Gender Shifts in the History of English

By Anne Curzan | Go to book overview

2 The gender shift in histories of English

2.1 Introduction

In 1936, A. C. Ross succinctly stated, “The loss of grammatical gender in later English is one of the most difficult problems of English philology” (Ross 1936: 321). There is no doubt about the endpoint: in the past millennium, English has shifted from a morphological gender assignment system to a semantic one, so that when Modern English speakers think of “gender” in their language, they think of the pronouns and nouns that refer to gendered entities. But the exact nature of the shift of what stages it involves is complex and has never been described or understood in full detail. The next two chapters provide technical details to begin to fill some of the gaps in knowledge of the historical shift from grammatical to natural gender in English, sometimes referred to as “the gender shift” in the history of English. This chapter focuses on the ways in which the gender shift has been framed before a historiography of histories of English focused on their telling of the story of the gender shift and what this can tell us about attitudes toward language and gender, as well as language change more generally.

In the history of the English language, the shift from Old English to Middle English is often cited as one of the most important defining periods in the evolution of the modern language. It is also one of the most difficult to study. The apparently sweeping nature of the linguistic changes between Old and Middle English, as typically described, results in large part from two important factors: the discontinuity of the written record, which telescopes a series of changes undoubtedly occurring over several centuries into about a 200-year period; and the shift from a fairly consistent and fairly conservative literary version of the surviving West Saxon dialect in Old English to a wider variety of recorded Middle English dialects. The linguistic transition from Old to Middle English, which appears to occur relatively abruptly during the first two centuries of Norman rule, is often categorized into three major developments (although there are many other, less conspicuous morphological and syntactic changes, as well as significant phonological changes). The first major linguistic change is the

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