He, She, It: The Long-Forgotten Grammatical Gender of English

I remember, back in French 101, scratching my head over the concept of gendered nouns. A book is male (un livre)? A chair is female (une chaise)? Gendered nouns are common in languages outside of English, and the feminine vs. masculine nature of the noun can be different from language to language. A key is feminine in Spanish but masculine in German, while a bridge is masculine in Spanish but feminine in German. A noun’s gender can also change grammar, like articles (una llave v. un puente).

This grammatical gender might seem odd to a native English speaker – a bridge or key is an “it” with no gender, and English doesn’t change the articles, like “the” (the bridge/the key) or “a” (a bridge/a key), to accommodate gender. But brace yourself, because all that you know to be true is about to unravel:

Back in the day, English did use grammatical gender. Today, we borrow certain words with different spellings to denote female or male, like fiancé vs. fiancée, but in Old English (anyone who read Beowulf for English class is now cringing), grammatical gender was the norm – that is, nouns were grouped by gender and the ending of the word, along with the article and pronoun, differed according to whether the noun was masculine, feminine, or neuter. For example, “the moon” in Old English is “se mona” because “mona” is the masculine noun and “se” is the masculine form of “the.” You’d also use the male pronoun to refer back to the “mona.”

So Long, Grammatical Gender

Why, then, do we not use grammatical gender today? Anne Curzan, an English professor at the University of Michigan, wrote an entire book to answer that very question. What we know, Curzan writes in Gender Shifts in the History of English, that grammatical gender in English disappeared somewhere between the 11th and 13th centuries. There were few English texts between those two time periods, so it’s hard to say why the grammatical gender faded away. Going into the 11th century, grammatical gender in English was going strong, but it came out of the 13th century hanging on by a thread. Why?

Curzan states that changes in grammatical gender were already occurring in the 11th century. For example, “woman” in Old English is a neuter noun, so referring to a woman, you’d call her “it.” But Old English-speakers violated this rule by using the female pronoun instead. At the same time, a large number of Norse-speakers and bilinguals (speaking both Norse and Old English) were residing in Northern England. This sort of “intensive language contact,” Curzan says, is thought to accelerate changes in language.

Old English and Norse were also both Germanic languages, meaning the words’ roots were similar but the inflectional endings would be slightly different. It’s not far off to hypothesize that these inflectional endings dropped off as the two languages co-existed in the area (and eventually moved farther south). This is all a hypothesis, of course, but there’s a fair amount of word “borrowing” between English and Norse, including pronouns – it’s fairly odd for languages to borrow pronouns.

So, in conclusion, you can thank the Norse speakers for English dropping its grammatical gender and confusing high school students in French classes everywhere. (Or you can take this as a challenge to re-instate grammatical gender in English. Good luck!)