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I know English is a Germanic language and I know at least the German language still has genders — three of them in fact — masculine, feminine, neuter. So did the English nouns and adjectives have genders at some point? Do any modern nouns and adjectives still have gender and us non-linguists/laymen/uninformed just don't realize it?

I know some nouns do; actor/actress and steward/stewardess come to mind. I just remember trying to learn German verb conjugations and the der/die/das/die memorization was a PITA.

Update: So it looks like there is no definitive answer as to how or why English lost genders in general but I am still wondering if at some point English did have genders and if there are any holdout nouns or adjectives that still have a gendered form. I'm guessing based on this information that actress with the ‑ress is a feminine word leftover but does that mean the ‑or is a leftover masculine form.

It should also be noted that only a relatively small number of English nouns have distinct male and female forms; many of them are loanwords from non-Germanic languages (the suffixes ‑ress and ‑rix in words such as actress and aviatrix, for instance, derive from Latin ‑rix, in the first case via the French ‑rice)

Or are they referring to biological sexes and not word genders, or are they one in the same in this example?

  • I assume you read en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender#English - do you have more specific questions? – mplungjan Aug 21 '13 at 5:39
  • @mplungjan That doesn't give any hint about the history of how English lost word gender, which I believe the OP is looking for. I'm also interested in knowing this, however I think this question is more appropriate to linguistics.stackexchange.com and should be moved there. – sundar Aug 21 '13 at 8:31
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    ‘Actor/actress’ and ‘steward/-ess’ are not nouns of different gender. As all other English nouns, they do not have grammatical gender, but they refer to concepts that represent different biological sexes. The two things are far from being the same—consider for example the German word Mädchen ‘girl’, which is grammatically neuter but biologically female. Every word that refers to a living being can possibly have a sex, but in English they have no gender; conversely, in some languages, even words that don’t refer to living beings have genders, whereas they have no sex. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 21 '13 at 16:04
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    Also, neither English nor German (nor any other language that I know of offhand) has word gender within verbs. Gender is limited to nouns and adjectives in all languages I am familiar with, though I have a hunch that Bantu languages like kiSwahili also mark genders on their verbs. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 21 '13 at 16:06
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    The only case I can think of in English where a hint of gender is still preserved is the adjective pairs naïf/naïve and blond/blonde. Some people (but not everyone) use ‘naïf’ and ‘blond’ to refer to men, and ‘naïve’ and ‘blonde’ to refer to women. As the source you quoted says, these are borrowed from languages that have a gender distinction. The fact that you found it a pain to memorise what gender German words are only further illustrates that sex and gender are not tied together. If they had been, you wouldn’t have had to think about it—it would have been logically deducible. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 22 '13 at 9:40
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Old English nouns had the same three genders as modern German. It also had four cases. Modern English has no grammatical gender. A ship is sometimes referred to a ‘she’, but that is a matter of usage rather than grammar. The Old English word for ship, ‘scip’, was neuter.

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    "scipu" is plural. – siride Aug 22 '13 at 2:59
  • Quiite right. Carelessness on my part. Now amended. – Barrie England Aug 22 '13 at 6:40
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According to "Gender Shifts in the History of English (Studies in English Language)" by Anne Curzan, there are multiple theories as to why English divested itself of grammatical gender. I don't believe that anyone has a definitive answer. It has been suggested that since English is a hodgepodge of other languages (a 'creole'), it is difficult to retain the grammatical gender schemes of its constituents.

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When England was conquered in 1066 the language of court was French. English became a peasant language not formally taught. Gender became moot and for the most part lost. Edits of the time still are with us. Last Will and Testament, Cease and Desist, Aid and Abet etc. Edits had to posted in French and English.With loss of gender, English became a language of position. Subject,Verb,Adjectival, Adverbial are mostly in a simple structured order. There are many exceptions; mostly sentences of subject understanding. BTW,TV writers are notorious users of poor English. Nominative use,

You and me are...me going to the store, when gerunds take posessive from..my going to the store..some make my wife go ballistic.

Norse words are still with us....Port and Starboard..derived from ships having a steering board on the right side of the ships. So there was side you tied up to and a side you steered from..Port and Steerboard.

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