On language and gender

So, with my new-found skills in asking for an ashtray in Italian, I’ve been pondering something that I haven’t thought about since days at school learning French and German. What’s the point in having words in different genders? I mean, frankly all it does is make a language harder to learn for no reason that I can see. To take a parallel example, I understand that some countries (memory tells me that it’s the Swedes, but I might be wrong) have abandoned the difference between the formal and informal “you” forms (“tu” and “vous” in French), deciding that it’s old-fashioned and pointless and that everyone should address everyone else informally. Sounds like a good idea to me. Similarly, why not abandon the idea of gendered words? This would be easier for the Germans, who could just unilaterally declare everything as neuter; the French might have more of a problem, since you might ignite the ire of feminists if you declared all words masculine and vice versa for feminine, but…why not do it? What advantage does having gendered words bring to the language? It’s possible, I suppose, that a language might have two identical words with different meanings that differ only in gender, but firstly that’s a bit dim, and secondly English manages, with words like “set“, which has got about forty different meanings, to distinguish word meanings based solely on context. That has to be a pretty rare case anyway, I suspect, so: is there any reason why it shouldn’t be abandoned? I’ll be honest, I can’t see the Academie Française going for it, but I can’t see why they shouldn’t.

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