Neither masculine nor feminine nor neuter: how English lost grammatical gender

  • William Marquez
  • BBC News World

8 hours ago

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Despite being a descendant of languages ​​with two or three grammatical genders, throughout its evolution, English has been losing them.

One of the first surprises when starting to learn English as a second language is usually the lack of grammatical gender — nouns are neither masculine nor feminine.

That is, our definite articles “o” and “a” do not have masculine and feminine in English. “A casa” and “o carro”, for example, are translated with a single article: “the” — which we also use in the plural, since English also makes no difference between “os” and “as”.

This same ambiguity between genders occurs in demonstrative pronouns: in Portuguese, we have “este” and “esta”, “esse” and “essa” and “aquele” and “aquela”. In English, genders are neuter, with the use of the words “this” (this/esse), “that” (that) and — here we have the plural — “these” and “those”.

But it was not always so. Historically, as with all Indo-European languages, Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, had masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns, with their corresponding articles.

Adjectives were also gender inflected and, as it was a language with a large number of declensions (changes in word endings, according to their function within the sentence), this contrast ended up altering the endings of nouns and adjectives.

But when and how did English lose grammatical gender? What factors influenced it—social, linguistic, and phonological? To answer these questions, we need to go back to the beginning of language development.

the origin of english

English descends from a group of Germanic dialects that were spoken in regions ranging from what is now northern Germany to southern Denmark, through the Frisian Islands to the coast of the Netherlands. They were probably different dialects, but understandable among themselves.

The Jutes, Angles, Saxons and Frisians settled in different regions of the main British Isle (in what is now England) between the middle and the end of the 5th century. Their dialects merged into the English language and, soon after, these peoples became known as the English.

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Old English had three grammatical genders, and its articles, nouns, and adjectives were declined—their endings changed according to the function of the words in the sentence.

As with most languages, the ancestor of English had contact with other languages. First, the invaders encountered people who spoke different Celtic dialects. Little by little, these peoples were displaced to the west of the island, in what are now Wales and Cornwall, which is the extreme southwest of England.

On the one hand, very few words in the Celtic language at this time originated in English. But some experts believe that the fact that many adult Celts spoke English as a second language had a profound influence on the structure of the English language.

Likewise, in the 9th and 10th centuries, there was a great migration of Vikings, who spoke the Norse (or Scandinavian) language and settled in the Yorkshire region of northern England. Viking migration was “an important catalyst for change in English,” according to Robert McColl Millar, professor of linguistics and Scottish at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

Millar says that “Nordic is closely related to English and [ambos] were probably, in part, understandable to each other at that time, which had profound effects”.

Old English—like their ancestors, the Germanic dialects—and Norse had the same grammatical genders and were also declined, but with some differences.

Many words shared the same root and were similar, but the same noun could have masculine gender in one language and feminine, or neuter, in another. One of the many modern examples of this phenomenon is the word “language”—feminine in German (“die Sprache”) and neuter in Norwegian (“Sproke”).

Also, the ancient Norse language (such as modern Norwegian) has no definite article before the noun. It has a definite particle — a suffix, used at the end of the word. All this altered the declension of nouns and adjectives according to their function in each sentence.

“Imagine Yorkshire in the 9th century,” proposes Professor Millar, referring to a conversation between Anglo-Saxon and Norse speakers living side by side. “They try to look for common ground. Because what they have in common is words and not grammatical information, they simplify and rationalize the system.”

Therefore, the conversation took place without the definite articles. “The elimination of grammatical gender leveled the playing field so that everyone could understand each other”, says the professor.

Engraving shows several people drinking and partying

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Anglo-Saxons were able to get along with the Vikings because they shared similar words

The dilution of the definite article

Other experts argue that the issue is not one of comprehension, but of phonology.

“We don’t get rid of things because other people don’t understand us. If someone doesn’t understand, that’s their problem,” says Aditi Lahiri, a phonologist and professor of linguistics at the University of Oxford in England.

“Grammatical gender is marked with special sounds. Phonology shows how sounds change according to context and how they disappear in a specific context,” according to Lahiri.

“In German, for example, the definite article has three forms: ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’ (masculine, feminine and neuter). ‘Der’ is pronounced almost like ‘dea’ and, if the final consonant of ‘das’ disappeared, it would be really difficult to differentiate the three articles”, explains the professor. “Many languages ​​lose the distinctive quality of the vowel when its position is not accented.”

“The lack of sonic contrast neutralizes the gender contrast,” says Lahiri. “If there are no phonological marks that inform the gender of the word, the contrast disappears. The only way to know the gender of a neutralized word would be through the declension of the adjective, but it was also neutralized [em inglês].”

The teacher indicates that this is a matter of gradual erosion. If the sound isn’t contrasting enough, it will dilute. The following generations will no longer have this reference and, little by little, it disappears.

It is very difficult to determine when these changes took place, but Millar suspects that, in spoken form, peoples shed the contrast very quickly in different dialects, although not all at the same time.

ambiguous text

In the written language, the first existing sign of the phenomenon appears at the beginning of the 10th century, with the English collection of the famous Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most important surviving manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon England.

“Largely, [o manuscrito] it’s in what we would call Classical Old English, but it also includes a Northumbrian dialect added by the commentator, a priest named Aldred,” Millar says. “It uses a definite article ‘incorrectly’ — a feminine definite article with a neuter noun.”

Color cover of the Lindisfarne Gospels

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Annotations added to the Lindisfarne Gospels in the 10th century include the ambiguous use of the articles

This “mistake” is something that the people of southwest England, where West Saxon was spoken, would never make.

But there is a gradual diffusion of non-gender-specific usage and increasing ambiguity about what the correct form was, according to Millar. This ambiguity begins in the north, around the 9th century, and is gradually diffused towards the south.

Grammatical gender residues

After the Norman Conquest in 1066, English underwent significant changes in pronunciation, spelling, grammar, and especially vocabulary, due to the French monarchy that established itself in England for centuries. It is the Middle English period.

Many French words were incorporated into the language and survive in English to this day. But the grammatical gender, maintained in French, was not practiced again in English.

“Contact with other languages ​​has its limits,” according to Lahiri. “The tendency is to mainly borrow nouns, but one grammatical category is very difficult. The whole classification system would be changed.”

In modern English and in modern dialects, there are some residues of grammatical gender, which only attract the interest of linguists. But there is, in some variants, a tendency to mark words with something perhaps similar to grammatical gender, such as the tendency of sailors to call their boats by the feminine (“she”).

Boats moored on the bank of what appears to be a river

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Sailors tend to refer to boats by the feminine (‘she’)

Millar makes reference to a specific development of the dialects of the islands of Shetland and Orkney in northern Scotland. In them, most inanimate objects have a male or female gender.

And there are differences between dialects. In Orkney, for example, they say “the bridge”; in Shetland, “the bridge”.

“I don’t know if it’s reminiscent of grammatical gender or not, but something of it certainly survives,” he says.

Neutralization of pronoun

One distinction that remains in English is that of personal pronouns according to gender, at least in the singular. According to Lahiri, this is because the phonology of “he/she” (he/she, straight case pronouns, used as subject) and “him/her” (oblique case pronouns, used as object) is very different.

But, in the plural, the pronouns (they/they) have neuter gender: “they” and “them”.

In recent years, the use of the neutral singular word “they” to designate non-binary people has generated heated discussions. Various movements have tried to eliminate gender distinctions and establish neutral pronouns or suffixes, in English and other languages.

Questionnaire with boxes to be checked: he/him; she/her; they/them

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The English word “they” has been used in the singular to designate the form of the pronoun in neuter gender.

There are languages ​​that have never had this problem. Finnish, for example, never had a grammatical gender, nor a pronoun that differentiated masculine from feminine. Swedish also uses the nonspecific pronoun very successfully, according to Robert McColl Millar.

“English doesn’t have as much adaptation, because we kept the natural sexual divisions in the pronouns. To us, it seems natural”, he comments, “but I believe it will happen, we will see that in 20 or 30 years”.

The phonologist Aditi Lahiri believes that elements of a language should not be eliminated by decree. “We should eliminate the word ‘gender,’ because classification has nothing to do with the gender of things, it’s grammatical,” she says.

The classification of words was determined according to whether they referred to something animate or inanimate. “Instead of masculine, feminine and neuter, it could be called a, b and c, which would be easier or more acceptable,” she concludes.


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