Episode 76: The Gender Problem

The final continuation of the Peterborough Chronicle captured a major change in the history of the English language. That change was the loss of grammatical gender. The traditional distinctions between masculine and feminine nouns disappeared in the final few entries of the Chronicle. This development coincided with the first attempt to place a female on the English throne. In this episode, we look at the weakening of these traditional gender barriers.

17 thoughts on “Episode 76: The Gender Problem

  1. Great episode, Kevin!

    Did Old English, Norse, and Norman French use different genders for the same objects? Could confusion among speakers of the various languages also have contributed to the loss of genders in Middle English?

    • Yes, each language had its own gender classifications. Sometimes they were the same, and sometimes they were different.

      The second part of your question is more complicated, and different historical linguists would probably give you different answers. It is generally agreed that confusion over the inflectional endings ultimately contributed to their decline. That could have included confusion over gender, but it was also much broader than that. For example, the Old Norse endings and the Old English endings were different in almost every aspect of grammar. So grammatical gender was only part of the larger problem.

      I have always felt that the loss of inflectional endings contributed to the massive number of words borrowed by English in subsequent centuries. I have absolutely no authority to back me up on this theory, so I would never present in the podcast. But it seems to me that the loss of inflectional endings made it easier to borrow words because it wasn’t necessary to assign a specific set of agreed-upon endings to each borrowed word. The new word just came in and automatically worked. Again, it is just a personal theory.

  2. Kevin

    Wonderful, as always!

    Two questions:

    You mention that Old English “hund” was always masculine, even for female dogs. I know modern German still has a pair of variations on that word: Der Hund and Die Hündin. Do you happen to know when the -in construction appeared in German or whether a similar construction existed contemporaneously to Old English in the other Germanic languages. It seems that may have been a language feature developed (for German) to deal with exactly the uncomfortable case that you cite where grammatical and actual gender differ. Of course, there are many cases in German still today where this is a problem. (Das Mädchen, the (neutral) little girl, immediately comes to mind.)

    You talk a lot about the various forms of “the”, the definite article. Since you don’t mention indefinite articles (“a”, “an”), I assume those developed later? I am curious how the distinction between those two words developed, but it might cover it later. (Were “a” and “an” originally two distinct forms of the word that morphed over time to the phonetic rule we have today rather than a gender or part of speech rule? Or is “a” just a contracted form of “an”, in the same way French contracts “le” to “l'” in words like “l’homme”. I do not believe in French “l'” is considered word separate from “le”, but in English we seem to think “a” is a separate word from “an”.)

    • Hi Joe,

      I don’t know the answer to the first question. I am only aware of the Old English word ‘hund.’ Perhaps someone with a background in German can chime in and give you an answer.

      With respect to the second question, I chose to focus on the indefinite article ‘the’ because the use of that word marks a clear contrast between the last two Peterborough scribes. One of the first uses of ‘a’ as an article also appears in the final entries of the Peterborough Chronicle, so I will discuss that development in an upcoming episode. (BTW, I did briefly discuss the development of ‘a’ as an article in Episode 48. ‘An’ meant ‘one’ in Old English, and the article ‘an’ developed from that usage. ‘A’ was a shortened version of ‘an.’ Again, I will re-visit that discussion soon.)

  3. Great episode! I’m a big studier of Scandinavian languages and Swedish and Danish lost one of their genders, probably due to a similar process as English, and now they have neuteur and common gender (masc & fem merged). Icelandic and Faroese, like German, has retained all three and some Norwegian dialects have 3 as well. Also the word Kvinna (woman) in Swedish and Norwegian must be cognate with English queen.

    I’m wondering if you will get into more about what makes English a unique IE language, i.e. – unlike almost every other IE language there is a fairly mutually intelligable tongue next door that has a large or significant degree of mutual inteligibility. English does not.

    • Do you not think Scots counts, either as a separate language, or as a semi-mutually-intelligible one? I’ve only encountered Scots in videos, not from direct speakers, but in watching them I feel like I can catch about 50% of what’s being said.

    • As noted, Scots is probably the best example of a neighbor language from a common ancestor, but many people outside of the UK are not aware of it, and some would argue that it is a distinct dialect of English. I am actually going to discuss the origins of Scots in the next episode.

      • Thanks! Yes, I’ve heard Scots, and been to Scotland but I don’t know if I’d say it’s a different language, although many people don’t think Norwegian and Swedish are different languages and just dialects of the same language. So, yes, Scots may be a good example, but if it is it’s the only one maybe – aside from maybe the Yorkshire dialect too? Regardless, English is very unique in this way.

  4. Kevin,

    Another very interesting podcast. The singular ‘they’ is very common in Australian English, although originally regarded as ‘bad’ English it’s standard these days.

    French is a particularly frustrating language for native English speakers to learn as there’s usually no clue to the gender of nouns, unlike Spanish for example.
    What a marvellous, if somewhat strange, member of the Indo-European family English is, no gender and relatively few inflections. If we could only rationalise its spelling it would be perfect.

    • I am Australian, and I am struggling to think of an example of “they” used in a singular sense. I can only think of it being used to describe a group that consists of a number of people, so you are really describing the people.

  5. Hi, Kevin–I just signed up to become a Patron and am delighted to be able to support this excellent series. Thank you for your remarkable synthesis of so much information, while I enjoy learning I would never have the time for the in-depth research and writing you bring us–a wonderful gift!

    • Thanks Mike! I always say that I hope the listeners enjoy the podcast as much as I enjoy putting it together.

    • As a general rule, words for male animals tended to be masculine and words for female animals tended to be feminine. So ‘heorot’ (male deer) and ‘buc’ (buck) were masculine, while ‘hart’ (female deer) and ‘da’ (doe) were feminine.

      In a few cases in Old English, a word which generally refers to a male or female animal is attested with different grammatical endings. That has generally been interpreted as a word which was sometimes used to refer to a specific gender and was sometimes used more generally. So it was akin to the word ‘cow’ which technically refers to a female cow, but is also used as a more general word for the animal (thus ‘female cow’ – which is technically redundant).

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