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Unhistorical Gender Assignment in Layamon’s «Brut»

A Case Study of a Late Stage in the Development of Grammatical Gender toward its Ultimate Loss


Seiji Shinkawa

This book explains how and why grammatical gender disappeared from English through a detailed analysis of unhistorical gender assignment within the noun phrase in Layamon’s Brut, one of the most important Early Middle English texts. Such deviations do occur capriciously but not randomly, suggesting a development of innovative functions of the attributive forms concerned.
These innovations are mainly of two types: gender-insensitive uses as a case marker and a shift from a bipartite to tripartite system of defining words, the, that, and this. The author discusses these innovations, focusing on their implications for the subsequent development and eventual loss of grammatical gender.


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1. Introduction 11


11 1. Introduction 1.1 A gap in linguistic gender scholarship The Middle English period was undoubtedly one of great linguistic change. The change was so extensive and fundamental that what at the beginning of the period had been a language that even native speakers of English today have to learn like a foreign tongue was at the end Modern English (see Baugh/Cable 2002: 158). Both vocabulary and grammar were affected. Middle English saw an influx of words from French and Latin, an almost pure Germanic language being transformed into a mixed one. Grammatically, it was marked by a general reduction of inflectional endings, losing many synthetic traits and becoming highly analytic. As- sociated with this latter change, there was a particular change that makes English unique among the Indo-European languages: the loss of gram- matical gender. This is often connected with the rise of natural gender to constitute gender shift, but the two are essentially independent, although closely related, processes and should be distinguished.1 The origin and development of natural gender has been recur- rently discussed by Moore (1921), Heltveit (1958), Baron (1971), Dekeyser (1980), Howe (1996), Platzer (2001), Curzan (2003), Stenroos (2008), and others since Classen (1919) first raised the is- sue, but no systematic study has so far been made of the loss of gram- matical gender proper. There are passing remarks on the cause of the loss in most of the relevant research, including the works cited above, but it has not been made “fully clear” yet,...

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