Tag Archives: gender

Not Appearing in this Language

27 Dec

I was watching an Eddie Izzard clip the other night and he revealed a fact that I did not know–English used to have gendered nouns, just like French. But between the Norman invasion and Chaucer, we lost them. Why?

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, take the word le stylo–the pencil–in French. It’s masculine, for reasons that should be obvious, but if you haven’t taken language courses, the concept of arbitrarily deciding what words are masculine, feminine, or neuter is rather odd to English speakers. The le or la both mean “the,” just changed depending on which word you’re talking to. In Hebrew and Thai, at least, the word is often changed depending on who you’re talking about.

I love linguistics, but to be fair, I really just like alphabets. Actual language and grammar don’t interest me as much as the symbols people use to represent them. However, how English evolved is particularly exciting, and it’s something that I liked to teach my kids back when I taught history. Language evolves–and it’s cool to hear how it does. Here’s a clip of how one linguist’s actor son says Shakespeare sounded four hundred years ago.

According to Izzard–and he’s right–the language of government and the ruling class was Norman French, and remained that way for two hundred years. That’s why English heraldry is still referred to with terms in that language: A field ermine, per bend sinister or with three scallops vert. (NOTE: when I read that back in my head, I realized that is the most disgusting coat of arms I could have chosen.) So English evolved on its own, without any interference from the nobles or the king; it mixed with Norse and eventually lost its gendered terms.

I mean, did we really lose anything? It might be nice to say, “No, she’s my wiffreond,” because the term girlfriend gets misused if you’re a guy, because a female friend is technically a girlfriend, but traditionally men don’t use that term for a non-intimate relationship. On the other hand, I don’t have to remember fifteen terms for woman, depending on their status. There’s a big difference between mædencild, mægden, freowif, and forþwif (female child, young girl, free woman, matron). Heck, we’re using letters we don’t even use in English anymore!

What do you think? Did we lose or gain anything by taking out the le and la out of our lives? Let me know in the comments below!

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