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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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4. The development of a tripartite system of defining words, the, that, and this 123


123 4. The development of a tripartite system of defining words, the, that, and this 4.1 Introduction It is debatable whether or not Old English had a definite article, but this question, as Quirk and Wrenn (1994: 70) rightly put it, “seems to be one which has been raised largely by our desire to impose upon OE a terminology familiar in and suitable for Mod.E.: where today we have three contrastive and formally distinct defining words, the, that, this, each with a name, in OE there were but two, se and þes, and we are left as it were with a name to spare”. They continue: The problem partly disappears when we reflect that in many instances of their use today, the and that are interchangeable (‘Do you remember the/that man I was speaking to last night?’); in OE se (þæt, sÿÿeo) embraced practically the whole range of functions performed today, jointly or separately, by the and that. (1994: 70)1 Both texts of La(amon’s Brut show an incipient development of three gender-insensitive indeclinable forms of demonstratives, þV, þVt, and þVs, which formally correspond to Modern English the, that, and this respectively. Here may be witnessed an embryonic stage of the de- velopment from the old bipartite to the modern tripartite system of defining words. 1 See also Traugott (1992: 172). Wischer (2002: 452) takes a step further to say “Old English se/seo/þæt is better characterized as definite article than as de- monstrative pronoun”. 124 4.2...

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