Gender Shifts in the History of English

Gender Shifts in the History of English

Gender Shifts in the History of English

Gender Shifts in the History of English


Based on extensive research, Anne Curzan's study makes a major contribution by providing historical perspective on controversial questions regarding the continuing evolution of gender definition. How and why did grammatical gender gradually disappear from English and get replaced by a system where the gender of nouns and the use of personal pronouns depend on the natural gender of the referent? How is this shift related to "irregular agreement" (she for ships) and "sexist" language use (generic he) in Modern English? Finally, how is the language continuing to evolve 0n these respects?


“I think she's got it!” exclaimed a participant at the American Dialect Society's annual meeting in January 2000, after the final vote for the “Word of the Millennium.” The early candidates for the honor ranged from the lofty (truth, freedom, justice) to the academic (science), from the political (government) to the seemingly mundane (the). The debate was heated, with members concerned whether the vote was based on the words themselves or on the concepts that the words represented. Rather late in the discussion, the word she was proffered and it quickly began to gain momentum – perhaps oddly parallel to what she seems to have done in medieval times when it entered the language. She gathered support from all sides: she represents a linguistic innovation of this millennium (she is first cited in 1154 AD); the introduction of she is change at the very core of the English vocabulary; the mysterious origins of she seem best explained as a combination of distinctive phonological processes in English and the effects of language contact, a crucial force in the history of English; she as a feminine linguistic marker represents a fundamental social category and its ascendance can be seen as symbolic of the gains by women at the end of the millennium; and she allows us to celebrate the pronoun, a type of mundane function word that tends to get taken for granted, albeit a critical linguistic building block. And she did get it. She prevailed over all rivals to be crowned Word of the Millennium.

She is just the kind of word that is the focus of this book.

The study of gendered linguistic forms

With the election of she as the word of the millennium, a personal pronoun gained the kind of recognition and acclaim usually reserved for open class or content words – not everyday function words like pronouns. While much of English vocabulary has been studied extensively, the first comprehensive book on Modern English personal pronouns, written by Katie Wales, was not published until 1996. As Wales's book demonstrates, personal pronouns in English are fascinating both linguistically and socially. Take, for example, the current confusion over phrases such as “between you and _ (me?/I?)”: this confusion and the resulting . . .

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