determiners (which are essential for the acquisition of grammatical gender; e.g., Arnon & Ramscar, 2012 ), whereas in other languages (e.g., Croatian), such consequences are not present at all.

Therefore, considering grammatical gender as the same parameter in two languages is an assumption that might vary depending on the similarity of their respective gender systems. This similarity might determine the degree of integration of these gender systems and, hence, the influence that the nontarget language has on gender processing in the target language. Such an idea is supported by many developmental studies, which have observed that the higher the similarity between the L1 and L2 gender systems, the easier the process of gender acquisition is in the L2 (Cornips & Hulk, 2006 ; Schwartz et al., 2015 ).

It seems clear that the characteristics of the gender systems of a bilingual might play an important role in the observation of cross-linguistic interference during grammatical gender processing. Nevertheless, other variables must be borne in mind in order to have an accurate picture here. In fact, it has been shown that cross-linguistic interactions at the level of semantic processing and phonological/orthographical encoding are subject to other variables, such as those related to the characterization of the bilingual population itself (e.g., age of L2 acquisition and L2 proficiency) and those related to word form (e.g., the cognateness status and phonological transparency of nouns). Regarding the age of L2 acquisition (i.e., the age at which bilinguals started to learn their L2) and their L2 proficiency, it has been observed that (a) the later that acquisition takes place, the higher the influence of the L1 on the L2, and the higher the number and type of errors during L2 language processing, especially in terms of grammatical encoding (e.g., Bley-Vroman, 1990 ; Keating, 2016 ), and (b) L1 influence on the L2 processing decreases as L2 proficiency increases (e.g., Elston-Güttler, Paulmann, & Kotz, 2005 ).

Regarding word form, two main variables must be considered. First, it has been observed that the cognate status of translation equivalents affects L2 processing, with cognate words (those that, besides meaning, share a form; e.g., mensagem “message,” in European Portuguese [EP] and English, respectively) facilitating lexical selection in comparison to noncognates (words that share only meaning, such as caneta “pen” in EP and English, respectively; see, e.g., Degani, Prior, & Hajajra, 2018 ; see also Comesaña et al., 2015 , for inhibitory effects of cognate words as a function of cognate word type and task requirements).

Second, it is critical to consider the degree of phonological gender transparency of nouns. In transparent languages, we can distinguish three different lexical categories as a function of their degree of phonological gender transparency: (a) transparen t nouns, which end in the letters that are mostly associated with their gender, such as the EP masculine noun casaco “jacket,” which ends in - o , or the feminine noun camisa “shirt,” which ends in - a ; (b) opaque nouns, which end in other vowels or consonants that are not related mostly to any gender, such as the EP masculine noun chocolate “chocolate,” or the EP feminine noun rede “net”; and (c) irregular nouns, which show inverse cues to those for transparent nouns, such as the EP masculine noun drama “drama.” Recently, studies with behavioral, electrophysiological, and/or neuroimaging techniques have shown that these categories influence the ways that nouns are processed (e.g., Caffarra, Janssen, & Barber, 2014 ; Fuchs, Polinsky, & Scontras, 2015 ; Hernandez et al., 2004 ; Padovani, Calandra-Buonaura, Cacciari, Benuzzi, & Nichelli, 2005 ; Urrutia, Domínguez, & Álvarez, 2009 ). Specifically, these studies showed that because the phonological gender transparency affects selection of the appropriate gender node at the grammatical level, there is an interaction between phonological and grammatical encoding. For instance, transparent nouns such as casaco seem to be processed faster and/or more accurately than opaque/irregular nouns such as chocolate or drama (Bates, Devescovi, Hernandez, & Pizzamiglio, 1996 ; Bates et al., 1995 ; Caffarra et al., 2014 ; Gollan & Frost, 2001 ). This means that the selection of grammatical features (i.e., gender) does not have to be completed before the beginning of phonological encoding, and a flow of information from the lower level of phonological encoding to the higher level of grammatical encoding is taking place. Such an idea supports interactive models of language production—that is, those that argue for the existence of bidirectional connections between different processing levels, such as connectionist models (e.g., the BIA, BIA+, and multilink models for bilingual processing). Along these lines, some authors have questioned whether bilinguals are sensitive to phonological gender cues in their L2s, and have wondered whether gender processing is more serial in nature in L2s than in L1s.

In sum, cross-linguistic interactions at multiple levels of language processing have been consistently found in the literature. The majority of the models of both language production and comprehension in bilinguals account for these interactions (e.g., the BIA model and its successive updates). Yet, grammatical gender is a very peculiar feature and might function according to its own principles. Bearing in mind that the characteristics of gender can vary widely from one language to another, it is not clear whether or not the concept of grammatical gender would be the same for the two languages within the bilingual linguistic system. This has direct implications for the possible integration of the two gender systems in the bilingual mind. In this sense, even if the bilingual lexicon is an integrated one with nonselective access, the processing of gender for one language might not influence the processing of gender for the other language. Thus, modulations of the cross-linguistic interactions during the grammatical gender selection of nouns should be expected, depending on the similarity of the gender systems. These modulations must be examined while taking into account other factors related to the bilingual population itself and the characteristics of the word form, with special attention to the degree of gender-phonological transparency of the target nouns.

Experimental assessment of grammatical gender processing in bilinguals

The most frequently used task to examine grammatical gender selection during noun processing in bilinguals is the naming task. Participants are asked to describe pictures using L2 nouns, the gender of which can be congruent or incongruent with the L1 translation equivalent. Therefore, heterogeneric nouns (i.e., nouns that have one gender value in one language and a different one in the other language) are used along with homogeneric nouns (i.e., nouns that have the same gender in both languages) to create conditions of gender congruence and incongruence between the languages. The observation of a gender congruency (GC) effect (i.e., shorter response times [RTs] when the L1 translations are gender-congruent with the L2 target nouns than when they are gender-incongruent, GC < GI) would point to an interaction between languages during grammatical gender selection in the L2. It should be noted that the GC effect is measured as a difference of RTs, not of error rates, since errors usually indicate misnaming, or, if a gender value is incorrectly retrieved during the task, point to an instability of the gender representation, due to an ongoing (or unsuccessful) process of gender acquisition for that word (Lemhöfer, Spalek, & Schriefers, 2008 ). Thus, the GC effect here will be understood mainly as a timing effect.

When experimentally assessing grammatical gender processing in bilinguals, one major question must be addressed, due to its theoretical implications in the bilingual as well as the monolingual domain of word production: Are agreement contexts necessary in order to retrieve grammatical gender when processing a noun? Indeed, the most influential model of monolingual language production (the WEAVER++ model; Levelt, Roelofs, & Meyer, 1999 ) understands grammatical gender as a syntactic rather than as a lexical parameter. More specifically, this model proposes that there are three main levels (from the top to the bottom: [1] semantics; [2] the lexical and syntactic representation, or lemma ; and [3] the phonological form, or lexeme ). The lemma stratum mediates between conceptual and phonological lexical information and includes the gender nodes, which represent the gender values of a language and are linked to the correspondent nouns of each gender. Gender selection takes place when these nodes reach a certain level of activation. Thus, gender selection is a competitive process, but critically, the activation of gender nodes only occurs if grammatical gender is fulfilling its main function of agreement. For this to happen, the noun has to be embedded in a sentence or noun phrase (NP), where other words have to agree with it in gender. From these claims, it follows that looking at gender with bare nouns (BNs) is not possible. This tenet has been classically examined through the so-called picture–word interference paradigm. In this paradigm, monolingual participants have to name aloud a picture while ignoring a superimposed noun that may or may not coincide in gender with the noun that denotes the picture. Following the tenets of the WEAVER++ model, variations in RTs that arise from the congruence/incongruence between the genders of the target and the distractor are expected with NPs, but not with BNs. Many studies with Dutch and German native speakers support the WEAVER++ claims, showing GC effects with NPs but not with BNs (e.g., La Heij, Mak, Sander, & Willeboordse, 1998 ). However, more recent studies featuring multiple languages, such as Italian, Spanish, and EP, have indeed found gender effects with BNs, which is interesting, since the use of BNs allows research to avoid potential interference from agreement processes and determiner selection (e.g., Cubelli, Lotto, Paolieri, Girelli, & Job, 2005 ; Paolieri, Lotto, Leoncini, Cubelli, & Job, 2011 ; Sá-Leite, Oliveira, Soares, Carreiras, & Comesaña, 2017 ; see, however, Finocchiaro et al., 2011 , for null results). The results with Romance languages seem to be more in line with connectionist models of monolingual language processing (e.g., the connectionist model of speech production [CMSP] of Dell, Chang, & Griffin, 1999 ). The CMSP proposes an interactive view of language processing formed by three levels (semantics, words, and phonemes). Grammatical gender is here a pure lexical feature related to words that is activated by means of a competitive process when lexical access occurs, regardless of the presence of an agreement context.

Recent theories have noted the possibility that differences in gender acquisition found between these linguistic families (Germanic vs. Romance) might explain the mixed results observed with the picture–word interference paradigm. Briefly, because Romance languages are gender-transparent languages, gender acquisition is done not only through definite articles but also, and very especially, through nouns themselves, thanks to their form (e.g., using the cue “feminine nouns usually end in - a ”; for more detail, see Pérez-Pereira, 1991 ). On the other hand, because Germanic and Slavic languages are very gender-opaque, children acquire gender mainly through articles (the most common element agreeing with the gender of the noun; see Arnon & Ramscar, 2012 ). Hence, grammatical gender is more of a lexical property for Romance languages, but more of a syntactic one for Germanic languages (Sá-Leite, Tomaz, Hernández-Cabrera, Fraga, & Comesaña, 2019 ). Consequently, gender effects are obtained with NPs but not with BNs for the latter languages. Thus, the principles proposed by the WEAVER++ model might in fact be correct for gender-opaque languages, whereas other models, such as Dell, would be more appropriate for transparent languages. If so, the principles of the WEAVER++ and the CMSP models might not be universal. Although they were developed for monolingual data, these models assess grammatical gender processing more directly than the ones described for bilingual language processing, and hence we can consider them when examining the bilingual population, with special care taken in terms of the degree of phonological transparency of the language pair under study.

Purpose of the study

In the present review, we aim to arrive at a better picture of how grammatical gender is represented and selected in the bilingual mind, not only during L2 noun production, but also during comprehension. An examination of production and comprehension studies should allow us to establish the extent to which gender effects are task-sensitive.

Specifically, following connectionist models of bilingual language processing (e.g., BIA, BIA+, multilink), we acknowledge the rationale that expects a gender-integrated system in which cross-linguistic interactions occur during L2 grammatical gender selection. However, because grammatical gender is quite a peculiar feature, with its characteristics varying across languages, these cross-linguistic differences, along with the aforementioned variables related to individual linguistic characteristics and word forms, might modulate or even determine such interactions. It is worth noting here that the study of grammatical gender processing in bilinguals contributes to a long-term discussion about the requirement of an agreement context in order to observe gender effects, something that might also be affected by the linguistic family of the bilinguals’ languages pair. This directly tests the universality of the tenets of certain models (WEAVER++, CMSP), highlighting the peculiarities of the grammatical features of each evaluated language.

A systematic search was conducted of the following databases: Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), Linguistics and Language Behaviour Abstracts (LLBA), Psychology Database, PsycINFO, and Google Scholar. Dissertations and patents were not considered. The searches in the first four databases included the keywords “gender congruency,” “gender processing,” and “bilingualism.” To avoid an excessive number of duplicates, the search using Google Scholar included only the more precise terms “gender congruency” and “bilingualism.” In total, 305 results were obtained. We individually screened all the articles and applied the following criteria for inclusion: (1) the article focuses mainly on grammatical gender processing as an abstract lexical characteristic of nouns, rather than on agreement relationships; (2) the article explores the influence of the L1 on the L2, and not the other way around—that is, studies of how L2 acquisition modifies the processing of the L1 (L2–L1) analyze different mechanisms and are based on principles different from those used to study the influence in the opposite direction (L1–L2; see, e.g., Lim & Christianson, 2012 ); (3) the study tests participants that are bilingual speakers of two gendered languages, without informed influence from a third language, because many studies have found cross-linguistic influence from the L3 in L2 processing (e.g., Fung & Murphy, 2016 ); and (4) the study uses behavioral techniques.

Following application of the inclusion criteria, 12 studies were identified as relevant (Bordag, 2004 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 , 2008 ; Costa et al., 2003 ; Klassen, 2016 ; Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ; Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ; Morales, Paolieri, & Bajo, 2011 ; Morales et al., 2016 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ; Paolieri, Padilla, Koreneva, Morales, & Macizo, 2019 ; Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ). Citations from these studies were also inspected, and as a result, one further study was selected (Weber & Paris, 2004 ). In total, ten of these assessed language production (mainly using picture-naming tasks, but also forward-translation tasks), two assessed language comprehension (lexical decision task and visual-world paradigm), and one assessed both. All studies created the congruent and incongruent conditions through the use of homogeneric/heterogeneric target nouns. A detailed description of all the studies is given in Table 1 , with special attention to every variable that was controlled in each one. In the following pages, we will describe the literature, in two sections: the studies on language production (with two subsections: studies that used picture-naming tasks and those that used forward-translation tasks), and the studies on language comprehension. A brief summary of the results is given at the end of each section. Finally, a discussion with the main theoretical rationale and conclusions is presented.

Grammatical gender processing in bilingual production

Studies with picture-naming tasks.

The first study to explore grammatical gender processing in bilinguals as an inherent characteristic of nouns was that of Costa et al. ( 2003 ). Until today, it is also the only one to have found null results of gender using solely L2 picture-naming tasks. The authors ran five experiments with highly proficient and native-like bilinguals, including multiple language pairs. In their first three experiments, the participants were Croatian–Italian bilinguals. Of note, Croatian and Italian have quite different and asymmetric gender systems. Croatian has three gender values: masculine, feminine, and neuter (the latter of which was not used in the first three experiments), and Italian has two gender values (masculine and feminine); moreover, they have different proportions of gender values, with feminine being the less common gender in Italian, but more common in Croatian. As we stated in the introduction, regarding picture-naming tasks in this line of research, pictures were named in the L2 (i.e., Italian). The participants used NPs (article + noun) whose translation could have either the same gender in the L1 (“same-gender picture set,” or homogeneric nouns; e.g., mela [fem.] in Italian vs. jabuka [fem.] in Croatian: both mean “apple” in English) or a different gender (“different-gender picture set,” or heterogeneric nouns; e.g., pomodoro [masc.] in Italian vs. rajčica [fem.] in Croatian, “tomato” in English). The authors considered three possibilities regarding the results they could obtain. If the gender value of the nouns in the nonresponse language interacted with the gender value of the words in the response language, a difference in RTs between the two types of picture sets would be obtained. Conversely, if gender systems were autonomous, differences would not be found. A third possibility, based on the independent network (IN) model (Caramazza & Miozzo, 1997 ), was also considered. This stated that the gender value of a target noun becomes automatically selected for processing when the noun’s lexical node is selected. From this perspective, gender access is a direct consequence of lexical selection, and competition through activation is not considered. Since competitive effects cannot be observed, gender selection cannot be experimentally assessed. Hence, the absence of differences between conditions could be positive evidence for either a gender-autonomous perspective or an automatic gender selection one.

Results revealed no differences in RTs or error rates between picture sets for any of the groups in any of the three first experiments. The null results in the third experiment are particularly interesting, as it consisted in a mixed-language picture-naming task. Within the mixed-language paradigm, the “language mode” of the participant is manipulated. “Language mode” is the name given to the state of activation of the bilingual’s languages a given point in time (Grosjean, 1998a , 1998b ) and it varies in function of the context depending on whether the bilingual is speaking to a monolingual or a bilingual person. When stimulation is given by two languages, instead of being in a “monolingual mode” and hence ignoring the lexical activation of the nonresponse language, participants from the same population are forced to be in the so-called “bilingual mode.” Thus, in this case, by mixing up naming trials in L1 with trials in L2, the possible influence of the L1 on the L2 increases (for more details on “language modes,” see Grosjean, 1998a , 1998b ). Also, in this experiment, the authors included adjectives in the NPs, this because Croatian has no determiners and therefore no agreement relations were necessary in the L1 translations of the L2 Italian marked NPs in the first two experiments. The authors considered that, according to the classical models of language production (e.g., WEAVER++), this could be preventing gender from being activated in its first language. However, despite the direct co-activation of the L1 and the explicit requirement of an agreement context in both languages, no differences in naming times between picture sets were found. The authors interpreted this absence of cross-language effects in their first three experiments as a possible consequence of the dissimilarity between gender systems in the terms it was described above (e.g., three Croatian vs. two Italian gender values). Thus, in a fourth and fifth experiment, they replicated their first one with native-like Spanish–Catalan and Italian–French bilinguals, language pairs with very similar gender systems (structurally, morphologically, and proportionally). In both experiments, control groups were included with native monolingual Catalan and French speakers, respectively. Although the results revealed differences between same versus different gender sets in both groups of participants (i.e., faster responses for items from the same gender set), such differences were also observed in the control groups. The finding of GC effects in both types of population (mono vs. bilingual) was explored no further, and the authors interpreted all their findings as evidence against the integrated-gender representation view or as favorable evidence for automatic-selection models (which hold that the observation of any gender effects is impossible, even if the grammatical gender systems of both languages are integrated).

Many criticisms have been made of this study, since multiple factors could have resulted in the failure to obtain gender effects. First, bilingual participants were native-like in both languages in all the experiments (Croatian–Italian; Spanish–Catalan; Italian–French), as shown in their extremely low error rates in comparison to the other reviewed studies (up to 10%). This might have led to more stable gender representations and to a reduction of gender assignment and agreement errors, as well as to a higher control of L1 activation. Therefore, instead of understanding the results as support for a gender-representation autonomous view, they should be interpreted in terms of the role of proficiency, age of acquisition, or way of L2 acquisition on L1 activation control in general. Similarly, the results should not be interpreted as evidence for automatic gender-selection models (IN model; Caramazza & Miozzo, 1997 ), because the absence of evidence (the absence of a GC effect) cannot be taken as the evidence for the absence (i.e., lack of the effect). Hence, the null effects observed in Costa et al.’s ( 2003 ) first three experiments do not necessarily support the automatic-selection models. Besides, the fact that Croatian and Italian have quite different and asymmetric gender systems could have been another factor promoting the decrease of interaction between languages. Croatian is a Slavic language, and Italian is a Romance language; in addition, the languages have different numbers of gender values and inverse proportions for them. In addition, the nominal ending -o in Croatian is related to a neuter value, but in Italian it is the typical termination of masculine nouns. Importantly, morphological variations due to gender agreement occur between different classes of words in both languages. For example, in Croatian but not in Italian, verbs carry morphological inflections in agreement with the gender of the main noun. Articles do not generally vary by gender in Croatian, but they do in Italian; thus, they do not play a principal role in gender acquisition and processing in the former language, but they are fundamental in the latter. This amplifies the differences between the gender systems to a greater degree than in any other pair of languages that will be reviewed here. Another potential caveat with this study is the fact that only ten bilingual participants were recruited per experiment in the first three experiments, in which no effects were found for either bilinguals or monolinguals. This could have affected the statistical power of the effects. Furthermore, Costa et al. ( 2003 ) did not manipulate the cognate status of the nouns, collapsing both types of translations (cognates and noncognates) into one analysis. In fact, their stimuli were mostly noncognates. The inclusion of more cognate translations might have led to the appearance of a gender congruency effect, as has been observed in other studies (e.g., Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ). Another important factor is that, in comparison with Germanic and Slavic languages, Romance languages such as Italian (tested in the first three experiments) have special properties that have produced controversial results when exploring GC effects with NPs, even in the monolingual literature. Thus, although gender effects have been consistently obtained with BNs in Italian and other Romance languages, the scenario has not been the same with NPs (e.g., null effects in Alario & Caramazza, 2002 ). The use of BNs in Costa et al.’s ( 2003 ) study would have been desirable. Finally, since a GC effect was obtained in their fourth and fifth experiments for both bilingual and monolingual groups, it is possible that the experimental materials were not selected correctly (e.g., the numbers of phonological and orthographic neighbors of the nouns used to depict the pictures were not controlled and may have affected naming times; for more details, see Andrews, 1997 ). However, the authors did not further analyze any variable related to the stimuli and provided no further explanation of the shared effect between bilinguals and the monolingual control groups. Hence, it would be useful to replicate Costa et al.’s ( 2003 ) experiments with another set of materials, to assess whether or not it is possible to talk about an autonomous-gender representation view with these language pairs.

Apart from Costa et al.’s ( 2003 ) study, all successive works with picture-naming tasks have shown gender effects (Bordag, 2004 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ; Klassen, 2016 ; Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ; Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ; Morales et al., 2011 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ), and thus support an integrative representation of grammatical gender. The effects are, however, modulated by different variables. One of the main variables we have pointed out as being fundamental is the similarity between gender systems. Studies that have used bilingual populations with quite similar gender systems have found clear GC effects. For instance, Paolieri et al. ( 2010 ) conducted two highly controlled picture-naming experiments in L2 with intermediate to highly proficient Italian–Spanish bilinguals along with a control group of Spanish monolingual speakers. Italian and Spanish have similar gender systems (structurally, proportionally, phonologically, and morphologically). The results from both experiments revealed a main effect of gender congruency for both BNs and NPs. Morales et al. ( 2011 ) replicated Paolieri et al.’s ( 2010 ) results in a picture-naming study with Italian–Spanish bilinguals, this time speakers of intermediate proficiency. The authors were also interested in investigating whether inhibitory mechanisms are responsible for solving between-language competition at the grammatical representational level. In a first picture-naming experiment, in order to create more or less L1 inhibition, they manipulated the number of presentations of each picture (one or five times). In a second experiment, participants were presented with the same pictures, and instead of naming the pictures in their L2, they had to produce L1 definite determiners that agreed with the gender of the L1 nouns that denoted the pictures. The researchers expected that the gender-incongruent pictures presented and named five times in the L2 in the first experiment would create more inhibition in the L1 than would those pictures presented only once. A GC effect was obtained in the first experiment, replicating the data of Paolieri et al. ( 2010 ). Also, in the second experiment, the retrieval of L1 grammatical information (i.e., retrieving the appropriate article) for gender-incongruent picture target words took longer, relative to retrieval of the appropriate article for gender-congruent pictures. Interestingly, the greater the number of L2 repetitions in the previous experiment, the bigger the GC effect in this second experiment when retrieving the appropriate articles. Together, these two studies suggest the existence of a gender-integrated system in which cross-linguistic interactions take place during lexical access at the level of grammatical encoding. Particularly, the study of Morales et al. ( 2011 ) defends connectionist models of bilingual language processing, as it confirms the hypothesis of co-activation and competition for selection of both gender values, supporting the idea of an inhibitory control mechanism that works in a competitive situation between different gender values for target nouns across languages.

As the differences between the languages grow, the GC effect still appears, but some small modulations due to other variables, such as L2 proficiency or the phonological transparency of the target words, come up as being important. Specifically, Bordag ( 2004 ) conducted two mixed-language picture-naming tasks (the participants, thus, were in a “bilingual mode”; Grosjean, 1998a , 1998b ) with intermediate- to advanced-proficiency German–Czech bilinguals and with Czech–German bilinguals of the same proficiency. Structurally, the gender systems of the two languages are identical (three genders: feminine, masculine, and neuter). However, Czech does not have articles, so grammatical gender acquisition is slightly different from that in German. The results revealed a gender congruency effect with both BNs and NPs in both RTs (shorter RTs for gender-congruent pictures than for gender-incongruent ones: GC < GI) and errors (measured as agreement error rates, and thus only obtainable for the NP condition). Interestingly, Bordag and Pechmann ( 2007 ) replicated those effects with Czech–German bilinguals and, in a second experiment, moved the participants to a “monolingual mode” by asking them to name all the items in German (L2). The GC effect was once again obtained for BNs and NPs. This means that the L1’s grammatical gender was also activated, despite the fact that the L1 was not required for the task. In a third experiment, they replicated previous experiments, with the main aim of testing the role of phonological gender transparency, by dividing the target nouns into transparent, opaque, and irregular categories. Additionally, the participants were more fluent than the ones from the previous experiments. The researchers analyzed the variables of gender congruency and phonological gender transparency in two different analyses of variance, and no interaction effects were reported. Again, the results showed GC effects for both BNs and NPs, although numerically smaller ones—a fact that the authors attributed to the higher proficiency level of the participants. Also, participants were significantly slower when they named irregular nouns (no differences between transparent and opaque nouns), and they made more errors when naming opaque or irregular nouns than when naming transparent nouns. The results not only support a gender-integrated system, even when the gender systems of the bilingual are slightly different and the participant is in a “monolingual mode,” but also support interactive models of language production (i.e., connectionist models). When the frequency of the targets was controlled, irregular nouns took more time to process than transparent and opaque nouns, and irregular and opaque nouns produced more agreement errors. This points toward a bigger (and not necessarily more precise) processing effort being made to access grammatical gender when a misleading or ambiguous cue is present. In other words, the advantage obtained for transparent nouns seems to suggest that the nominal ending of the noun was being processed in order to select a gender value, and thus to access a noun. The interaction between the lexeme (phonological form of the noun) and lemma (grammatical characteristics of the noun) levels to select a proper gender value points to the existence of bottom-up and top-down processes. In any case, outright affirmations cannot be made, because the interaction between the factors gender congruency and phonological gender transparency unfortunately was not analyzed.

Another variable that we pointed out as fundamental is the state of cognateness of the target translations. Lemhöfer et al. ( 2008 ) addressed its impact on the GC effect through two picture-naming experiments that replicated Bordag and Pechmann’s ( 2007 ) work, but with intermediate to advanced German–Dutch bilinguals. German and Dutch have similar gender systems, but they are structurally different. German has three gender values (masculine, feminine and neuter) and Dutch has two (common and neuter), although in the latter, the masculine and feminine gender existed some decades ago and recently collapsed into the common gender. Consequently, when the German gender value was “feminine” or “masculine” and the Dutch gender value was “common,” picture target nouns were gender-congruent, as well as when they were both neuter. Otherwise (feminine–neuter, masculine–neuter, neuter–common), they were gender-incongruent. In addition, half of the picture target nouns were cognates, defined as highly phonologically and orthographically similar (e.g., hund–hond “dog”), whereas the other half were noncognates (e.g., kleid–jurk “dress”). The participants were also asked to name the pictures using BNs and NPs (definite determiner + noun) in their L2. The results for the first naming task experiment revealed an effect of GC based on error rates, which was restricted to NPs. Specifically, Lemhöfer et al. found fewer gender agreement errors for gender-congruent than for gender-incongruent Dutch nouns (GC < GI). The effect was significantly larger for cognates, but it existed in both types of translations. However, the results for RTs were not significant. The authors noted that the error rates were extremely high (40.5% in the NP condition). This loss of statistical power could have been responsible for the failure to find any effects of GC in the RT analysis. Hence, in their second experiment, they tried to reduce error rates, to explore the origin of the effects of GC. Thus, participants were trained in terms of the gender of the items beforehand, as a means of reducing the high number of errors. Also, since this training consisted of participants repeatedly producing the experimental stimuli in gender-marked phrases (and receiving feedback), a measure became available that indicated the stability of the gender representation. This made it possible to study whether the difficulties participants were experiencing with gender-incongruent target nouns arose from problems during L2 gender acquisition (which led to unstable gender representations), rather than from online lexical competition processes between conflicting gender information. The results revealed (1) that the training was effective as a way of reducing error rates; (2) a GC effect (on RTs) restricted to NPs; (3) that cognates primarily carried the gender effects, with higher degrees of facilitation on the gender-congruent condition and of interference in the gender-incongruent condition, in comparison to the effects found with noncognates; and (4) in a stability analysis, that the interference observed with gender-incongruent pairs were carried especially by nouns with unstable gender representations. The GC effect disappeared for stable nouns. Thus, the primary mechanism causing the gender effects might be increased difficulty in acquiring correct and stable gender representations. Of course, this does not discount the possibility of an “online” competition between the two conflicting gender representations. In fact, when looking at cognates only, Lemhöfer et al. found an effect on error rates and a trend for the RTs, even for the “stable” group. In any case, it is crucial to keep in mind that in this experiment, the stability of the gender representations could have played a special role in comparison to previous studies, since Dutch is known to have a very difficult gender system to master, for both monolinguals and bilinguals. Unstable gender representations are very common and remain a problem even for Dutch bilingual children whose age of acquisition is low and exposure to the L2 extremely high (e.g., Blom, Polišenská, & Weerman, 2008 ; Van der Velde, 2003 ). Regarding the absence of a GC effect for BNs, as we stated in the introduction, even in the monolingual literature, GC effects are not usually obtained with BNs in Germanic languages. Even more, if the absence of results with BNs is due to the opaqueness of the languages (Sá-Leite et al., 2019 ), the results here are not surprising, because Dutch is the most opaque Germanic language and also the one carrying the majority of the null results with BNs in the literature (La Heij et al., 1998 ). Thus, whereas connectionist models of language production clearly support the results seen with Romance languages (Morales et al., 2011 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ), and even those with slightly more transparent Germanic languages (Bordag, 2004 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ), the WEAVER++ grammatical gender-processing statements seem to adjust better for the Lemhöfer et al. ( 2008 ) results with L2 Dutch.

An integrative view and nonselective access to the bilingual lexicon are still in the picture here when explaining the interaction between the factors “cognateness” and “gender congruency.” Specifically, it seems that when an L2 noun has to be processed, its L1 translation becomes active as well (nonselective access), along with its grammatical features (i.e., gender). If the gender values of the two translations are incongruent, there will be competition for selection, hampering L2 gender processing. The co-activation of the translation equivalent and its gender is larger for cognates than for noncognates, due to cross-language similarities (see Comesaña et al., 2015 , for more details; see also Costa, Caramazza, & Sebastián-Gallés, 2000 ). According to the authors, this is why both facilitation and interference, from gender-congruent and -incongruent translations, respectively, are higher for cognate than for noncognate translations.

Finally, there are two articles in which the difference between languages was quite high but GC effects were still successfully obtained (Klassen, 2016 ; Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ). More specifically, Manolescu and Jarema replicated Paolieri et al.’s ( 2010 ) study with Romanian and French highly proficient bilinguals that had started to learn French in childhood after immigrating to Montreal. They also recruited native French speakers as a control group. Structurally, Romanian has one more gender (masculine, feminine, and neuter) than French (masculine and feminine) does. The authors stated that pairs of neuter–masculine or neuter–feminine translations can be treated as potentially gender-incongruent pairs. Moreover, the distributions of definite determiners are different in the two languages, and thus gender acquisition and processing differs slightly, not only morphologically but also syntactically. The participants had to name pictures using a BN or an NP (indefinite determiner + noun). The results for both experiments replicated those in Paolieri et al. ( 2010 )—that is, GC effects for both BNs and NPs, which were restricted to bilinguals. However, we should point out that although incongruent conditions (masculine–feminine and feminine–masculine) and potentially incongruent conditions (masculine–neuter, feminine–neuter) both yielded higher RTs than congruent conditions, no differences were observed between incongruent and potentially incongruent conditions (there was only a tendency toward marginally shorter RTs for the potentially incongruent condition than for the incongruent one).

On the other hand, Klassen’s ( 2016 ) study is especially interesting because, similarly to Costa et al. ( 2003 ), she explored a group of bilinguals of supposedly opposed linguistic families (i.e., bilinguals of a Germanic and a Romance language). She conducted a picture-naming task with Spanish–German intermediate bilinguals, along with a control group of native German speakers. Spanish and German have quite different gender systems, especially in terms of structure, since German has a tripartite gender system (masculine, feminine, and neuter), whereas Spanish only has two gender values (masculine and feminine). In addition, Spanish is a highly phonologically gender-transparent language, contrary to German, which is quite opaque. Like Manolescu and Jarema ( 2015 ), the author considered one further condition, the “potentially incongruent condition.” That is, instead of a mismatch in the gender systems between the two languages, there was an absence of a neuter gender in Spanish. Thus, such pairs as masculine–neuter and feminine–neuter would be potentially incongruent. In addition, she created two conditions, depending on the naming instructions: BN or NP. The results revealed a main effect of GC for both BNs and NPs in the experimental bilingual group, which was significant by participants but not by items. The effect was due to the gender-incongruent pairs since, although RTs were significantly lower for potentially incongruent than for gender-incongruent pairs, differences between potentially incongruent and gender-congruent pairs showed only a tendency. Naming latencies did not differ significantly between naming conditions (BNs and NPs). Error rates replicated the results obtained in RTs. Apart from the fact that gender effects support the gender-integrated representation hypothesis, an interesting result was observed with neuter nouns. As the author explains, although both the gender-incongruent and neuter conditions are, by definition, L1–L2 gender-incongruent, the neuter gender value is only present in the L2. This might cause the linguistic system to encode the neuter gender value (without an equivalent in the L1) separately from the masculine and feminine shared gender nodes. This separate representation would not be subject to interference from activation of the masculine and feminine shared gender nodes. Interestingly, in their study Manolescu and Jarema ( 2015 ) found that the behavior of neuter nouns (the absent gender in the L1) was quantitatively somewhat different from that of incongruent nouns (i.e., marginally shorter RTs), but congruent nouns still had the shortest RTs by far. This means that the “gender value in discord” (in comparison to the L1 gender system) was still causing trouble, although it might not have been entirely incongruent.

In sum, with the exception of Costa et al. ( 2003 ), research using picture-naming tasks supports an integrated view of the bilingual gender representation. Importantly, the similarity between the gender systems of the pair of languages at issue has not determined the GC effect here. Thus, the GC effect has been obtained in highly similar pairs of languages, such as Spanish and Italian (Morales et al., 2011 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ); in similar pairs, such as Czech and German (Bordag, 2004 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ); and in dissimilar pairs, such as Romanian and French or German and Spanish (Klassen, 2016 ; Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ). The fact that the GC effect has been observed with participants in both a monolingual and a bilingual mode, as defined by Grosjean ( 1998a , 1998b ), supports the idea of nonselective access in a highly integrated lexicon. Importantly, this degree of integration extends to the gender systems of the bilingual. Regarding the participants, other characteristics have been shown to affect the results. When Bordag and Pechmann ( 2007 ) used bilinguals who were more proficient and whose age of acquisition was lower (10.7 years old, on average; for more details, see Table 1 ) in their third experiment, the GC effect turned out to be smaller than in their other experiments. Other interesting findings are in line with interactive models of language production that support the existence of bidirectional links between the lemma and lexeme levels. Specifically, the degree of phonological transparency of the L2 target nouns affected the naming times and error rates, with irregular nouns taking more time and producing more naming errors (still, the interaction with the GC effect was not explored). This suggests that the phonological encoding of a word has a direct influence on the selection of the proper gender value at the lemma level. Top-down mechanisms such as those supported by connectionist models of language production would be behind these results. On the other hand, these models also support the effect of cognateness obtained here: Cognates seem to boost the GC effect, in that the interference caused by incongruent gender translations is higher for cognates, but the facilitation caused by those that are congruent is also higher. Only a system with nonselective access and competitive and inhibitory mechanisms such as those proposed by Morales et al. ( 2011 ) would explain these results.

Besides, and most importantly, the effect seems to be obtained with both BNs and NPs, something that goes against the postulates of the WEAVER++ model, which understands grammatical gender as being more of a pure syntactic property, only activated when agreement is necessary. Interestingly, the only study with Dutch as the target language (L2) showed no GC effects with BNs, a finding that is coherent with what has been observed in the monolingual literature (i.e., an absence of GC effects for every study conducted with Dutch participants using BNs).

Studies with forward-translation tasks

Salamoura and Williams ( 2007 ) were the first to use a forward-translation task to explore the GC effect in bilinguals. In this task, participants are presented with an L1 word on a screen and have to translate it into the L2 as quickly and accurately as possible. The L2 translation can be heterogeneric or homogeneric in relation to the L1 target word. The authors tested the gender-integrated hypothesis with BNs and NPs, and they also looked at whether the degree of cognateness between the L1 and L2 nouns was a prerequisite for a shared representation of gender features, and thus of a gender-processing interaction between the two languages. Greek–German advanced-proficiency bilinguals were recruited. Greek and German have structurally similar gender systems (masculine, feminine, and neuter), although these are proportionally and phonologically different. Participants were presented with either BNs or NPs on a screen (the adjective BIG or SMALL + a noun) and had to translate the words into the L2. Two blocks were created, one of cognate nouns (defined by the authors as translations that have a highly similar phonological form, with orthographic overlap varying, since Greek and German have different alphabets), and the other of noncognate nouns. The results revealed a GC effect across languages only with NPs, for RTs and for agreement error rates, which were numerically greater for cognates than for noncognates. These results give support to a shared representation of gender features between L1 and L2 and replicate the results obtained with cognates in picture-naming tasks (Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ). They also give support to the WEAVER++ model, since the effects were observed only with NPs—that is, when agreement had to be established.

Bordag and Pechmann ( 2008 ) conducted three forward-translation experiments with Czech–German bilinguals of upper-intermediate to advanced proficiency. We might bear in mind that these two languages share the same number of gender values (three), and their major difference consists in the absence of articles for Czech, which makes gender acquisition different from in German. The stimulus set was identical to the one reported in Bordag ( 2004 ); that is, the nouns were transparent, half belonging to the congruent gender translation condition and half to the incongruent gender translation condition. Two conditions featuring short (BNs) and long (NPs: the adjective SMALL or BIG + a noun) responses were included. No significant differences were observed between the two critical conditions (congruent vs. incongruent), for either BNs or NPs. In Bordag and Pechmann’s ( 2008 ) second experiment, they replicated the previous one, but using a new set of materials, those from the picture-naming task used in their 2007 study. Hence, phonological gender transparency was also manipulated (16 transparent, 16 opaque, and 16 irregular nouns, distributed evenly). A new group of participants, drawn from the same population as before, was selected. Again, no effects of GC were obtained. However, the transparent nouns were faster and more accurately translated than the opaque and irregular nouns, although only in the long condition (NPs). To increase the probability of L1 gender retrieval (and thus of cross-linguistic GC effects), the authors decided to conduct what they called a “pure” translation task in their third experiment. They did this because, in the previous experiments, participants did not have to perform pure translation of the NPs (i.e., in both the long and short conditions, they only translated the noun; the size of the adjective they had to produce in the long condition was determined by the size of a dot that appeared in front of the word). This new experiment was a replication of Experiment 2, but with BNs and complex NPs (gender-marked adjective + noun). The participants were drawn from the same population as in the other experiments. Again, no GC effects were obtained. The same effect of phonological gender transparency for NPs was observed in RTs, but the differences were marginal in error rates. As in the picture-naming study of Bordag and Pechmann ( 2007 ), despite the fact that no effects of GC were obtained, gender was being processed at least in the NP condition, since the faster retrieval of nouns with a gender-transparent termination indicated a computation of the gender value in which gender transparency played a role.

Even though these results seem to not fully support a gender-integrated system, other studies with translation tasks did find GC effects, even when noncognates were included in the stimuli (Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ). For instance, Paolieri et al. ( 2010 ) conducted a forward-translation task (from L1 to L2, Exp. 3) with Italian–Spanish highly proficient bilinguals drawn from the same population as in their experiments with picture-naming tasks. Likewise, the same materials were used as in their previous experiments. Participants had to translate either a BN or an NP (definite determiner + noun). An effect of GC was obtained with both BNs and NPs, again revealing faster responses to gender-congruent than to gender-incongruent nouns. Manolescu and Jarema replicated this experiment with the materials used in their picture-naming task, and obtained the same effects (GC effects for both BNs and NPs) with highly proficient Romanian–French bilinguals.

Recently, Paolieri et al. ( 2019 ) conducted two experiments based on oral translation tasks, with a threefold aim. First, they once again compared the retrieval of grammatical gender in a BN versus an NP condition; second, they explored more deeply the role of similarity between the gender systems of a bilingual’s two languages in GC effects. For this, in their first experiment they recruited Russian–Spanish bilinguals, two languages whose gender systems are structurally, morphologically, and phonologically different. They then compared the results to those obtained in a second experiment with Italian–Spanish bilinguals, two languages with very similar gender systems. Finally, their third objective was to explore the influence of semantic mediation on the occurrence of grammatical gender effects in bilinguals. Specifically, they based their hypothesis on the fact that abstract words seem to have fewer semantic features than concrete words (e.g., de Groot, 1989 ; see also Ferré, Sánchez-Casas, Comesaña, & Demestre, 2017 ). Consequently, the number of semantic elements that abstract words can share with their translations is very much reduced, in comparison to concrete ones. This allowed the researchers to test what Konishi ( 1993 ) and Boroditsky, Schmidt, and Philips (2003) claimed about arbitrary syntactic features, such as the grammatical gender of nouns, being part of the conceptual representation of the objects they refer to. If grammatical gender and semantic information interact, concreteness should interact with the GC effect. Thus, in the first experiment, Russian–Spanish bilinguals were asked to translate nouns from their L1 to the L2 by producing either a BN or an NP. The L1 nouns could be gender-congruent, gender-incongruent, or—since Russian has a third gender value that Spanish does not (i.e., neuter)—neuter-incongruent with their L2 translations. Concreteness was also manipulated (concrete vs. abstract nouns). The results revealed modulation in the GC effect (faster responses for congruent than for incongruent or neutral-incongruent gender pairs) as a function of concreteness and response type (BN vs. NP). For abstract nouns, the GC effect was only significant with NPs, whereas for concrete nouns the effect was present for both conditions. In the second experiment, Italian and Spanish advanced bilinguals were recruited, and the materials were controlled for the same variables, with the same number of transparent nouns being present in both languages. An effect of GC was obtained for both BNs and NPs, as well as for both concrete and abstract nouns, although the magnitude of the effect was greater for the concrete nouns. Thus, the evidence obtained was (1) in favor of the interaction between both gender systems even when they are quite different, although this interaction seems to be greater when the similarity between them is higher; (2) against an agreement context (i.e., NPs) being a requirement for processing gender, although it indeed boosted gender effects; and (3) in favor of an interaction between encoding at the semantic and grammatical levels, perhaps because gender is partially related to semantics contrary to what is commonly presented in its definition (i.e., that grammatical gender is totally independent from semantics).

To summarize, we have seen thus far that the majority of production studies on gender processing with bilinguals who speak languages with more or less similar gender systems found GC effects and, hence, support a gender-integrated perspective (i.e., nine out of 11 studies; see Table 1 for more detail). This is true for both Romance and Germanic languages (as L2) with intermediate (e.g., Bordag, 2004 ) and highly proficient (e.g., Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ; Paolieri et al., 2010 ) bilinguals. The only study that seems to present strong evidence against this view is that of Costa et al. ( 2003 ), with three different bilingual populations (Croatian–Italian, Spanish–Catalan, and Italian–French bilinguals). Leaving aside its methodological limitations, it is worth noting here that some inconsistencies persist even with bilinguals who speak the same languages (e.g., Czech–German bilinguals showed gender effects in Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 , but null effects were observed in Bordag & Pechmann, 2008 ). Task requirements might be responsible for the seemingly contradictory results in the latter studies, probably because the time courses of the activation of the gender features in L1 and L2 in translation and picture-naming tasks might have been different (Bordag & Pechmann, 2008 ). For the latter, the activation spreads from the concept in common to both L1 and L2 lemmas in parallel, to the level of grammatical encoding. Thus, the L1 and L2 gender nodes (or the same gender node) are activated at the same time, and they can compete for selection. In forward translation, the L1 word form and its lemmas are activated first, then the activation spreads to the lemma of the L2 translation equivalent (or to the concept and then to the L2 lemma). This means that the L2 gender node becomes activated after the L1 gender node. However, the fact that other studies with languages as different as Czech and German have found gender effects regardless of the task requirements (e.g., Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 , with Romanian and French) weakens this hypothesis. Therefore, the reason for the null GC effects observed in Bordag and Pechmann ( 2008 ) remains unclear. It is likely that gender effects are not obtained as easily in forward-translation tasks as in picture-naming tasks, especially when languages other than Romance languages are involved. Note that the two studies (out of five) with translation tasks that did not obtain gender effects when participants were asked to use BNs (Bordag & Pechmann, 2008 ; Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ) were the studies that featured non-Romance languages. In comparison to other languages (such as German, the L2 in the two experiments that failed to obtain gender effects with BNs), Romance languages might activate gender to a greater extent, probably because they have a highly transparent gender system and the nominal ending of the noun is always relevant to the gender. In fact, in Spanish, Italian, and French, the phonological cues for gender have been shown to affect BN processing (e.g., Sá-Leite et al., 2017 ; Urrutia et al., 2009 ), something that has not been observed in languages such as German, in which phonological cues do not play a central role.

Regarding other characteristics of the languages at issue, it is important to point out that the GC effects were more robust for cognate translations. This might be explained due to the resemblance of both form and meaning between cognates (Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ). Taking into account that the studies that have used cognates selected highly similar phonological translations (although no information about identical cognates was provided, a careful inspection of the materials from all the selected studies showed no identical cognates in the lists), this overlap might have led not only to language-shared semantic, phonological, and/or orthographic representations, but also to a correspondence between the L1 and L2 cognates in terms of lemmas (including grammatical features such as gender). The cognateness might have prompted learners to link the new L2 word to the gender value of its L1 translation until evidence to the contrary was available. When such evidence was provided, the strong link to the L1 lemma must have progressively reduced. The formal dissimilarity of noncognates, on the contrary, might make learners more cautious about equating the L2 with the L1 gender, forcing them to develop stronger L2 lemmas independent of links to the L1. On the other hand, evidence has been obtained in favor of bidirectional mechanisms between the lemma and lexeme levels, similar to the mechanisms proposed by connectionist models of language processing. Specifically, it seems that transparency facilitates L2 noun processing, something that has been shown in other studies featuring picture-naming tasks aimed exclusively at testing this effect (e.g., Bordag, Opitz, & Pechmann, 2006 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ). Thus, support has been obtained for the idea that bilinguals are sensitive to phonological gender transparency.

Finally, regarding the need for an agreement context in order to process gender, and thus to capture gender effects, the reviewed studies suggest that an agreement context is not mandatory. Seven out of the ten production studies that tested this obtained gender effects using BNs (see Table 1 ). It seems, though, that an agreement context might boost these gender effects. The studies that did not obtain effects with BNs were those featuring forward-translation tasks, as we discussed above (Bordag & Pechmann, 2008 ; Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ), and one featuring a picture-naming task (Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ). Following the reasoning given in the discussion, the target language in this picture-naming task (Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ) was Dutch (L2), one of the most gender-opaque Germanic languages. Furthermore, the L1 was another gender-opaque language, German. As we have said, studies in the monolingual domain using these languages have also failed to observe gender effects with BNs (e.g., La Heij et al., 1998 ; see also Sá-Leite et al., 2017 ).

Gender processing in bilingual comprehension

Regarding language comprehension, three studies on grammatical gender processing in bilinguals have used either lexical decision tasks (LDTs) or the visual-world paradigm. These studies are particularly interesting, in that the monolingual models of language processing that have assessed grammatical gender selection (WEAVER++, CMSP) were developed to explain language production rather than language comprehension. Nevertheless, connectionist models of bilingual language processing, characterized by a highly integrated lexicon with no selective access, sustain the existence of cross-language interactions at all levels during both word recognition (BIA, BIA+) and production (multilink), and thus, gender effects would be expected with BNs and NPs. Again, similarity between the gender systems of bilinguals might determine these interactions.

The first authors to conduct an LDT were Lemhöfer et al. ( 2008 ), who tested bilinguals of two highly opaque and similar languages: German–Dutch bilinguals who had been living in the Netherlands for 1.5 to 11 years (probably intermediate to high proficient bilinguals). They were presented with a string of letters and they had to decide as quickly and accurately as possible whether or not it was a real word in the L2 Dutch. The pseudowords (matched in length to experimental words) were constructed by changing one or more letters in existing Dutch words. Participants saw a determiner (prime) and shortly after that (250 ms) a letter string. Half of the trials were presented with the indefinite determiner (gender unmarked) and the other half with the definite determiner (gender marked). Along with the gender congruency condition, they also explored the roles of cognateness (cognates vs. noncognates, with cognates being defined as highly phonologically and orthographically similar, as in their previously described naming tasks) and prime type (definite vs. gender-neutral indefinite determiner). The results revealed an effect of gender congruency regardless of prime type: gender-congruent translations were recognized faster than gender-incongruent translations when preceded by both definite and indefinite determiners (GC < GI). Although not significant, the data pattern for cognates and noncognates looked qualitatively different: There seemed to be a crossover interaction of gender congruency and prime type in the cognates, but this was absent for noncognates. Indeed, the analysis of cognates revealed a significant interaction between gender congruency and prime type. For incongruent gender cognate pairs, RTs were 31 ms longer for definite (gender-marked) than for indefinite (gender-unmarked) determiner primes. For congruent gender cognate pairs, a marginally significant advantage of 16 ms was present for definite determiners primes over indefinite determiner ones. Summarizing, a GC effect in comprehension was found that was somewhat modulated by cognateness similarly to what happened in production. These findings give support to (1) a gender-integrated representation view and (2) a cross-language interaction during grammatical gender encoding, which seems to be intensified by the status of cognateness.

Weber and Paris ( 2004 ) and Morales et al. ( 2016 ) tested oral rather than visual L2 word recognition. This is particularly interesting since it extends, if present, the cross-linguistic influences at the level of grammatical encoding to the oral and more common means of language comprehension. Following the connectionist interactive activation models (BIA, BIA+, and multilink), through the activation of the phonemes, concepts from both languages should be activated and, thus, if the results are similar to those in the previous study, the gender systems of the bilingual person should influence each other. Weber and Paris conducted a study on gender processing using a spoken-word recognition task within the visual world paradigm along with the eye-tracking technique to assess this question. The authors recruited French–German highly proficient bilinguals as participants, with French and German having quite different grammatical gender systems (structurally, morphologically, and phonologically) and belonging to different language families (Romance and Germanic, respectively). Following spoken instructions in German (L2), they were required to click on a target picture on a screen from a set of four pictures while their eye movements were recorded. Two of those pictures were fillers phonologically unrelated to the target item, which could coincide or not in gender with them (i.e., the gender value of the fillers was randomized). One of the other two was the target, which always had a translation of the same gender in the L1 (e.g., kassette “tape” is a feminine noun in German and it translates to another feminine noun in French, cassette ). The noun corresponding to the target picture they had to select was said in the instructions while they were seeing the four pictures. That target’s noun was preceded by a definite article that agreed in gender with it (e.g., Wo befindet sich die kassette? “Where is the tape?”). The remaining picture was a competitor, whose corresponding noun overlapped in onset (i.e., the initial phonemes) with the target picture noun in both languages, as a means of creating an ambiguous situation (e.g., kanone “cannon”). In the L2, target and competitor nouns always shared gender (e.g., kassette “tape” and kanone “cannon” are both feminine), so the gender marking on the article could not exclude the competitor as a lexical candidate. Critically, target and competitor translations could differ in gender in the nontarget language (e.g., in French, cassette “tape” is feminine and canon “cannon” is masculine). In trials with the target and competitor of different genders in the L1 (e.g., cassette – canon ), and in which participants did not on average look more at the competitor ( kanone ) than at the filler images, then participants were seen to be using L1 French gender information ( canon is masculine) to disambiguate between target and competitor in their L2 in a situation in which the L1 is irrelevant. Results revealed that in trials with same-gender pairs (i.e., same gender in French L1), participants on average fixated on competitor objects significantly more than filler objects, as also happened with the target. However, the pattern of results changed for trials with different-gender pairs (i.e., different gender in French L1). Participants no longer fixated on competitor objects significantly more than filler objects on average, the target picture being the one on which they fixated significantly more. This means that gender information provided by the French translation of the competitor could constrain competitor activation in the L1; as the author notes, “Despite its phonological similarity with the target noun, the competitor was not activated when the article of the target noun did not match in gender with the competitor in French” (Weber & Paris, 2004 , p. 1450). In a second experiment with native monolingual German speakers, results showed that, conversely, German listeners looked more often at the competitor than at the unrelated fillers both in same-gender and in different-gender pairs. This study adds evidence to the activation of the L1 translations grammatical gender in a pure L2 oral context with highly proficient bilinguals, at least when NPs are involved.

Morales et al. ( 2016 ) replicated Weber and Paris’s ( 2004 ) study with upper intermediate bilinguals of highly similar and transparent Romance languages: Italian and Spanish. Spanish monolinguals were also included as a control group. Here, participants viewed only a pair of pictures (objects) on a computer screen, so the ambiguity was guaranteed by the same gender of the two pictures. As in the previous study, instructions were presented in Spanish L2 and an NP always preceded the target noun ( Encuentra la bufanda “Find the scarf”). Interestingly, in this experiment materials were controlled in both Spanish (L2) and Italian (L1) (for more information on the controlled variables, see Table 1 ). The grammatical gender of the objects’ name was manipulated so that pairs of objects had the same (congruent) or different (incongruent) gender in Italian, although the gender in Spanish was always the same. The results revealed that participants looked at the target pictures significantly less (less fixations) when their translation equivalents in Italian were incongruent in gender. Hence, target items that did not share gender across languages yielded a reduced proportion of fixations on target pictures relative to target items in the congruent gender condition. Also, no interaction was found between gender value (masculine, feminine) and condition (congruent, incongruent), thus the effect did not vary across gender values (note that this made it possible to discount the potential impact of the definite feminine article la “the” being the same in both languages). Importantly, Morales et al. ( 2016 ) explored the time course of the gender effect and observed that the influence of L1 grammatical gender affected spoken-word recognition from 498 ms onward (until the end of the time window, 900 ms).

In a second experiment, using participants from the same population as those in Experiment 1, Morales et al. ( 2016 ) increased the experimental control of new materials (care was taken to include only noncognate translations) in order to guarantee that they did not contain any phonologically related words between languages and that target and distractor nouns never shared orthographic onset in either language. In addition, they included a third condition, in which the gender of the two pictures was different in both the L1 and L2. As well as replicating the previous results, this experiment aimed to compare the time course of the two gender effects through this third condition. Thus, included were (a) same–different gender trials (in the L2, nouns such as pentola [FEM], “pot,” and farfalla [FEM], “butterfly,” have the same gender, and nouns such as cuscino [MASC], “pillow,” and pecora [FEM], “sheep,” have different genders), and (b) gender-congruent/-incongruent translations (in the previous example, the first pair is congruent with its L1 translation, since both “pot” [olla] and “butterfly” [mariposa] are feminine in the L1 Spanish; however, the second pair is incongruent with its L1 translation, because whereas “sheep” is feminine in both the L2 Italian pecora and L1 Spanish oveja, “pillow” is masculine in the L2 Italian cuscino but feminine in the L1 Spanish almohada). The factor of same–different gender in L2 would indicate the moment when the L2 determiner gender processing starts, because the determiner disambiguates the choice, whereas the second factor, congruent–incongruent gender L1–L2, would signal the moment at which L1 co-activation occurs. The results revealed, first, that L2 determiner gender processing initiated before L1/L2 gender co-activation. Second, a significantly higher number of target fixations occurred in the congruent condition than in the incongruent condition, with no interaction with the factor “target gender value.” Third, the difference between target fixations in the congruent and incongruent conditions became significant at 360 ms from article onset. Morales et al. ( 2016 ) concluded that the grammatical gender of the L1 modulates spoken-word L2 recognition shortly after L2 gender information becomes available to bilinguals. Results with a monolingual control group of native speakers of Spanish revealed null effects of gender congruency/incongruency.

To summarize, all the comprehension studies reviewed saw gender effects across-languages, both for visual and oral recognition, with an early gender effect of the L1 on the spoken L2 (Morales et al., 2016 ). The effect was obtained even when the pair of languages tested had highly different gender systems probably because in all of them one of the languages was Romance and thus transparent (it would be interesting if future studies were to assess whether this is a sine qua non condition to observe GC effects). In visual recognition tasks, participants showed lower RTs when the L1 translations had the same gender as the target nouns (GC effects). In oral recognition tasks, the competitor pictures prompted more interference when their gender was the same of its L1 translation. In addition, as in the production studies, gender effects seem to be boosted by the cognateness of the translations (Lemhöfer et al., 2008 ).

In this review article, we aimed to explore grammatical gender processing in bilinguals during the production and comprehension of L2 nouns. Two main views of bilingual gender representation were contrasted: the integrative versus the autonomous view. Whereas the first one supports an integrated gender system for both languages of the bilingual, and thus predicts cross-linguistic effects during grammatical encoding, the latter expects the opposite—that is, two separate gender systems that do not influence each other. The majority of the models of both language production and comprehension in bilinguals would expect an interaction to occur between the two languages during grammatical gender selection, especially the connectionist models, such as the BIA (Dijkstra et al., 1998 ), BIA+ (Dijkstra & van Heuven, 2002 ), and the multilink model (Dijkstra et al., 2018 ). These models firmly defend nonselective access to an integrated lexicon at (supposedly) all levels. However, grammatical gender is a very peculiar feature whose characteristics can vary widely from one language to another, and hence it cannot be assumed that our linguistic system considers grammatical gender from different languages to be the same parameter. Thus, the integration of both gender systems and their possible interactions were analyzed with special focus on the similarity between the gender systems of the participants and the linguistic families (Romance vs. Slavic/Germanic). Likewise, other factors affecting the L1 influence on the L2 and related to the characteristics of both the bilingual population at issue (AoA, L2 proficiency) and the languages themselves (state of cognateness, phonological gender transparency) were considered. The degree of phonological gender transparency of the languages and the stimuli was particularly interesting, because it tested the bidirectional links proposed by certain connectionist models (e.g., BIA, BIA+, multilink) between the lemma and lexeme levels. Finally, and more elementally, we explored whether or not an agreement context is a mandatory condition for processing the gender of a single noun, putting the universality of some models developed in the monolingual domain into question (CMSP: Dell, 1999; WEAVER++: Levelt et al., 1999 ).

Considering all these findings, we conclude that the interaction between the L1 and L2 lexicons occurs at the level of grammatical encoding. A cross-language GC effect (a facilitation of the processing of L2 nouns when their translation into the L1 is congruent in gender, in comparison to when it is incongruent) has been systematically observed during both L2 production (nine out of 11 studies) and comprehension (three out of three studies). The effect was observed even when the gender systems of both languages were quite different, at least whenever one of the two spoken languages was transparent (e.g., Manolescu & Jarema, 2015 ; Paolieri et al., 2019 ; Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ). This means that, even in these cases, grammatical gender is considered the same linguistic parameter in the bilingual mind. However, Costa et al.’s ( 2003 ) and Paolieri et al.’s ( 2019 ) studies suggest that the greater the distance between the languages, the lesser the effect. This is in line with some studies that have used eyetracking techniques and electrophysiological measures, which showed that the higher the similarity between grammatical rules in both languages, the higher the sensitivity of the participants to agreement errors (e.g., Foucart & Frenck-Mestre, 2012 ; Sabourin & Stowe, 2008 ). Regarding the characteristics of the participants at issue, this effect seems to be restricted to adult bilinguals, mostly unbalanced, with a late AoA (10+ years old). The only study that has featured bilingual participants whose AoA was listed as being less than 10 is Manolescu and Jarema ( 2015 ), since the L2 was acquired during childhood, but no further information was specified. Importantly, even in this case, gender effects were observed. In addition, the effect was obtained with bilinguals in both the monolingual and bilingual mode (Grosjean, 1998a , 1998b ). Regarding proficiency in the L2, the influence between languages during gender processing occurred for both intermediate- and high-proficiency bilinguals, although higher proficiency in the L2 and native-likeness might contribute to a reduction of the effect (Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ; Costa et al., 2003 ). As to the analyzed languages, the effect has been obtained for both transparent and opaque L2s. Yet, for opaque L2s, the effect seems to be slightly harder to obtain, perhaps due to the absence of phonological gender cues that facilitate and may prompt nouns’ gender activation baseline to be at a higher level than in opaque languages (e.g., Bordag & Pechmann, 2008 ; Lemhöfer et al., 2007).

In terms of language production, gender effects seem to be more easily obtained with picture-naming tasks than with oral-translation tasks, probably because the time courses of L1 and L2 gender activation differ as a function of task requirements (see the Summary subsection of the production studies section for more details). Regarding language recognition, the effect was observed in all the reviewed studies, in both visual and oral recognition tasks. These gender effects on comprehension are in line with the tenet of connectionist models (BIA, BIA+, and multilink) that multiple word candidates are activated simultaneously during recognition, regardless of the language, and that they compete against each other.

Thus, evidence theoretically supports a gender-integrated representation view of the bilingual mind, in which both languages share the same gender nodes. In fact, after reviewing every study that has paid attention to modulations in the GC effect as a function of L2 proficiency, a further explanation is provided, in the form of the existence of a strong dependency of the L2 on the L1 during L2 acquisition. Late learners tend to acquire L2 lemmas through inheriting the grammatical features of their L1 translation equivalents, including grammatical gender values. In fact, the higher the similarity between translations, the higher is the degree of the inheriting. This is consistent with the fact that cognates boost the GC effect, as well as with the interference caused by gender-incongruent translations during the processing of target nouns. As MacWhinney ( 1997 ) pointed out when defining the competition model, this “parasiting” state of the L2 lexicon over that of the L1 only begins to decrease as L2 proficiency increases, as two of our reviewed studies suggest (i.e., Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ; Costa et al., 2003 ). Since the original links to L1 lemmas and their grammatical features may persist (even when new links to the appropriate features for the L2 lemmas start to form), this causes a great deal of competition between the two languages at the level of grammatical encoding. If this explanation is right, such competition is what we have seen in the reviewed studies, although it diminishes as proficiency increases. Future studies might seek to analyze, through a longitudinal experiment, how increasing L2 proficiency affects the GC effect.

Regarding the role of the phonological gender transparency of nouns, since participants have been shown to be sensitive to L2 phonological gender cues (e.g., Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 , 2008 ), evidence from the studies reviewed here seems to support a model that allows for interaction between the levels of phonological encoding and grammatical encoding in an L2. Again, this is in line with the postulates of the main connectionist models of both monolingual and bilingual language processing (e.g., CMSP, BIA, BIA+, multilink). Recent electrophysiological evidence matches these results, in that bilinguals seem to be highly sensitive to gender cues, since such cues are more helpful to them than to monolinguals for recovering gender, at least when agreement is involved (Caffarra, Barber, Molinaro, & Carreiras, 2017 ).

Concerning the question of whether or not an agreement context is a mandatory condition for the lexical selection and processing of grammatical gender, the answer seems to be negative, at least for late-learner bilinguals. Although the GC effect has been more easily observed with NPs (gender-marked utterances apparently prompt gender processing to a greater extent; e.g., Salamoura & Williams, 2007 ), it has also been obtained extensively with BNs (production) and with unmarked utterances (comprehension). In production, this goes against the postulates of the classical activation-dependent model, WEAVER++ (Levelt et al., 1999 ). In any case, when the L2 is Dutch (and especially when the L1 is also an opaque Germanic language, such as German), the postulates of the WEAVER++ model do explain the results (null for BNs, GC effect for NPs). This can be interpreted as evidence supporting the theoretical idea that grammatical gender is more of a syntactic property for opaque languages, with Dutch being the most opaque one (Sá-Leite et al., 2019 ). In any case, competitive mechanisms between gender values do seem to be behind the results here. According to Morales et al. ( 2011 ), this competition is resolved through inhibition mechanisms, so that the L1 has to be inhibited in order to process L2’s gender, at least in production. This is in line with the inhibitory control model proposed by Green ( 1998 ), in which a word is selected from a certain language, and the lemmas from the other language(s) (potential competitors) have to be suppressed by virtue of their language tags. In addition, as was also stated by Green, it takes longer to process a language that has been more suppressed, which is the case for the results in Morales et al.’s ( 2011 ) study. In their last experiment, the gender-incongruent nouns produced most in L2 during the picture-naming task were the ones whose L1 gender retrieval was most likely to fail during the postexperimental picture-naming task in the L1. Furthermore, L2 gender-congruent nouns did not inhibit gender processing on their L1 translations.

When comparing the results on bilingual gender processing with the results from the monolingual literature, a question arises. As we have said, studies with Germanic languages have failed to observe gender effects with BNs in the monolingual field, and the results have sometimes been controversial with either BNs or NPs when it comes to Romance languages (as we stated in the introduction; see Finocchiaro et al., 2011 , for null results). Hence, why are gender effects more easily obtained with bilinguals than with monolinguals for both NPs and BNs and for both kinds of languages? Bordag ( 2004 ) proposed that, since in picture-naming tasks with bilinguals the distractor is a translation of the target word, both lemmas are closely related semantically. If arbitrary syntactic features such as the grammatical gender of nouns are part of the conceptual representations of the objects they refer to (Boroditsky et al., 2003 ; Konishi, 1993 ), when both the L1 and L2 nouns have the same grammatical gender, the corresponding concepts will share more features than the concepts corresponding to translations with different genders. Thus, the interaction between the two languages during a picture-naming task might be not only lexically, but also semantically, mediated. This would maximize the competition for gender selection. In the picture-naming tasks within the picture–word interference paradigm with monolinguals, the distractor and the picture have nothing in common. The hypothesis proposed by Bordag is supported by Paolieri et al.’s ( 2019 ) study, in which the size of the GC effect was greater for concrete than for abstract words. Having controlled many variables in the experiment (see Table 1 ), the main difference between them was the amount of semantic features they had, and consequently that they could share. Note that, in a study on gender processing with Italian monolinguals and using a picture–word interference paradigm, Cubelli et al. ( 2005 ) found no interaction between the semantic relatedness and gender congruency between target and distractor. However, other authors did find such an interaction (Schriefers & Teruel, 2000 ). Therefore, Bordag’s hypothesis might indeed be valid and deserves to be further examined.

Taken together, the data on gender processing (as an abstract lexical property) in bilinguals collected thus far appear to be in favor of activation-dependent yet interactive models that also consider the existence of inhibitory connections across languages. As we have seen, connectionist models generally define the selection of grammatical features such as gender as a competitive process (selection by activation). Furthermore, the CMSP, a main connectionist model of monolingual language processing, does not consider an agreement context to be a requirement for gender selection and processing. Importantly, connectionist models hold that different levels of language processing influence each other bidirectionally (bottom-up and top-down) through excitatory and inhibitory connections. Thus, they state that, first, superior levels of language processing, such as syntactic processing, can affect the inferior levels of grammatical selection, something that would explain why agreement contexts may boost grammatical gender activation. Second, they predict that the processing of the lower level of the lexeme (namely, the phonological properties of a noun) affects the selection at the higher level of the lemma, which would explain why phonological gender transparency affects grammatical gender selection.

Moreover, the results support a connectionist model that focuses on language acquisition during adulthood (or, at least, when an L1 is already established) and not only on general bilingual language processing. Specifically, predictions should be made on the basis of (1) a high dependency of the L2 on the L1 grammatical features during the first steps of late L2 acquisition that will later progressively fade, and (2) cross-language effects even when bilinguals are highly proficient and are in the monolingual mode (Grosjean, 1998a , 1998b ). These are all main characteristics of a developmental adaptation of the BIA: the BIA-d model (Grainger, Midgley, & Holcomb, 2010 ), a connectionist yet localist model that aims to explain L2 lexical acquisition. According to this model, at least in late bilinguals, both languages are always active to some degree, and co-activated representations from the irrelevant language will affect the target-language processing. However, the influence of the L1 on the L2 will be higher, the lower the bilingual’s proficiency is, because when an L2 is being acquired, direct links are created between the L1 and its L2 translations, especially when these translations are cognates, sharing both form and semantic information (note that the BIA-d incorporates the postulates of both the BIA [Dijkstra et al., 1998 ] and the RHM [Kroll & Stewart, 1994 ]). The lemma features of the L1 will be used in the L2 lexical entries, at least until the bilingual person is proficient enough to create independent L2 linguistic nodes. The links between L2 lexical representations and their own independent features will compete with the direct links between the L2 lexical representations and the L1 features of their translation equivalents. As direct links between L2 lexical representations and their own grammatical characteristics are further strengthened, the connections between translation equivalents (L1–L2) are modified as the L2 lexical representations are integrated into a single lateral inhibitory network, distinct from the network for words from the L1. In this way, in the presence of a word, all activated representations from L1 and L2 henceforth enter the competition for word identification, but the probability that a given word might in fact be the perceived stimulus is regulated by the probability that the stimulus is a word in one or other language spoken by the bilingual person. Competition takes place between representations until one of them, along with its language node, is selected and the other representations are inhibited, especially the ones belonging to the other language node, which will also remain inhibited. In sum, this model includes the main characteristics of the connectionist models, which allow us to (1) explain the competitive and inhibitory processes underlying cross-language GC effects, (2) predict the boosting of these effects when cognates and/or NPs are being processed, and (3) predict the interaction between lexeme and lemma processing during grammatical gender selection. Moreover, it also allows us to explain the effects from a developmental perspective, explaining why gender effects are found in adults even when they are in an L2 monolingual mode, and why proficiency seems to have a role in the interaction between languages at the level of grammatical encoding.

In future research, efforts to preserve a high level of experimental control will be crucial, since several variables have been shown to modulate noun processing (see Table 1 ). Indeed, some of the reviewed studies neglected critical variables, such as phonological gender transparency and word frequency. For example, Manolescu and Jarema ( 2015 ) controlled only two variables—the number of syllables and the number of letters of the L2 target nouns—neglecting word frequency, transparency, and familiarity, which have been shown to affect naming times (Bartram, 1973 ; Crepaldi, Che, Su, & Luzzatti, 2012 ; Gao, Li, Chou, & Wu, 2016 ; Sá-Leite et al., 2017 ). Furthermore, concreteness and/or imageability were not controlled in the picture-naming studies of Klassen ( 2016 ), Manolescu and Jarema ( 2015 ), or Paolieri et al. ( 2010 ), despite the fact that these variables are strong predictors of naming latencies (Crepaldi et al., 2012 ). Likewise, given that Weber and Paris ( 2004 ) and Morales et al. ( 2016 ) are studies with visual-world tasks also involving pictures, they should have considered these factors. Other variables that have been widely ignored are the numbers of phonological and orthographic neighbors in the L2, although it has been shown that naming latencies for words with large neighborhoods are shorter than the latencies for words with smaller neighborhoods (see Andrews, 1989 , 1992 , 1997 ; Sears, Hino, & Lupker, 1995 ). In addition, most of the studies only controlled the reviewed variables for the L2 target nouns. Although we recognize the difficulty of achieving this goal, some control of the L1 translations, such as that in Morales et al. ( 2016 ), would have been desirable. Importantly, in picture-naming tasks, the L1 translations that participants consider for the L2 target pictures are extremely relevant, in that some L1 synonyms might vary in gender congruency between the translations. Despite this, some studies have failed to fully control for this variable (Bordag, 2004 ; Bordag & Pechmann, 2007 ; Costa et al., 2003 ). For instance, Bordag ( 2004 ) and Bordag and Pechmann ( 2007 ) conducted a preexperimental familiarization phase in which participants were shown the pictures along with the L1–L2 translation pairs they were supposed to activate while performing the naming task. However, in this way the authors could not control for which L1 translations were actually being activated during picture naming in the L2. If participants use a noun they are not supposed to while naming in the L2, researchers should remove such responses. However, if participants are activating the incorrect L1 translation (e.g., a synonym of the opposite gender from the translation noun they are supposed to be activating) during the naming of a certain picture, researchers would be unaware of this and would have to analyze the answer as either gender-congruent or -incongruent, despite the fact that, for this participant in this case, the relation was actually opposite. Thus, the ideal scenario would be one in which participants are asked to name the stimulus pictures in the L1 at the end of the experimental session (after the L2 picture-naming task), so that incorrect translations would indicate which trials of the L2 picture-naming task should have to be removed (e.g., Paolieri et al., 2010 ). In this regard, it is essential that word databases develop control translations between specific languages, with information on not only the gender congruency or incongruency between them, but also on their degree of translation ambiguity. Relevant factors would include, for example, the existence of synonyms or homonyms in both translations, the degree of formal ambiguity between the translations and other nouns (e.g., interlingual homographs), and the degree of cognateness, among others.

In addition, as future areas of research, it might be interesting to replicate Manolescu and Jarema’s ( 2015 ) and Klassen’s ( 2016 ) studies using the highest stimulus control possible, in order to achieve further evidence on how the neuter gender behaves as a mismatch gender value between structurally gender-asymmetrical languages. In this vein, it would be pertinent to look at the stability of these asymmetrical gender representations, as in Lemhöfer et al.’s ( 2008 ) study. Since, in quantitative terms, pairs involving a neuter noun behaved differently from gender-incongruent pairs in Manolescu and Jarema’s and Klassen’s studies, perhaps a stability analysis can shed some light on this issue. This would tell us whether differences between neuter and congruent/incongruent conditions are a consequence of either “incongruence” (i.e., its representational status as a competitive gender value influencing online processing) or the “novelty” of that gender value (i.e., little experience processing that specific gender value). Also of interest would be an examination of the interaction between Romance and Germanic gender systems that are very different. For instance, interaction between the Dutch and Spanish languages would be useful to explore, since the gender system of Dutch is structurally, proportionally, morphologically, and phonologically different from the Spanish gender system, mainly in that the Dutch gender values are “common” and “neuter,” meaning that there is no natural gender mediation, unlike in Spanish. Thus, questions such as the following arise: Does a Dutch–Spanish bilingual treat grammatical gender as the same parameter in both languages? Could a “GC effect” emerge even when no gender value is shared by both languages? Finally, because bilinguals have been shown to be sensitive to L2 phonological gender transparency, it would be interesting to test whether, during L2 processing, the phonological gender cues of the L1 interfere with the phonological gender cues of the L2. For example, researchers might select transparent nouns in the L1 whose L2 translations are opaque or irregular and compare them to translations that are transparent in both languages. In this sense, studies could be made to examine differences in the GC effect, depending on the degree of phonological gender transparency of the L1 as a whole versus the L2 (e.g., even in transparent linguistic families such as the Romance languages, differences in the GC effect might be found between a pair of highly transparent languages, such as Italian and Spanish, vs. a pair that included a more opaque Romance language, such as French).

Author note

We thank Sendy Caffarra and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript. This study was funded by the Government of Spain, Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports, through the Training Program for Academic Staff (Ayudas para la Formación del Profesorado Universitario Grant No. BOE-B-2017-2646); by the research project with reference MINECO/FEDER; Grant No PSI2015-65116-P, granted by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness; by a grant for research groups with reference GRC 2015/006, given by the Galician Government; as well as by the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), Portugal, through the state budget, with reference IF/00784/2013/CP1158/CT0013. Finally, the study was also partially supported by the FCT and the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education through national funds, and co-financed by FEDER through the COMPETE2020 Program under the PT2020 Partnership Agreement (POCI-01-0145-FEDER-007653).

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Sá-Leite, A.R., Fraga, I. & Comesaña, M. Grammatical gender processing in bilinguals: An analytic review. Psychon Bull Rev 26 , 1148–1173 (2019).

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Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity II: World-wide comparative studies

The many facets of grammatical gender remain one of the most fruitful areas of linguistic research, and pose fascinating questions about the origins and development of complexity in language. The present work is a two-volume collection of 13 chapters on the topic of grammatical gender seen through the prism of linguistic complexity. The contributions discuss what counts as complex and/or simple in grammatical gender systems, whether the distribution of gender systems across the world’s languages relates to the language ecology and social history of speech communities. Contributors demonstrate how the complexity of gender systems can be studied synchronically, both in individual languages and over large cross-linguistic samples, and diachronically, by exploring how gender systems change over time. Volume two consists of three chapters providing diachronic and typological case studies, followed by a final chapter discussing old and new theoretical and empirical challenges in the study of the dynamics of gender complexity.

This volume is preceded by volume one , which, in addition to three chapters on the theoretical foundations of gender complexity, contains six chapters on grammatical gender and complexity in individual languages and language families of Africa, New Guinea, and South Asia.

  • Introduction Francesca Di Garbo, Bruno Olsson, Bernhard Wälchli Chapter 1
  • The evolving complexity of gender agreement systems Francesca Di Garbo, Matti Miestamo Chapter 2
  • The feminine anaphoric gender gram, incipient gender marking, maturity, and extracting anaphoric gender markers from parallel texts Bernhard Wälchli Chapter 3
  • On the distribution and complexity of gender and numeral classifiers Kaius Sinnemäki Chapter 4
  • The dynamics of gender complexity Bernhard Wälchli, Francesca Di Garbo Chapter 5

Grammatical gender and linguistic complexity II: World-wide comparative studies


Francesca Di Garbo is a postdoctoral research fellow in General Linguistics at Stockholm University. She received a BA in Classics (2005) and an MA in Classical Philology and Historical Linguistics (2007) at the University of Palermo (Italy). In 2014, she received her PhD in Linguistics at Stockholm University (Sweden). Her doctoral dissertation is a typological investigation of gender and its interaction with number and evaluative morphology in the languages of Africa. Her publications include papers on: the typology of interactions between gender and number, and gender and evaluative morphology; the encoding of evaluative morphology and temperature evaluation in the Kwa language Selee, spoken in Ghana; linguistic complexity, with focus on grammatical gender and the relationship between language structures and social structures. She has taught at Stockholm University and the University of Helsinki. Her research interests include the synchronic and diachronic typology of nominal classification systems and number systems, evaluative morphology, African languages, linguistic complexity, and the relationship between language structure and the socio-historical and natural environment.

Bruno Olsson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Australian National University. After completing an MA thesis on iamitive tense/aspect markers in Southeast Asian languages at Stockholm University (2013), Bruno pursued doctoral studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, resulting in a description of the Coastal Marind language of New Guinea (2017). His current work includes descriptive and historical work on other languages of the Anim family, with emphasis on the Yaqay language and the development of the Anim gender systems. Some of his other research interests are morphosyntax, the semantics of tense-aspect categories, the typology of Papuan languages, and Kashaya (a language of Northern California).

Bernhard Wälchli is professor in General Linguistics at Stockholm University. He received his master’s degree in Slavic and Baltic studies at the University of Bern (Switzerland) in 1997 and his Ph.D. in General Linguistics at Stockholm University (Sweden) in 2003. His publications include the monograph Co-compounds and natural coordination published by Oxford University Press, in the series "Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory", and he is a co-editor of several collections of articles and theme issues on typology, areal linguistics and grammaticalization, aggregation of features extracted from texts, parallel texts, and methodology in linguistics. His recent publications include work on the typology of motion events, morphological typology, word formation, measuring the similarity of languages, ideophones, logophoricity, and perception verbs. His major current research interests are the typology of gender, temporal clauses, tense and aspect, negation, Baltic linguistics, and the Mek languages in New Guinea. His earlier work on grammatical gender consists of case studies on the rise and decline of gender systems (The Mek language Nalca and Northwestern Latvian dialects).

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