Gender in English


Gender in English

Gender in the English language has been the focus of two distinct debates. Mid twentieth century academics raised questions about whether English can be rightly said to possess grammatical gender. Second wave feminism promoted minimization of gender reference in language generally. In some contexts, the two debates interacted in various ways.

Historical development

Old English had a system of grammatical gender similar to that of Modern German (see Old English morphology):
* Every noun belonged to one of three grammatical gender classes (masculine, feminine, or neuter).
* Within the noun phrase, determiners and adjectives showed gender inflection in agreement with the noun.
* The third person personal pronouns and Interrogative/relative pronouns were chosen according to grammatical gender.

Modern English

Gender is no longer an inflectional category in Modern English. [Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, "The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language" (2002).] The only traces of the Old English system are found in the pronominal system, and pronoun-antecedent agreement in English is now based on natural gender. [ [http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761564210_2/English_Language.html 'English Language',] "Encarta",(Microsoft Corporation, 2007). "The distinctions of grammatical gender in English were replaced by those of natural gender."]

Benjamin Whorf considered grammatical gender to be a "covert" category in English. [Benjamin Lee Whorf, 'Grammatical Categories', "Language" 21 (1945):1-11.] [Robert A Hall Jr, [http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0003-1283%28195110%2926%3A3%3C170%3ASRAGGI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-A&size=SMALL 'Sex Reference and Grammatical Gender in English'] , "American Speech" 26 (1951): 170-172.]

There are two manifestations of gender-based pronoun selection in English:
* The third person singular personal pronouns "he/him", "she/her", and "it" (as well as their possessive forms "his", "her(s)", and "its", and their reflexive and intensive forms "himself", "herself", and "itself") are chosen according to the natural gender of the antecedent.
* The relative pronouns "who" and "which" are chosen according to the personal or animate (vs. impersonal or inanimate) status of the antecedent.The resulting system can be summarized as follows: [Table adapted from Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. "A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language". London: Longman, 1985. (p. 314)]

Modern English clearly has a sophisticated system for distinguishing semantic categories, analogous with grammatical gender marking in other languages.

References

ee also

* English grammar
* Gender-neutral language
* History of English


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