by: Gwen Bloomsburg
For most English speakers, perhaps the trickiest part of tackling any other Indo-European language is accustoming oneself to grammatical gender. It has been nearly ten centuries since the grammatical gender that Old English shared with what Curzan (2003, p. 12) refers to as its “sister” language Modern German disappeared.
Of course, there is gender in Modern English, but to oversimplify greatly, the distinction is between “natural” gender attributed to actual physical or sexual characteristics (say, of a human or animal) and grammatical gender not attributable to the noun’s meaning. Curzan (ibid.) says this as “at best a source of amusement and more often a source of bafflement and frustration” for speakers of English, who often mix up the articles and adjectives that must agree with the noun. I speak from experience, and many colleagues have to endure my annoying question, “Why?”
What about English language learners? There is confusion a-plenty even without puzzling over why a table is feminine and a day male, because a personal pronoun in possessive case must be his or hers, and the finer points of punctuating it’s and its must be mastered.
Now add a contemporary issue: applying gender-neutral language when possible. In place of firemen, we say firefighters; those men and women in blue are police officers; freshmen are first-year students. I am absolutely in favor of such efforts, but I wonder how cowpeople can ever replace the cowboys and cowgirls of yesteryear.
Curzan, Anne. 2003. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.