When English lost its grammatical genders

Er, sie, es. Hann, hún, það. He, she, it. One of these is not quite like the other.

Spotted it? The odd one out is “he, she, it”, the third person singular pronouns used in English (the other trios being German and Icelandic respectively). Why? This is because English lacks grammatical genders.

But what do I mean by grammatical gender here? Grammatical gender is a system used to attribute every noun as masculine, feminine, or if applicable, neuter, upon which inflectional changes or agreement can be made in certain grammatical contexts. It extends far beyond attributing a man to masculine, as it encompasses quite literally every single noun. Many Romance languages have two grammatical genders today, the masculine and the feminine, in contrast to their Latin ancestor, which had three grammatical genders.

English also stands in contrast with the rest of its Germanic counterparts, abandoning its grammatical gender system almost entirely, with vestiges only existing as personal pronouns (like he, him, his, himself etc.) that are attributed to people, items, and animals.

However, English is not the only language in the Germanic branch to have undergone a simplification of grammatical gender systems. Scandinavian languages like Swedish operate on two grammatical genders compared to the three genders in its Old Norse ancestors, as they fused the masculine and feminine grammatical genders to a single common gender (the -en nouns), while the neuter stayed (the -et nouns). Some dialects in Danish were reported to have lost their grammatical gender system like in English. German, however, retained its system of three grammatical genders, but the inflectional stuff is largely seen in certain grammatical particles and adjectives (like the “the” system: der / die / das for nominative singular). Icelandic largely preserves a rather full system of three grammatical genders, almost like its Old Norse ancestor.

Going back in time, we should expect Old English to have three grammatical genders. And we would be right. Old English did indeed have three grammatical genders, and there was no set pattern on which noun carries which gender. Interestingly, the generic nouns for “woman” in Old English stretched across all grammatical genders, like the masculine wifmann, feminine frowe, and neuter wif. Of course there were probably connotative differences, such as if the woman is married or not. Each grammatical gender would have its own declension patterns for grammatical case and number.

As the decades, then centuries, rolled by, inflectional reduction became incipient in the English language, resulting in a decline the use of grammatical gender. Some theories suggested that it may have been accelerated by contact with Old Norse through Viking raids in the 9th and 10th centuries.

It was noted that grammatical gender in English started to decline by the 11th century, but the time at which these declines were happening differed depending on which part of England the speakers were in. Grammatical gender loss started to decline earliest in the north of England, coinciding with the general areas targeted by Viking raids, while in the south-east and the south-west Midlands, which were the most linguistically conservative regions at the time, grammatical gender loss started rather late, with places like Kent retaining some aspects of this system in the 1340s.

In fact, Middle English was most marked as the transition point for a loss in grammatical gender. This includes the change in the function of the words the and that, which were previously non-neuter and neuter single determiners respectively. Over the period of Middle English, the became used as a definite article, while that became a demonstrative pronoun, and both words lost all form of gender differentiation.

From the use of the words the and that, it does seem that grammatical gender was lost first by fusing the masculine and feminine genders into a non-neuter grammatical gender, like the common gender in some Scandinavian languages. This followed by a loss of the common-neuter grammatical gender system, giving the seemingly unique lack of grammatical gender system in the Modern English we speak, write, read, and listen every day.

Gender is no longer an inflectional category in Modern English, unlike in Icelandic. But that does not mean we can no longer find vestiges of a system once present. We still attribute “he”, “she”, “it”, or the singular “they” based on an interpretation of gender affiliation, such as by biological sex, gender identity, perceived sexual traits, or the pronoun’s referent. Interestingly, we call ships, countries, and some machines “she”, and the phrase “there she blows” is traditionally associated with a sighting of spouting water from a surfacing whale, typically in the whaling industry.

However, English has a rather interesting system in which it tries to achieve gender neutrality. The singular “they” is perhaps one of the oldest innovations, and increase in its use is associated with a drive for gender-neutral language. These pronouns used today form a rather interesting aspect in English sociolinguistics, something that warrants its own post covering this very topic.

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