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.


53 thoughts on “Episode 76: The Gender Problem

    • Strange, & difficult for non- native speakers! 🙂
      I wonder if ‘der, die, das’ could amalgamate into one article @ some stage, like English did? So much easier!

  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.

      • About your theory 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”, I wonder if this problem is real. Even had English kept its inflections, couldn’t borrowed words simply use one of the existing sets of inflections? For example, English could decide that all borrowed nouns will get the neuter gender by default, and some default set of case inflections.
        You can check with native speakers of other languages that still have inflections (maybe German?) how they adopt foreign words.

        • I echo Kevin’s speculation. I am relatively familiar with German, French, and Japanese, and while all show a degree of borrowing Japanese, in my entirely anecdotal experience, shows the most by far.

          Some might be explained by American occupation (but Germany similarly was occupied) and some by the perceived prestige of English (but the borrowing is from other languages too) and some down to new words for which there is no native equivalent (but many frequently used borrowings have equally common native words – shoppingu – I’ll let you figure that one out).

          Japanese is entirely non-inflected when it comes to nouns. They don’t have plurals or articles and nothing about the noun modifies any other word in the sentence. Verbs are inflected but not in an entirely consistent way (unliked the near universal inflections such as -ed for past tense). It would be quite a struggle to decide what inflection scheme to use for imports if they were to be put into this native structure but they are not. Universally loanwords are treated grammatically as nouns (whatever their original grammatical function) and when used as verbs are then combined with the equivalent of ‘do’ – they then inflect the doing part (did X, do X, doing x etc) leaving the adopted word untouched.

          So Japan’s high levels of adoption of foreign words again ties in with Kevin’s speculation. Moreover the choice to use ‘do plus loanword’ instead of inflecting the word itself tallies with the idea that not having to create inflecting facilitates adoption.

          • In Russian, foreign borrowings often lose their inflections and don’t change in different cases. Such is the case with “palto” (dress) which was a French word.

            • In French a “paletot” is an overcoat and the word comes from the Middle English “paltok(e)” Also pattoke.
              Etymology ?From pal n.(1) & -ok suf. The intrusive -t- is difficult to account for, except on the assumption that the stem was confused with palet n.(1), a head covering worn either as a helmet or as a helmet liner. OF paltoc is a borrowing from ME.
              (From Middle English Compendium -University of Michigan). Now why the final “k” sound became silent in French and was replaced in spelling by a silent “t” will probably forever be a mystery!

      • “ … confusion over the inflectional endings ultimately contributed to their decline. … included confusion over gender” and “…the loss of inflectional endings contributed to the massive number of words borrowed …”

        If I were designing a human language, I might turn to the theory of designing a language for a computer-human interface. Spoken or (as in the 1960s) typed/written.

        Computers are not clever, just blindingly fast. Humans are clever, but take eons to write and debug a computer program.

        I would suggest then that the computer-human interface language should be as simple as possible (minimum number of syntax/semantic rules) to facilitate speed of writing the interpreter, and reduction in maintenance.

        Perhaps that thought was behind the various universal languages (Esperanto, Blissymbolics etc).

        If so, then the leader of the pack that dropped Gender, or Inflections would have a head-start on universal (human) adoption.

        Straight off, look inside any of those “500 Spanish verbs” books and look at the task a foreign (in the case of Spanish an “English”) -speaking student has. Imperfect Past Present Imperative Future Subjunctives (I made that up). Yech!
        Basic English has only two tenses and the word “will”:-
        * I sat
        * I sit
        * I will sit.
        What’s not to like about English? (except the spelling, but the USA has shown us all how to simplify that!)

        • English seems to be an easy language because it has no gramatical gender and very few tenses but when you scratch the surface you find out it’s a very subtle language that’s much more complicated than it seems to be at first sight. So it depends on whether you want to speak actual English that can reflect all the shades of real life or just some Globish to ask where the airport is and to order fish and chips. Besides according to which your mother tongue is, a language seems to be more or less easy or complicated.

      • “… contributed to the massive number of words borrowed by English in subsequent centuries.”

        I have often pondered this. The English Language stole (let’s be honest about this!) so many words from other languages, but especially from the Norman/French that along with the colonial thrust, resulting in the economic and technical giant USA, the English language seems to dominate the modern world.

        It must be Gauling (sic!) to French purists that the thieving-English are now forcing their language down the French throats, gullet after gullet, le weeknd after le weekend, …

  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.)

    • First off, I am not an expert on the German language nor linguistics; with that said, I do know a decent amount about languages. So my educated observation: Hündin follows suit with other nouns in German that denote female sex-gender (think Autorin, Göttin, Sängerin); in this way, the -in suffix denotes a sex-gender female form of a noun that also utilizes the female grammatical gender.

      I’d like to find out, however, why some end up with umlauts while others do not…anyone reading this a German phonologist?

      • I have since been told by a linguist that umlauts typically represent “a sound change in which a vowel is pronounced more like a following vowel or semivowel.” In other words, “Gott” becomes “Göttin” so that the first vowel happens in a similar part of the mouth as the second vowel; that is, it’s literally just easier to say. On that note, she also said that this phenomenon is especially common in Germanic languages (with the exception of Gothic): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germanic_umlaut

        • Additionally, to answer Joe’s original question: my research has found that this specific -in suffix showed up in Middle High German, so some time around the 11th-14th centuries.

  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.

        • People (including Mr. Stroud in earlier episodes) site Frisian as another example of close relatives to English; in other words, with relatively minimal exposure, an English speaker could become functional in Frisian, and vice versa. Compare this relationship to, say, Swedish and Danish.

          • Frisian (for example), was a close relative to Old English, but the unique property of English is that it got “reinvented” so much later – with Old Norse and French adding huge amounts of vocabulary and making radical changes to the grammar – that any language which was once mutually inteligable with English, no longer is.
            As other people mentioned, Scotts is such a language to some degree, but English has all but replaced it in Scotland, whereas Swedish and Danish still both remain alive. Maybe if it wasn’t for the unification of Great Britain, they would have remained separate (and fairly close) languages.

            • It’s said that anyone who speaks a pure East Anglian dialect (which, as with many dialects, is often watered down these days) can talk to a Frisian speaker without much difficulty.

              And yes, there’s controversy over whether Scots is a language or a dialect, but the prevailing view is increasingly for a separate language.

  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.

      • I can’t speak to Australian English, but in American English, using “they” in the singular remains very common when the speaker doesn’t know the gender of the referent; in other words, “they” is much less cumbersome, and in fact more expansive, than “he or she. Using “they” in the singular has been in English for almost 1000 years, so at least since Middle English.

        For more reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

  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).

  6. Hi Kevin — I too am always amazed at the amount of depth and research that goes into your podcast!

    I was really interested to hear about the Old English ne-not transition based on the Norman French influence, especially since I hear a similar transition taking place in 21st century French. I work with many French people who use the “ne-pas” duo in writing, but in speaking, often drop the “ne” — as in “Je sais pas” or “Je peux pas.” Some French friends are hardly aware that they’re doing this! So, now centuries later, no-longer-Norman French may follow the English lead with “ne!”

    • Thanks for the note. I’m glad you’re seeing confirmation of the trend I mentioned in French. I hope you continue to enjoy the podcast.

    • You are right on. I lived and studied in France for nearly a decade and became used to the absent ne in the speech of my friends. And, yes, doesn’t this podcast continuously amaze for both its content and the wonderful speech patterns of Its presenter!

    • Hi Louise; I can add a bit of perspective to that.
      I landed in Paris in 1978 with a shirt-pocket phrase book and a jacket-pocket dictionary, and no training at all in foreign languages. On that June day, at the age of 32, I set foot on foreign soil for the first time in my life. I often struggled to locate phrases that I had heard.
      I thanked the gate-keeper at the plant, and he replied “Zon-pree”. I looked up every phrase that began with the letter “z”, also read through the “z” section of the dictionary that night in my hotel room.
      Not a trace.
      Later “Je Vous en prie”!
      Well, yes, just like a bored American sales clerk “hep you?”, or a carefree Aussie “She’s aps!”.

      I hear the isolated “pas” on french-language podcasts from SBS and often wonder whether this is a genuine change, or whether it is sheer laziness on the part of the individual – which I would agree can lead to a change in language.

      For comparison one need only listen to (in this case) English-language news podcasts and hear the host announcers (not the interviewed man-in-the-street) misuse plurals to wonder what non-English speakers are struggling with!

  7. Kevin,

    Do you have any personal thoughts on the relation between societal duress and language change? It seems that the loss of these various contextual modifiers might not have occurred without England’s various conquests and periods of chaos. Does societal duress make languages more efficient?

    I am also curious if you have a thought on why these various modifiers developed in the first place. A language without genders seems to be more effective than a language with them. Is it reasonable to assume that primitive languages would not have had contextual modifiers and would have had to develop them over time? What unique benefit could a language with contextual modifiers have over one without them?


    • Hi Tomas,

      My sense is that it is more about linguistic duress than societal duress. I don’t think that periods of societal disruption automatically lead to linguistic change, but if that disruption introduces a new language or causes a breakdown in the use of the existing language(s), then linguistic changes will ensue.

      With respect to the inflectional endings used in early English, most of them can be traced back to the original Proto-Indo-European language. Most scholars believe that those endings originated as distinct words. So initially they would have been used as part of distinct phrases, and over time, they simply became modifiers. It is worth noting that some languages like Chinese doesn’t use inflections. So they are not essential to language. I am not a historical linguist, so I’m afraid I can’t offer much insight into the historical advantages and disadvantages of such modifiers.

    • The concept of grammatical gender is distinct from biological gender. It was a matter of whether a masculine or feminine pronoun was used when the object was referenced. So it was similar to the way we describe a ship as “she.” I am not sure why they chose to structure their grammar in this way rather than using biological gender in the way Modern English does.

      • I read once an explanation why grammatical genders may be useful. Note that as you said in the podcast, these grammatical genders really have nothing to do with real genders, and some languages even have more of them, e.g., 5.
        You explained in the podcast how each grammatical gender comes with its own pronouns. This makes it easier to disambiguate the pronouns in sentences, and which previously mentioned nouns they refer to. When you have three genders, and three different pronouns “He, She, It”, it is more likely you can use one of them in a sentence with less ambiguity about which of the previous nouns it refers to (of course there is still chance of ambiguity when two nouns had the same gender, but the ambiguity is lower).

        • “… you can use one of them in a sentence with less ambiguity about which of the previous nouns it refers to …”
          I like this; it makes sense to me.

    • To build off of what Kevin said, grammatical gender stands apart from sex-gender; the use of “gender” in the grammatical sense means “genre.” In this way, grammatical gender is a noun-class system that relies on agreement between nouns and other words in the language (adjectives, pronouns, verbs, etc). I find this confusion occurs a lot, however, and I think renaming the system would help: call it “genre” instead of “gender,” and use “noun class A, noun class B, noun class C, etc” instead of “masculine, feminine, neuter, etc.”

  8. As a nonbinary English speaker I’m very happy that singular “they” is an option. It felt weird to me at first but I’m well used to it now, and all my close friends use it. Most people I let call me “she” because I don’t like being demanding or drawing attention to myself but maybe someday “they” will be normalized enough that I don’t have to do that.

  9. I think you’re on to something, Kevin. Loss of inflectional endings and extensive borrowing are consistent with pidginization.
    Pidginization is a process I studied in a dying language but is also common in pidgin, or trading, languages that arise in multilingual situations. The transition from Old to Middle English could owe some of its characteristics to pidginization.

  10. I wonder if Kevin is still out there.. Noticed the post was from a few years ago, & last comment was over a year ago. If you’re out there, interesting podcast! How many episodes are there in the series?

    I always wondered about ‘the’.. What a wonderful simplification that was. 🙂

    Reading a comment @ a/an, it makes sense that ‘a’ is the short form. I would love to try and find the episode that dealt with that, if anyone can share the link?

    • Hi Angela. Yes, I’m still out here. I don’t reply to every comment, but I do try to answer questions that are posed to me. The podcast is on-going without a fixed number of episodes at this point. I currently anticipate that the entire podcast series will be about 200 episodes. With respect to the articles ‘a’ and ‘an’, I discussed those in a little more detail in Episodes 79 and 114. The discussion is not extensive, but I do mention the first recorded use (Ep 79) and the connection to the number one (Ep 114).

  11. I have not yet found any mention of where the Georgian language fits into the proto Indo European family.Maybe it doesn’t!

  12. When I was young, in northern England, thee and thou, art and wert were still in common usage among older generations. The, long established, pronoun convention was that he subsumed she, in an ungendered sense, and man was mankind. The prose of the historian Dame Veronica Wedgwood sticks rigidly to this convention as does that of Winifred Holtby who uses man to encompass both sexes. Gender was, in a northerm grammar school, exclusively a grammatical term and never to be confused with sex. How much simpler it was. I find much prose now rendered more and more incomprehensible by the current use of they, he and she interchangeably.
    Thanks for your fascinating insights.

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