How Scandinavian languages got two genders

Most Scandinavian languages, including Swedish and Danish, distinguish two genders. Nouns are defined as either common or neuter, which is marked by indefinite pronouns en cykel ‘a bike’ but ett träd ‘a tree’. This is something that speakers have to learn for each noun in the language. Scandinavian languages once used to have even more genders, with a feminine, masculine, and neuter. This was the case in Old Norse, the ancestral language of Scandinavian languages, spoken about thousand years ago in large parts of Scandinavia. In fact, some dialectal varieties of Scandinavian have kept the system of three genders, and in a new paper we study how these languages are gradually drifting towards a system of two genders. Over time, the feminine becomes weaker. Feminine endings are lost and fewer and fewer words are feminine. Also, more infrequent words are unstable in their gender, and new loans become masculine. The process can be traced already in Old Norse, indicating that the decay and eventual loss of the feminine can be predicted already before it is taking place.

The study is published in the latest issue of Journal of Germanic Linguistics