Loss of Gender in English
Unlike most other Indo-European languages, English, for the most part, doesn’t have grammatical genders (i.e., inflecting nouns, pronouns, and adjectives as either masculine, feminine, or neuter). French, for example, has two genders (m. and f.); German has three. But the only English words that are inflected for gender are the third-person, singular pronouns (he, she, it), and the gender of these, with a few exceptions, corresponds to biological gender of the referent. (The primary exceptions are personification of inanimate objects, such as referring to ships or one’s country as she, and the use of it to refer to animals where the sex is not known or immaterial.) But English was not always like this.
Old English had grammatical genders (m., f., and n.), like the modern continental languages. And like its modern counterparts, Old English sometimes exhibited a disparity between grammatical and biological gender. Hence þæt wif, “the woman” (n.), se stan, “the stone” (m.), or seo giefu, “the gift” (f.). In compound nouns, the second element provided the grammatical gender, hence þæt wif (n.) + se mann (m.) yielded the masculine se wifmann, “the woman. Other than this, there was little logic in the assignment of grammatical gender in Old English, and you have to learn a noun’s gender through rote memorization.
But starting in the tenth century, we begin to see the loss of grammatical gender in Old English. This loss begins in the north of England and over the next few centuries spreads south, until grammatical gender is completely gone from the language by the middle of the fourteenth century. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a late-seventh/early-eighth century Latin illuminated manuscript (London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.IV) that had an interlinear Old English gloss inserted in the tenth century, assigns a masculine gender to the usually feminine endung, “ending, conclusion.” The same gloss also assigns both masculine and neuter genders to stan, “stone,” at different points.
The loss of grammatical gender is pretty much complete in Northumbria by the beginning of the eleventh century. By the middle of that century the loss becomes apparent in texts from the Midlands and is largely complete there by the beginning of the thirteenth century, although some Midlands dialects retain vestiges of grammatical gender until the end of the thirteenth century. The south of England loses grammatical gender over the course of the late-eleventh through thirteenth centuries, and Kent is the last holdout, maintaining grammatical gender into the middle of the fourteenth century.
As one might expect, during this period of transition the situation with grammatical gender becomes messy, but there are some general trends. Feminine and neuter animate nouns tend to become masculine, and masculine and feminine inanimate nouns tend to become neuter in early Middle English. With the Norman Conquest, some English words begin to adopt the gender of their French counterparts. Hence the masculine Old English mona, “moon” becomes feminine under the influence of the feminine French lune. Eventually, of course, all the genders would be dropped.
The factors behind the disappearance of the English gender system aren’t known. Although the process was influenced by French, the disappearance was underway prior to the Norman Conquest, so that was not a root cause. Instead, the loss of grammatical gender is part of the general disintegration of the Old English inflectional system. In modern English, the accusative and dative cases have collapsed into a single objective case that only applies to pronouns. Nouns are only inflected for the plural and genitive. And adjectives aren’t declined at all.
Huddleston, Rodney, and Geoffrey Pullum. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 484-99.
Mitchell, Bruce, and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Fifth edition (with corrections and revisions). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1994. 17.
Mustanoja, Tauno F. A Middle English Syntax. Helsinki: Société Néophilologique, 1960. 43-54.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton