Fun With Historical Linguistics!

I’m sure all native speakers of English who have learned/attempted to learn a second language in the classroom (this excludes you lucky people who are native speakers of more than one language) have at some point thought to themselves “What is up with these gendered nouns? And why doesn’t English have them?” Now, in my fourth attempt to learn a new language (French kind of stuck, Spanish and Hebrew not so much), I finally decided to look it up.

Old English, a Germanic language, had a gendered grammatical structure. The transition from a gendered to a neutral grammatical structure began in the north of England as a result of repeated Danish, Norse, and Saxon invasions of/migration to that region. With speakers of multiple languages living in close proximity to each other, the dominant tongue of Old English and the new languages of the invaders/migrants began to evolve into a language accessible to speakers in all of the language groups. In these situations, the more complex elements of spoken language fall to the wayside, and, in this case, it was the gendered grammatical structure of Old English which gradually fell into disuse. By the eleventh century, spoke Old English was approaching a gender neutral noun structure.

But then this little thing called the Norman Invasion happened.

Any speaker of modern English who has encountered the French language can surely see the impact of Norman French (specifically Old Norman) on the language. In fact, if you look at English words, you will find many sets of synonyms in which one term is derived from French and the other from German. (And as a side note, because the Normans were the ruling class, even today the words in the set which are derived from French have more prestige than those derived from German. For example: mansion v. house.)

Norman French was spoken by the ruling classes and eventually developed into an English-influenced language called Anglo-Norman. However, this language never eclipsed English. While the ruling classes held cultural capital, they were a minority in the British mainland and were often separated from each other by hundreds of miles. This distance gave them no choice but to learn the spoken language of the people. Thus, while Norman French certainly had a gendered grammatical structure, the status of its speakers as a ruling minority negated the impact that grammatical structure had on the English language.

This move to the neutral gender truly took hold in the thirteenth century as speakers of Middle English, while still technically retaining grammatical gender, began to use the neutral “the” or “thee” as a pronoun.

By the fourteenth century, London English had shifted almost entirely to the neutral gender. Because this grammatical alteration began in the North, linguistically conservative areas, such as Kent and the Midlands, retained gender until as late as the 1340’s. However, by the 1400’s, English was a mostly gender neutral language.

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