How do languages typically classify their nouns?

Languages across the world use various systems for classifying nouns, which can give us interesting insights into the cultures and societies that use those languages. These classifications help to organize the nouns based on their shared properties and facilitate communication by providing a structure around which to build sentences. In this article, we will explore some common methods of noun classification as well as delve into some more unusual and intriguing examples of noun classification systems.

Grammatical Gender

One of the most common ways languages classify nouns is through grammatical gender, which groups nouns into categories such as masculine, feminine, and neuter (in some languages). This form of classification is present in many Indo-European languages such as Spanish, French, German, and Russian. In these languages, articles, adjectives, and pronouns often agree with the gender of the nouns they modify or refer to, which helps to provide clarity in sentences.

It’s important to note that while the terms masculine and feminine may imply a connection to biological sex, this is not always the case. Many nouns are classified seemingly arbitrarily, and there is often no logical reason why a particular noun is in one gender category over another.


Some languages classify nouns based on the concept of animacy, i.e., whether they are considered alive or not. In these languages, animate nouns typically refer to people, animals, and sometimes other entities considered to have a life force, while inanimate nouns refer to everything else. Some Native American languages, such as Ojibwe and Cheyenne, utilize animacy-based classification systems, often with grammatical markers to indicate an object’s animacy.

Noun Class Systems (Bantu Languages)

The Bantu languages, spoken in many parts of Africa, use a highly elaborate classification system for nouns with up to 20 distinct noun classes, depending on the specific language. These classes are often indicated by a prefix attached to the noun and can include categories such as people, animals, plants, locations, and abstract concepts. In Bantu languages, noun class agreement is essential for proper grammatical constructions, with adjectives, verbs, and pronouns needing to match the class of the noun they modify or refer to.

Classifier Languages

In some languages, noun classification is not an intrinsic part of the noun itself but is indicated through the use of separate words called classifiers. These languages, such as Thai, Chinese, and Japanese, use classifiers in combination with numerals or demonstratives (like “this” or “that”) to specify the type of noun being referred to. Classifiers can denote a range of properties, including shape, function, or other physical attributes.

Unusual Noun Classification Systems

In addition to the systems mentioned above, there are some languages with highly unique methods of noun classification. For example, some Australian Aboriginal languages, like Dyirbal, contain a highly specific noun class that includes items considered taboo or highly significant, such as maternal relatives, large animals like crocodiles, and sacred objects. Another example is the Tzotzil language from Mexico, which classifies its nouns based on the speaker’s emotional stance toward the object referred to.

In conclusion, languages around the world employ a wide variety of systems to classify their nouns. From gender and animacy to highly specific cultural categories, the methods we develop to classify the objects in our lives shed light on the intricacies and diversity of human language and experience.