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The loss of grammatical gender in the history of english

Seminararbeit 2007 11 Seiten



1 Introduction

2 English in the family of languages

3 Defining grammatical gender

4 Properties of the Modern English gender system

5 Properties of the Old English gender system
5.1 The breakdown in grammatical gender marking
5.2 Morphological explanations for the loss of grammatical gender in Old English
5.3 The role of the attributes in Old English
5.4 The role of the personal pronouns in Old English

6 Conclusion

7 Bibliography

1 Introduction

This paper analyzes the question of how and why grammatical gender got lost in English. In order to do so, it reviews the recent literature on gender shifts in Old English and Middle English. The paper identifies several theoretical explanations based on both diachronic studies of English and general theoretical studies of gender. More concretely, the paper discusses the work of Greville Corbett (1991) on gender, Anne Curzan’s (2003) analysis on gender shifts in the history of English, and Charles Jones’s (1988) assumption of a possible paradigm shift in Old English. At the same time, older studies are given as an example for why certain premises did not work in the past.

It is suggested that the following ideas may well serve as theoretical foundation of a future empirical study on gender development throughout the histories of English.

The paper proceeds as followed: First it discusses the relationship of English within the language families and outlines the methodology of diachronic research. The third section contains a linguistic definition of grammatical gender in order to provide basic terminology and distinctions. The fourth section describes some of the major properties of the Modern English gender systems based on this terminology. In section five, the paper turns to the properties of the Old English gender system. This section deals with the morphological and syntactic changes that triggered a shift in the English gender system. It is argued that not only external changes but also an underlying paradigm shift induced the demise of grammatical gender in Old English. In addition, the role of the personal pronouns is analyzed. According to Curzan (2003) and Corbett (1991) the role of the personal pronouns may prove to be the key in explaining the shift from formal to natural gender system.

2 English in the family of languages

English belongs to the Indo-European language family that includes c. 25 Romance languages, many Iranian and Indic languages, and c. 85 languages in Europe, among which are the Germanic and Slavic languages (Campbell 2004, p. 185). According to its definition, a language family is a group of genetically related languages - languages that developed from a common ancestor and share a linguistic kinship. Within a family, languages are grouped into subgroups. In general, a family tree of world languages mirrors the relation, the diversity, and the development of languages.

In the process of language development, certain new features of a language may occur, while other may get lost. As a result, languages diversify and may form new branches. In this sense, a family tree is in constant development (Campbell 2004, p.187).

In general, there are different ways to study language development. One way is the synchronic comparison of related sister languages within a family tree in order to detect similarities, differences, and innovations (Campbell 2004, p.5). Another way is to concentrate on the histories of the single languages and explain the underlying causes for certain changes. For example, Modern German (Germanic) and Modern English (Germanic) differ in that grammatical gender is central and pervasive in Modern German, but absent and less important in Modern English. To be able to explain this phenomenon we need to identify and explain the deep, underlying changes that happened only in English throughout the centuries.

3 Defining grammatical gender

Grammatical or linguistic gender is a syntactic property of the noun. The term gender itself creates a misperception that this grammatical category reflects a connection between male and female human beings. It is, however, simply a classification, an inherent feature of the noun (Corbett 1991, p.1). In some languages these classes may well be based on certain characteristics of the referent, such as biological sex and animacy. However, this is not always the rule. The following examples of Modern German show that the gender class may have little or no relation to the natural sex or animacy of the referent:

- das Mädchen – means girl’ but is treated grammatically as neuter.

- die Tomate – means ‘tomato’ and even it is a vegetable it is treated as being feminine.

In this relation, Corbett (1991) defines two basic types of gender systems: (1) strict semantic systems, where “semantic factors are sufficient on their own to account for gender assignment”; and (2) formal systems, where “the gender is based on formal morphological and phonological factors, such as affixation or number of syllables” (Corbett 1991, p.8). Additionally he points out that even in formal systems there is a semantic core, “thus all grammatical genders are at some level semantic” (Corbett 1991, p.8).

Concerning its occurrence, grammatical gender is widely spread across languages and there is no determinable limit to the number of genders possible in a language. As a matter of fact, there are also languages[1] from other language families for which linguists have recorded over twenty gender classifications (Corbett 1991, p.43). Most languages from the Indo-European language family have a gender system with three distinctive classes (Latin, German, Spanish, most Slavic languages); several have reduced their system to two gender classes (Dutch, French, Swedish); and there are also some which have added additional categories (Polish)[2]. On the other hand, there are certainly many examples of languages that have never had a gender system, or languages that have lost their gender systems (Modern English). The reason is that grammatical gender is not “a vital feature to the proper functioning of language” (Curzan 2003, p. 16). Nevertheless, languages that lack grammatical gender categories are seen as the exception, rather than the rule among the world’s languages.


[1] One example of extensive gender classification, as given in Corbet 1991, is the family of the Bantu languages which are spoken in the southern half of Africa.

[2] The book “Gender” by Greville G. Corbett (1991) is very comprehensive cross-linguistic study of gender systems. He looks at over 200 languages.


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2007 (Dezember)



Titel: The loss of grammatical gender in the history of english