27

English nouns — other than those with natural gender, e.g. people or animals — do not generally have grammatical gender, and so are referred to as 'it' rather than 'he' or 'she'.

However, modern English has its roots in Norman French and Anglo-Saxon (Old English), both of which used grammatical gender for their nouns. In addition, other modern languages related to these continue to use grammatical gender today.

So, how come English doesn't?

17

Wikipedia (citing A history of the English language by Richard M. Hogg and David Denison) suggests that the loss of gender in English was "due to a general decay of inflectional endings and declensional classes by the end of the 14th century" as evidenced by increasing use of the gender-neutral identifier þe (the or thee).

"Why" is, of course, a difficult question to answer here. It seems that whatever pressures had influence over the evolution of the English language, the net result was a loss of accents, inflections and declensions. The above sources indicate that grammatical gender is like another form of inflection or declension, so it gradually disappeared from the language at the same time.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    From the book reference you've given it seems that this loss of gender originated from the north of England, so perhaps it was the influence of the Scandinavian languages rather than the Norman French. – delete Sep 4 '10 at 13:18
  • 3
    I want to also add that having a gender system is a feature of only a small number of the world's languages, so an even more interesting question might be: why do any languages have a gender system? – Kosmonaut Sep 28 '10 at 14:23
  • This aligns with what I was taught in an Old English/History of the English Language class in college. – In the Booley House Sep 28 '10 at 14:56
  • Moreover, gender systems are not consistent among languages. French/German: soleil(m)/Sohne(f); French/Italian: minute(f)/minuto(m) – mouviciel Sep 29 '10 at 8:22
  • 2
    @Kosmonaut @Claudiu Looks like languages with grammatical gender and the ones without are split about 50/50. Many non-IE languages have gender, like Swahili with no less than 18 noun classes. I suppose independent languages have no particular reason to use the same linguistic mechanisms - you can have a language with or without gender, inflectional endings, tongue clicks... it works either way. – j-g-faustus Feb 12 '11 at 1:08
3

There was a general "decay" in inflectional endings in English during the Middle English period. Reasons could include sound changes that resulted in the vowels at the ends of words being levelled so that they were no longer pronounced differently (Baugh & Cable, A History of the English Language, 4th ed. p155). Also, because English was for a few centuries excluded from official use (while French was the prestigious language), this meant that the educated classes had less influence over the language and it became less conservative (ibid., p154). (I believe it has also been argued that the levelling may have begun during the period of English-Norse contact.)

One of the results was the loss of grammatical gender.

One point that the other answers haven't covered, however, is that the decline in grammatical gender isn't unique to English. Several other Germanic languages have seen a great simplification of gender systems. So while Proto-Germanic had three genders, and Old English and Old Norse (like modern German and modern Icelandic) also had three genders, standard Swedish and standard Danish today have only two genders; and the West Jutlandic dialect of Danish is said to have abandoned grammatical gender (for while it retains a distinction between t and n nouns, the distinction is now based solely on mass nouns versus count nouns). Some varieties of Dutch also distinguish only two genders. Similarly, whereas Latin had three genders, the Romance languages today have only two genders (with the possible exception of Romanian, which is sometimes argued to retain three). So actually what we've seen in English is part of a widespread tendency, which has simply gone further in English than in most other languages.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Many Iberian Romance languages retain a few vestiges of a three-gender system whose neuters are used for abstract, uncountable stuff; for example, in Spanish the pronoun ello, the article lo, and the three demonstratives esto, eso, aquello are all abstract neuters. But Asturian adjectives have three genders in a fully productive and non-vestigial way where their neuters are used completely differently than how Latin had neuters. – tchrist Sep 16 '17 at 23:30
1

Reading the entire Ask MetaFilter thread, I encountered the following comments and resultant dialogue which may aid. Please inform me of any evidence or references.

Interestingly, English is probably mostly genderless because it is a creole of Norman French and Saxon English, which itself was more or less a creole of Danish and Old English by the time the Normans got there.

So, twice English had large groups of people who couldn't remember each other's noun genders, and probably mumbled something like "the" instead of whatever the correct pronoun was. Eventually everyone gave up on gender.

posted by musofire at 2:27 PM on December 4, 2012 [4 favorites]

[...] [In reference to the above conjecture] This is silly.
It's not how language and history typically work and wouldn't explain why other European languages have retained gender and other complicated features despite longer and much more frequent periods of occupation by groups of people with even harder language differences to overcome. If one believes it, it poses the question of why the residents of Britain were so stupid - people all over the world speak multiple languages fluently with no problem, and without formal education! I've spent time in places where uneducated peasants have spoken fluent German, Romani, Romanian and Hungarian (three separate branches of IE and one totally unrelated language) for centuries without any more blending going on than the borrowing of a few words.

There are quite a lot of serious theories out there why English lost gender, but that isn't one of them!

Here's an interesting one. [...]

posted by Dee Xtrovert at 11:57 PM on December 4, 2012 [2 favorites]

The last link above is too long to reproduce here and so I do not unless requested;
but it is entitled From Grammatical to Natural Gender
by Jesse Archibald-Barber BA (Victoria) MA (Toronto) PhD (Toronto).

| improve this answer | |

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.