Gender stability

Continuing my blogposts about gender, I will say a few words about gender stability. Over time, words often change their gender. This is well known, for instance, in Germanic languages, the words for 'sun' and 'moon' are feminine and masculine respectively (as in German die Sonne and der Mond), whereas other branches of Indo-European the situation is the reverse (Italian sole masculine 'sun' and luna feminine 'moon').
The important and interesting thing here is to investigate the reasons for gender stability or instability. Are they connected to a specific gender? Or are they connected to specific words? Or is gender stability a matter of frequency? There are still very few, if no studies that look at gender stability, using large-scale data sets.
If we consider fist the issue of gender instability in our culture data set for Indo-European, we notice that is little difference between the genders when it comes to stability in cognates. We distinguished three classes, cognates with more than 90% same gender (stable class), cognates with between 90-50% same gender (dominant class), and cognates with under 50% same gender (change class). Wee notice that all three genders masculine, feminine, and neuter have approximately the same distribution within the classes stable, dominant and changing gender (see picture below). However, the masculine is slightly overrepresented in the stable group, feminine in the dominant group and neuter in the change group, meaning that the masculine is most stable, feminine a bit less stable, and neuter must untable. However, the differences are small.
What is more interesting though, and probably also promising for future research on gender stability, is that there is a large variation in the stability of different semantic classes. Crops, metals, trees, vegetables, prodcuts, are all highly stable, drink & drugs, small cattle, and tillage, etc and highly unstable. And so forth. If there is a connection to general frequency remains to be controlled for the entire Indo-European family, but a study on gender in Scandinavian languages only (Van Epps, Carling & Sapir 2019), found a correlation between frequency and gender instability.

Van Epps Briana, Gerd Carling & Yair Sapir to appear. “Gender assignment in six North Scandinavian languages: Patterns of variation and change”, to appear in a journal.

Heatmap of frequency of occurrence of various semantic classes in the different categories stable (