Casting off this useless burden

from Simeon Potter, Our Language (1950):

English has likewise been fortunate in shedding grammatical gender. Just as we say der Fussdie Hand, and das Auge in Modern German, so in Old English foot was masculine, hand feminine, and eye neuter, epicene, or common. All nouns were placed into one of these three inherited categories which were not primarily associated with sex. Womanquean, and wife were synonymous in Old English, all three meaning ‘woman’, but they were masculine, feminine, and neuter,  respectively. Horsesheep, and maiden were all neuter. Earth, ‘Mother Earth’, was feminine, but land was neuter. Sun was feminine, but moon, strangely enough, was masculine. Day was masculine, but night feminine. Wheat was masculine, oats feminine, and corn neuter. Clearly, there was no conceivable relationship between grammatical gender and any quality in the object denoted. English has surely gained everything and lost nothing by casting off this useless burden which all the other well-known languages of Europe still bear to their great disadvantage. How, may we ask, has English contrived to cast it off? Is there such a thing as the ‘genius of the language’? Can a language be changed by the ‘corporate will’ of the people who speak it? Perhaps we should look for more specific causes. The gender of an Old English substantive was not always indicated by the form of the ending as it was, with rare exceptions, in Latin and Greek, but rather by the terminations of the adjectives and demonstrative pronouns used in agreement. When these distinguishing terminations were lost in everyday speech, all outward marks of grammatical gender were likewise lost. Weakening of inflexions and loss of gender went on together. In the north where inflexions weakened earlier the marks of gender likewise disappeared first. They were retained in the south as late as the fourteenth century.


from Mark Twain, “The Awful German Language,” in A Tramp Abroad (1880):

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:

Gretchen.
Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm.
She has gone to the kitchen.

Gretchen.
Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm.
It has gone to the opera.

To continue with the German genders: a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter; horses are sexless, dogs are male, cats are female—tomcats included, of course; a person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it—for in Germany all the women either male heads or sexless ones; a person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all. The inventor of the language probably got what he knew about a conscience from hearsay.

Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.

In the German it is true that by some oversight of the inventor of the language, a Woman is a female; but a Wife (Weib) is not—which is unfortunate. A Wife, here, has no sex; she is neuter; so, according to the grammar, a fish is he, his scales are she, but a fishwife is neither. To describe a wife as sexless may be called under-description; that is bad enough, but over-description is surely worse. A German speaks of an Englishman as the Engländer; to change the sex, he adds inn, and that stands for Englishwoman—Engländerinn. That seems descriptive enough, but still it is not exact enough for a German; so he precedes the word with that article which indicates that the creature to follow is feminine, and writes it down thus: “die Engländerinn,”—which means “the she-Englishwoman.” I consider that that person is over-described.


from Otto Jespersen, Progress of Language: With Special Reference to English (1894):

This doctrine of an antagonism between language and history is a pet theory which Schleicher never abandons; in his first book (ii., p. 134) he speaks of “die geschichte, jene feindin der sprache”; and in his Darwinian period he puts it in this way: “The origin and development of language is previous to history, properly and strictly speaking. . . . History shows us nothing but the aging of languages according to fixed laws. The idioms spoken by ourselves, as well as those of all historically important nations, are senile relics.”

According to Schleicher, then, we witness nothing but retrogression and decay; but as the same view is found as early as Bopp, and as it is the fundamental belief, more or less pronounced, of many other linguistic speculators, we are justified in supposing that with Schleicher the theory is not really due to the Hegelian train of argument, but that here, as not unfrequently, reasoning is summoned to arms in defence of results arrived at by instinct. And the feeling underlying this instinct, what is it but a grammar-school admiration, a Renaissance love of the two classical languages and their literatures? People were taught to look down upon modern languages as mere dialects, and to worship Greek and Latin; the richness and fulness of forms found in those languages came naturally to be considered the very beau idéal of linguistic structure. To men fresh from the ordinary grammar-school training no language would seem respectable that had not four or five distinct cases and three genders or that had less than five tenses and as many moods in its verbs. Accordingly, such poor languages as had either lost much of their original richness in grammatical forms (e.g., French, English, or Danish), or had never had any (e.g., Chinese), were naturally looked upon with something like the pity bestowed on relatives in reduced circumstances, or the contempt felt for foreign paupers.

[…]

In Jacob Grimm’s singularly clever (though nebulous) essay on the Origin of Language (1851), I find such passages as the following: “Language in its earliest form was melodious, but diffuse and straggling (weitschweifig und haltlos); in its middle form it was full of intense poetical vigour; in our own day it seeks to remedy the diminution of beauty by the harmony of the whole, and is more effective though it has inferior means”; he arrives at the result that “human language is retrogressive only apparently and in particular points, but looked upon as a whole it is progressive, and its intrinsic force is continually increasing”. The enthusiastic panegyric on the English language with which he concludes his essay forms a striking contrast to Schleicher’s opinion that English shows “how rapidly the language of a nation important both in history and literature can sink”.