A correspondent asked me about the gender of the Russian word for ‘coffee,’ and having copied out the very enlightening discussion on pp. 109-10 of The Russian Language in the Twentieth Century by Bernard Comrie, Gerald Stone, and Maria Polinsky (see these earlier LH posts: 1, 2, 3) I thought I’d share it here:
All the deficiencies of the neuter group notwithstanding, at least one word, and a very common one, has almost completed its shift from masculine to neuter; it is the word ко́фе ‘coffee’. Borrowed from English or from Dutch (koffie) in the beginning of the eighteenth century, the word originally had the form ко́фий or ко́фей, which allowed one to identify it as a masculine noun, by analogy with other nouns in -й. The form in -й is commonly found in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century language; SAR (1806-22) lists only the form кофей. The analogy with чай ‘tea’ was probably a contributing factor that added to the stability of кофей (кофий) in nineteenth-century language; the two words were sometimes juxtaposed in folklore (чаю-кофию). The form кофе, the rise of which is due to pronunciation reduction of the unstressed final segment, is cited as primary in SRJa (1895-1927); the word кофей (кофий) is explained by reference to кофе. In SSRLJa (1948-65), кофей (кофий) is still cited but as prostorečno [nonstandard colloquial]; other dictionaries (e.g. Ožegov (1972)) do not even mention it. The spread of the form кофе, which resembles other nouns in the neuter, created a conflict between the form and the earlier masculine gender of the word. As an attempt to resolve the conflict, кофе was increasingly used as a neuter noun in spoken Russian. Normative handbooks, however, were very slow and reluctant in acknowledging this change and stubbornly insisted on the masculine; the first mention of neuter, as a permissible variant alongside with masculine, occurs in the Academy Grammar (Русская грамматика 1980: i. 469); see also Zaliznjak (1980) and Borunova et al. (1983).
In this AskMetaFilter question about “What determines the gender of a neologism?” I mentioned the Russian word and told the following joke:
A Georgian goes up to the counter and asks for “один кофе” (odin kofe, ‘one coffee,’ using the masculine form of ‘one’). The woman behind the counter is (like most Russians with any education) a raging prescriptivist, who seethes over the fact that so many people think кофе is a neuter noun because of its ending and say одно кофе (using the neuter form, odno). She is thrilled that this fellow knows the correct gender, and compliments him effusively as she pours his cup. He then says “и один булочка” (i odin bulochka, ‘and one bun,’ again using the masculine form of ‘one’ but this time with the glaringly feminine noun булочка, proving that he simply uses один with every noun).
And while we’re talking about gender, I wasn’t going to post these depressing links because I dreaded the boring discussion of how feminism is out of date and we shouldn’t pay attention to gender but to what is said and yadda yadda yadda, but I think they’re important and I’m hoping that by sticking them at the end of a post about coffee and expressing my hope that comments will steer clear of that slough of boredom, I can magically avert it:
Literary magazines print far more reviews by men and of books by men.
Wikipedia articles are created and edited overwhelmingly by men.
This in the twenty-first century. I don’t know what the solution is, but it bums me out.