top of page

Shifts in Grammatical Gender in Multilingual England

Language exists in a constant state of change, with greater, more seismic shifts often times occurring due to external factors, namely conflict and the resulting societal changes. A prime example of this is the English language, which underwent drastic changes to both its grammatical structure and vocabulary due to outside influences, as well as becoming a part of an increasingly multilingual context. There were two key external events that influenced the English language. The first were the Danish invasions, which saw much of east England under occupation and settlement from the nineth century and into the eleventh century. The second was the Norman Conquest, which, with the decisive victory of William the Conqueror’s invading forces from the French region of Normandy, marked the beginning of the most catastrophic yet transformative changes of English society.

A key consequence of these historical shifts was the gradual erosion of some features of the grammatical structure of the English language. Most importantly for the purposes of this study, this included the inflectional system, which was integral to Old English, modifying the form of a noun, verb, adjective, etc., to suit its contextual and syntactic need by expressing mood, case, tense, voice, etc.[1] But by the time of Modern English, these inflectional forms would become less pervasive and integral to the syntactical and grammatical structure, surviving in only certain grammatical categories. This is exemplified in the case of modern-day pronouns, as with he/she (subject), and their other inflectional cases him/her (direct object), and his/her (possessive). But in Early Middle English many of these inflectional characteristics were still visible in other grammatical categories, albeit dwindling.[2]

With this gradual shift came the inevitable loss of the primary focus of this study: grammatical gender. In Old English, nouns were categorized according to their gender, which was either masculine, feminine, or neuter. But as the inflectional system began to wane, the need for grammatical gender diminished until it was supplanted by ‘biological’ or referential gender (i.e., the gender of the word reflecting the ‘real-life’ gender of the referent) in Later Middle English.

Figure One: Table of Middle English Inflectional System

Yet, simultaneously during this time, English was in constant contact with the language of its recent conquerors, the French-speaking Normans – a language, conversely, whose grammatical structure and gender remained stable for centuries to come. English thus experienced a rate of unforeseen lexical acquisition, with French vocabulary becoming the single greatest contributing languages to the English lexicon. Within my study, I set out to examine how these two grammatical systems, English and French, might have coexisted and interacted during this period in terms of their use of gender. How did Early Middle English writers, most of whom were known to be proficient in English, French, and Latin, approach the quandary of using gendered French vocabulary within a language which was increasingly unable to support grammatical gender?[4] While it was becoming increasingly difficult for English scribes to identify the gender of their native lexicon, they were also borrowing extensively from French. Did this influx of new gendered vocabulary momentarily stabilize grammatical gender in the English vernacular, or did it only manage to cause more confusion?[5]

For the purposes of this study, I consulted two thirteenth-century texts, Layamon’s Brut (taken from both MS Cotton Caligula and MS Cotton Otho) and The Owl and the Nightingale (exclusively from MS Cotton Caligula), in order to examine some of the earliest known attestations of French loanwords in the English vernacular. Together, these texts provided this study with a dataset of over a hundred nouns to be examined.[6] However, because the grammatical gender of these words could not be verified without being in proximity to modifying inflected words, the size of the dataset was necessarily reduced by a significant margin. The methodology of this analysis required that modifying definite articles, indefinite articles, adjectives and their gendered inflected forms be necessary criteria in order to determine the scribes’ knowledge of these French loans. Ultimately, these criteria revealed a majority of French borrowings whose grammatical gender was thus indeterminable, bringing the overall dataset of determinable words to a slim 14 nouns. This included: admiral, appostolie (denoting the pope), arche (Noah’s Ark), best, bunnen (a boundary marker), castel, faucon, ginne (cunning or ingenuity), heremite, kalender, lac,mahum (pagan idol), rose, and senaturs. However, it should be noted that admiral, appostolie, heremite, and senaturs are referentially masculine, therefore cutting these results down to 10 words.

Nevertheless, we can at least discern a pattern of consistency among these French loanwords in terms of grammatical adherence, with both texts, in general, modifying both masculine and feminine nouns according to their correct gender.

Grammatical confusion was observable concerning some French borrowings. However, this was exclusive to a specific type of loanword which had entered the English lexicon once before and thus had developed its own gender within the Old English paradigm (such as Old English masculine tur) that caused confusion with its French cognate (Old French feminine tur) at the time Layamon’s Brut was written. Such confusion, however, only revealed the scope of the scribe’s multilingual knowledge – should I use the native or the French gender? Indeed, further analysis of The Owl and the Nightingale revealed its scribes’ creative use of grammatical gender as it pertained to native nouns, showcasing a greater degree of overall grammatical consistency than its contemporaries, Layamon and his scribes.[7]

It will take more texts and more test groups of loanwords to make any larger claims about how the English lexicon might have been affected, but it is enough to say with these particular results that grammatical gender, as it was undergoing a major transitional change to its grammatical system, could have only been aided by the borrowing of these loanwords, albeit temporarily.

University of Bristol

Max Fincher is a PhD student at the University of Bristol. His MA thesis at the University of Cambridge was concerned with the earliest known attestations of French vocabulary that are found within the Middle English verse chronicle. His current work expands upon this, applying the questions of his previous studies to a wider selection of early Middle English texts during the period of lexical change and multilingualism in late medieval English society.

References: [1] See John H. McWhorter, Defining Creole (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ch. 11., and Sarah G. Thomason and Terrence Kaufman, Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), pp. 263-342 (p. 303). [2] See Anne Curzan, Gender Shifts in the History of English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and Benjamin Whorf, ‘Grammatical Categories’ in J. B. Carroll (ed.), Language, Thought and Reality, pp. 87-101 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1956). [3] For more on the Early Middle English inflectional system, see J. A. Burrow and Thorlac Turville-Petre, A Book of Middle English (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 97. [4] For creative ways in which Middle English writers would mix French and English grammatical gender, see Tauno F. Mustanoja, A Middle English Syntax (Helsinki: Société Néophilologique, 1960), pp. 45-6. [5] As postulated by Charles J. Bailey and Karl Maroldt, ‘The French Lineage in English’, in J. M. Meisel (ed.), Langues en Contact – Pidgins – Creoles – Languages in Contact (Tubingen: TBL Verlag Gunter Narr, 1977), pp. 21-53 (p. 45). [6] For more statistical data on grammatical gender in Early Middle English, see Peter Siemund and Florian Dolberg, ‘From Lexical to Referential Gender: An Analysis of Gender Change in Medieval English Based on Two Historical Documents’ Folia Linguistica 40.2 (Oct 2011). [7] As described by E. Classen, ‘On the Origin of Natural Gender in Middle English’, The Modern Language Review 14 (1919), pp. 97-102 (p. 100).


About our Blogs
The blogs on the Question website are written by early career researchers and are always open for comment. While some posts are drawn from contributors contacting us directly we also re-blog content from The Conversation and specialist research centres in partner insitutions. All blog posted are selected on their intellectual penetration, originality and public appeal.

Follow Question

  • Facebook - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
bottom of page