How Scandinavian languages got two genders
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.