A noun class is a particular category of nouns. A noun may belong to a given class because of characteristic features of its referent, such as sex/gender, animacy, shape, but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be any pattern linking words in a particular class.
Many European languages use gender (e.g., French has masculine and feminine, while German and Russian have masculine, feminine and neuter), while some African languages have many different noun classes (for example Swahili has up to 18 different classes, for example for people, plants, etc., but some groups seem to have no meaning in common).
Noun classes tend to ‘agree’, for example feminine nouns in French take the feminine form of adjectives and possessives (eg la grande table, whereas masculine le grand livre). There are many objects in these noun classes that we would not often think of as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. In Swahili, the noun class is shown on the noun and the adjective (e.g., mtu mzuri (good person) and watu wazuri (good people)).
Some Australian Indigenous languages have noun classes, including Kunwinjku, which has four classes, marked by different prefixes:
- na- ‘masculine’
- ngal- ‘feminine’
- kun- ‘other’
- man- ‘vegetal’