Once upon a time, the English language had three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. Today, they are expressed in the third-person pronouns, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’. The three genders reflected the worldview of the first speakers of our language. The earliest form of English of which we have any knowledge is called Proto-Indo-European, PIE in linguists’ shorthand, a language spoken six or seven thousand years ago. PIE is the earliest known form of English, but it is also the earliest known form of more than four hundred other modern languages. Those are the languages spoken today by Armenians, Balto-Slavics, Celtics, Germanics, Hellenics, Indo-Iranians, and Italics.
It is generally agreed that all of the modern languages that have descended from PIE have, as a part of their linguistic heritage, three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. However some modern PIE languages have conserved those genders better than others. Modern German has kept all three. Modern French has kept only two, masculine and feminine. Modern English has lost all three, and, in their place, we have not grammatical genders but four so-called logical genders: masculine, feminine, neuter, and common. With four genders, we should have four pronouns, but it is not yet agreed that we do. We will need to return to the question of a common singular-third-person pronoun, but we need first to ask what happened to the grammatical genders of the English language? When and why were they lost?
The primary cause of language change is a result of the passing of a language from one generation to the next. In that process, a language evolves. Language evolution is slow; it can be very slow. It is slowest in small, isolated language communities. Children learning to read in Iceland today will be able to read without aid all of Icelandic literature and not only their own sagas written eight-hundred years ago but also the sagas written by their Scandinavian ancestors thirteen-hundred years ago. That would be like newly-literate English children being able to understand Beowulf: ‘Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, / þeod-cyninga þrym gefrunon, /hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.’ That eighth-century English needs translation. Seamus Heaney says it means: ‘So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by / and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness. We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.’ Why has English changed so much?
Language invasion is a phenomenon that does not often happen, but, when it does happen, it greatly speeds up the rate of language change. Icelandic has only experienced language invasion once. (It is happening today and the invading language is English.) By contrast, English has been invaded certainly twice and arguably three times. First it was invaded by Norse in the ninth century, second by French in the eleventh century, and third by Latin in the sixteenth century. (The Latin invasion was by way of Renaissance scholars importing some 20,000 Latin words along with some elements of Latin grammar - not exactly an invasion, more a willing surrender.)
Norse was the language of Danes who began raiding Britannia in the late eighth century. Raiders cause trouble, but they don’t change languages. It was when the Danes, the Norsemen, stopped being Vikings (‘sea pirates’ in Anglian English) and began settling, farming and intermarrying that language invasion began. By 900, Norse was being spoken in homes on the East Coast north of the Thames and inland too. Norse greatly affected our third person pronouns – we owe ‘she’ and ‘they’ to the Danes. That was a profound change, but Norse may not have affected our genders. Old English and Norse had both a Germanic gender pattern. What was masculine feminine and neuter in one language was masculine feminine and neuter in the other. Nonetheless, what linguists call ‘gender instability’ may have begun to invade Old English.
Old English genders received a renewed shock when French began its invasion. From 1066 onwards, we imported some 20,000 French words. French is an Italic language, and it has an Italic gender pattern inherited from the Latin from which it had evolved. For a French speaker the moon, ‘lune’, was a feminine word. For an English speaker, moon, ‘mona’, was a masculine word. There were hundreds of gender conflicts as French words were absorbed into English. At the same time, English became a peasant language. It continued to be written but by English-speaking monks whose business languages (for church and state) were Latin and French. In the fourteenth century, when English returned to become once again an administrative and legal language, its nouns and adjectives had lost their Old English endings. When those endings disappeared, grammatical gender disappeared.
English still had masculine, feminine and neuter genders, but those were now tied to what medieval English people saw as the biologically evident genders. Male creatures were masculine and required the pronoun ‘he’. Female creatures were feminine and required the pronoun ‘she’. Everything else was neuter and required the pronoun ‘it’ . That seemed to be logical and the pattern came to be called logical gender. There were areas of ambiguity that remain. A singular baby can prompt the pronoun ‘it’ unless the mother has dressed it in pink. A ship may lead a sailor to say: ‘She’s a beauty,’ but that is more likely to be an expression of mariner sexism than grammatical genderism. Old English ‘scip’ (pronounced ‘ship’) was a neuter word so the sailor has no excuse there. Modern French ‘bateau’ is masculine so the sailor has no excuse in that direction.
By the time that Geoffrey Chaucer came to write The Canterbury Tales in the late-fourteenth century, logical gender was established and no one seems to have noticed any change. Before the development of modern linguistics, it was not the kind of thing that people did notice. Nor did the question of gender instability bother anyone, not until the late-twentieth century at least. Then it was that people began to question the notion that gender was a matter of biology. ‘Sex, yes, that’s biology, but gender, no, that is culture’, they said. If that is the case, there arises a need for a new pronoun. Twenty-first-century English is addressing that lack.
Curzan, Anne. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Durkin, Philip. Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. A Bilingual Edition. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1999.
Konig, Ekkehard, and Johan van der Auwera. The Germanic Languages. London: Routledge, 2013.
Mallory, J. P., and D. Q. Adams. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj
The English Project’s September Posting: Gender Neutral English. Modern English is attempting to move beyond both grammatical and logical gender. A stumbling block is our pronouns. ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘they’ are gender neutral, but the third person singular is gendered: ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ (traditionally in that order) along with ‘his’, ‘hers’ and ‘its’. Where to go: ‘ze’, ‘zir, ‘hir, ‘xe’, ‘xem’, ‘xyrs’?