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The Assignment of Grammatical Gender in German: Testing Optimal Gender Assignment Theory



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Corteen, Emma 


The assignment of grammatical gender in German is a notoriously problematic phenomenon due to the apparent opacity of the gender assignment system (e.g. Comrie 1999: 461). Various models of German gender assignment have been proposed (e.g. Spitz 1965, Köpcke 1982, Corbett 1991, Wegener 1995), but none of these is able to account for all of the German data.

This thesis investigates a relatively under-explored, recent approach to German gender assignment in the form of Optimal Gender Assignment Theory (OGAT), proposed by Rice (2006). Using the framework of Optimality Theory, OGAT claims that the form and meaning of a noun are of equal importance with respect to its gender. This is formally represented by the crucial equal ranking of all gender assignment constraints in a block of gender features, which is in turn ranked above a default markedness hierarchy *NEUTER » *FEMININE » *MASCULINE, which is based on category size.

A key weakness of OGAT is that it does not specify what constitutes a valid gender features constraint. This means that, in theory, any constraint can be proposed ad hoc to ensure that an OGAT analysis yields the correct result. In order to prevent any constraints based on ‘postfactum rationalisations’ (Comrie 1999: 461) from being included in the investigation, the gender features constraints which have been proposed in the literature for German are assessed according to six criteria suggested by Enger (2009), which seek to determine whether there is independent evidence for a gender features constraint.

Using an independently-verified constraint set, OGAT is then tested on a sample of 592 nouns systematically selected from the Duden Rechtschreibung. The results indicate that OGAT is relatively successful in its predictions when compared to other approaches but that it cannot account fully for the sample data. Accordingly, a revised version of the theory is proposed (OGAT II), which involves the ranking of certain gender features constraints. It is found that OGAT II is able to account for the genders of around 95% of nouns in the sample. A number of specific aspects of OGAT II are then tested by means of an experiment in which native German speakers are required to assign genders to 26 pseudo-nouns. The results suggest that OGAT II comes the closest of the systems discussed in the literature to modelling how native speakers assign gender in German.





Watts, Sheila


grammatical gender, German, gender assignment


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council