Posts Tagged ‘English’

Linguistic Male Nipples


Defining Creole by John H. McWhorter contains a chapter on grammatical gender in English that asks many questions about how English came to be so different than most other Indo-European languages and dialects in its lack of grammatical gender. Especially memorable is his use of this phrase, “lingusitic male nipples” to describe grammatical gender (although he borrows this from another scholar, Roger Lass).


Loss of Gender in English


How did it happen that Old English which, like most other Indo-European languages, had a system of grammatical gender, transformed itself into its modern form which does not?

It’s expressed as follows (here):

The reason why a language as English dropped gender – in surface – may be attributable to the huge trauma it has been enduring : direct Latinisation, slight Scandinavisation and violent Francisation (through French and Latin). All that led to inflexion and gender loss (incompatibility).

And a bit more completely here:

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.

Translating Aristophanes


In the Translator’s Preface of this edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds (on p. 90 and p. 94) are a couple discussions of grammatical gender in Greek, and the way in which it presents problems for the translator.

In one case, some jokes that are dependent on grammatical gender cannot easily be rendered in English. I.e., it’s not really a joke if you have to read a footnote to get it. What should translators and editors do in a case like this? Translate literally and the sentence doesn’t read like a joke at all. Readers will go right past it not realizing it is a joke. Add a footnote (and footnote after footnote after footnote) and you slow the reader down and make the text less enjoyable to read. There’s really no good answer here, but pertinent to this discussion it’s notable that it may be possible to translate the joke intact if Aristophanes’ ancient Greek is translated into a language that employs a system of grammatical gender.

Do Languages with Grammatical Gender Promote Sexist Attitudes?


Do Languages with Grammatical Gender Promote Sexist Attitudes?

Abstract Languages such as French and Spanish assign a gendered article to nouns. Three experiments examined whether reading a language with grammatical gender would increase sexist attitudes. Suburban, New York high school students (N = 74, 85, 66) were randomly assigned to complete a survey of sexist attitudes in either English or a language with grammatical gender (French or Spanish). Students in the English condition expressed less sexist attitudes than students in the French or Spanish conditions, and the language used affected females more than males. When the experiment was replicated on bilingual students, similar results were found. Males also expressed more sexist attitudes than females. This study suggests that languages with grammatical gender promote sexist attitudes and have particular impact on females.

More from the author of the study:

Grammatical Gender is Useful


Grammatical gender has its advantages presents an example of a case where grammatical gender is actually useful.

Grammatical gender is a pain in the ass for people who speak English (or Turkish, or …) to learn. But it can have advantages, if only by accident. Consider the English sentence:

He removed the manuscript from the briefcase and cast it into the sea.

What went into the sea, the manuscript or the briefcase?

In French, these words happen to differ in gender, so the pronoun neatly disambiguates the sentence:

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et le jeta dans le mer.

has “le jeta”, meaning that the manuscript (masc.) went in the drink, whereas

Il retira le manuscrit de la serviette et la jeta dans le mer.

has “la jeta”, meaning that it’s the briefcase (fem.) that got drowned.

Of course, there are other ways to express this distinction. In Bislama, the English-based creole of Vanuatu (a Pacific island nation), you’d say

Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem, hem i sakem long solwota.

to dunk the manuscript, whereas the briefcase goes under with:

Hem i tekemaout pepa long kes blong hem pastaem, nao hem i sakem kes blong hem long solwota.

These will be easier for people who read Standard English to read if I respell them thus:

Him he take’em-out paper belong case belong him, him he chuck’em belong saltwater.


Him he take’em-out paper belong case belong him past-time, now him he chuck’em case belong him belong saltwater.

Note the difference between blong, which is specifically possessive (the case “belongs” to him) and long, which is a general-purpose preposition, both from English belong. English can use “of” for both, but Bislama sharply distinguishes them.

A similar example is this sentence:

And then there’s my friends Brian and Edith; he wants to go to the mountains, she wants to go to the beach.

It’s easy to imagine someone saying that in a conversation about vacations. If someone understands that Brian is a man and Edith is a woman, then they can answer the questions, “Who wants to go to the mountains?” and “Who wants to go to the beach?” … and this is because the pronoun “he” must be referring to Brian while the pronoun “she” must be referring to Edith. The gender of the pronouns makes the sentence understandable.

Now consider these sentences in French that work the same way.

Où est ma chemise? où est mon t-shirt?
Elle est sur la table. Il est sur la chaise.

In English, this wouldn’t make much sense.

Where’s my shirt? Where’s my t-shirt?
It is on the table. It is on the chair.

Aside from the order of the items mentioned in the first sentence, we don’t have anything that tells us which item, the shirt or the t-shirt, is on the table and which is on the chair. But in French, we can determine that the shirt has to be the item that is on the table and the t-shirt is the item on the chair because “elle”, the feminine pronoun can only refer to the feminine item, “shirt” and “il”, the masculine pronoun can only refer to the masculine item, “t-shirt”.

Of course, if “shirt” and “t-shirt” both happened have the same grammatical gender, then we’d be out of luck.

Grammatical Gender in Indo-European languages


The History of English (Scott Shay) has a very readable overview of grammatical gender, and other grammatical concepts, in the Indo-European language and its modern descendents such as English and German. See page 19.

Grammatical Gender in English


English once had grammatical gender, but is unique among European languages in abandoning the grammatical gender system entirely. An interesting analysis of this is found in “Defining Creole” (by John H. McWhorter) which can be previewed at: