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Why a baby is "it"?

Posted by Frenk on May 17, 2003

In Reply to: Why a baby is "it"? posted by ESC on May 16, 2003

Methinks it is a result of the gender indistinctness of diminutives (baby=babe+y, cf. OED, sv. "baby"). Thus, it is purely a grammatical phenomenon, not directly resulting from any semantic difference (which would certainly seem to call for "he" or "she," as appropriate").

Compare to German, where the diminutive suffix "-chen" automatically changes the gender of a noun to neuter. Thus, "der Hahn" (rooster, cock) and "das Hähnchen" (chicken); thus, "girl" is also in the neuter gender ("das Mädchen") even when the person is most assuredly not!

Since English has mostly given up grammatical gender, such exceptions are rare. I would propose that we could think of a group of nouns that seem, to me anyway, to bear traces of the same phenomenon: "dog" is often a "he," perhaps because "dog" was originally in masculine gender; "bitch" (female canid) is certainly female; "puppy" is often "it," neuter.

Of course, this is speculation, but I can't think of another reason. Perhaps someone else has another idea.

: : Hello!
: : Can anybody tell me why in English the pronoun "it" is used with reference to small babies?

: I don't know that it is. When parents and others don't know the sex of an unborn child, they may refer to "it." Otherwise it is "he" or "she." There was a commotion when someone referred to Conner Peterson (the unborn child who died when his mother was murdered) as "it."