There is an interesting article over at edge.org (yeah, I never heard of it either), by Lera Boroditsky, about language and how it shapes the way we think. it touches on a lot of things that I somehow noticed when learning German but couldn’t really articulate.
What it means for a language to have grammatical gender is that words belonging to different genders get treated differently grammatically and words belonging to the same grammatical gender get treated the same grammatically. Languages can require speakers to change pronouns, adjective and verb endings, possessives, numerals, and so on, depending on the noun’s gender. For example, to say something like “my chair was old” in Russian (moy stul bil’ stariy), you’d need to make every word in the sentence agree in gender with “chair” (stul), which is masculine in Russian. So you’d use the masculine form of “my,” “was,” and “old.” These are the same forms you’d use in speaking of a biological male, as in “my grandfather was old.” If, instead of speaking of a chair, you were speaking of a bed (krovat’), which is feminine in Russian, or about your grandmother, you would use the feminine form of “my,” “was,” and “old.”
When I first learned German, I assumed the word for cheese (Käse) was feminine, mainly because, like many other feminine nouns, the word ends with an E. I also falsely assumed that there was some sort of logical derivative order: Cheese comes from milk (Milch, also feminine), which comes from female mammals. Well there you have it! Plus, cheese is yummy and soft (mostly) and chewy. It all fit neatly together in the language compartment of my little brain.
Then I found out after years of saying die Käse, that I should have been saying der Käse and I had been forming my articles and pronouns incorrectly. I explained my logic to the person who set me straight and she said, “Nein, Käse ist männlich, weil er stinkt!” (Cheese is masculine because it stinks)