The evolution of gender in the English language

Posted on October 30, 2023

The gender of words is such a simple, yet complex, concept. Grammatically, gender is merely a way of classifying the words in a lexicon. Socially, gender is the way societies use language to structure the world.Note 1 Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about gender in the context of inclusive writing. In this post, however, we’ll talk about the evolution of gender in the English language and what remains of the systems of past centuries.

Old English: The 5th to 11th centuries

The evolution of the English language is marked by three main periods: the Old English (or Anglo Saxon) period, the Middle English period and the Modern English period. Modern English no longer bears any resemblance whatsoever to Old English, so much so that, today, you can’t even read Old English without having studied it. Spoken and written from the 5th century until the Norman Conquest, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was brought to England by the Germanic and Scandinavian tribes who settled there. It has its own vocabulary, its own grammar and even its own alphabet (which is called futhorc). With its Germanic roots, Old English borrows from Latin, Old French and Old Norse.

Like Latin and Modern German, Old English is what we call an inflected language. Its grammar is based on a system of five main cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and instrumental), three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) and two numbers (singular and plural).Note 2 Unlike nouns in Modern English, nouns in Old English are gendered, that is, masculine nouns are feminized. For example, the word bæcere (baker) is written bæcestre in the feminine form. In Old English, adjectives and pronouns agree with the subject in gender and number. Gender in Old English is grammatical: nouns that designate living organisms correspond to the biological sex of the organism they refer to, whereas with nouns that designate inanimate objects, gender is assigned more arbitrarily and unrelated to the meaning of the noun.

Middle English: The 11th to 15th centuries

When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, Anglo-Norman (a variant of Old French) became the language of high society, while English was relegated to the lower classes. All the transformations that English society underwent following the Norman Conquest influenced the language. Old English gradually transformed and gave way to Middle English (spoken from 1150 to 1500). At that time, under various influences, the English language lost its system of inflections and gender assignment: feminine forms disappeared, as did grammatical gender. English started becoming simpler and more like Modern English. In fact, you can read the original Middle English version of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (one of the best-known literary works of that time) and understand its overall meaning.

Modern English: The 15th century to present

In Modern English, only the pronouns he, she and it, as well as suffixes like -man, -woman and -ess mark gender.Note 3 However, some nouns designating inanimate objects are always assigned a gender. Have you ever wondered why we use she when talking about a ship? A ship has no biological sex, but it has been assigned a feminine identity for centuries.

Why is a ship a she?

A number of theories have been put forward to explain why certain nouns designating inanimate objects still have a gender marker. It’s interesting to note that, in many cases, these nouns take the feminine gender, rather than the masculine: the well-known ship, Earth, countries and nature, to name a few.Note 4

In the case of ship, some believe it may have taken on a feminine gender under the influence of the Latin word navis, a feminine noun meaning “ship.” However, since the Old English word scip (neuter, not feminine, gender) was borrowed from the Germanic languages to designate the boats we call ships today, this theory doesn’t seem to hold water.

Symbolism and tradition may also explain the phenomenon. In the history of many cultures, ships were dedicated to goddesses or mythical female figures who were said to protect and guide sailors on their voyages. These maritime deities were considered the guardians of the seas, and designating ships as female would have been a way of invoking their protection.

The use of the pronoun she to designate ships isn’t universally accepted. Some people, who consider the use of the pronoun she to be sexist, would prefer that the pronoun it be used to designate ships. As language continues to evolve and degender, it will be interesting to see if the practice of using the pronoun it for words like ship becomes more established. One thing is certain: language will continue to evolve with the societies that use it, and the English we speak 1500 years from now may not bear any resemblance to the English we speak today.

What do you think English will be like centuries from now?


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

Get to know Sophie Martin

Sophie Martin

Sophie Martin

Sophie Martin is a translator by profession. She’s always been interested in languages and history, so it’s only natural that she has a passion for etymology and the history of languages! Her interest in these areas prompted her to start a bachelor's degree in medieval and Renaissance studies at the University of Ottawa some 10 years ago. And though she hasn’t had the chance to complete these fascinating studies, she plans to return to them once she retires, one day…



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Submitted by Hui on October 30, 2023, at 19:06

It's good to know about that. Thanks, Sophie.

Submitted by Solange on November 2, 2023, at 10:12

This is always fascinating. I would very much enjoy reading a future article about the cases and how they've influenced modern English! I remember learning Ancient Greek and there were only four cases. Thank you for sharing your passion with us.

Submitted by Sheri Spencer on May 8, 2024, at 7:30

Very interesting information. Thanks!