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date: 18 September 2019

Abstract and Keywords

One of the large-scale changes in the history of the English language is the loss of grammatical gender, a phenomenon termed the “Great Gender Shift” by Patricia Poussa. In this typological change, grammatical gender in nouns was lost and semantics overrode gender in pronoun agreement. The form of the pronoun came to be determined by real-world properties of animacy, number and sex of the referent. The third-person singular pronouns (the present-day he, she and it) came to mark gender that was generally determined on the basis of semantic criteria. Greville Corbett’s agreement hierarchy predicts that pronouns are always most likely to show semantic rather than grammatical agreement with their antecedents. This article suggests that the successful variants (that is, those increasing in frequency) in some well-known pronoun changes were those that are most compatible with the agreement system. The connections between the changes seem to result in the so-called frequency drift in the system.

Keywords: grammatical gender, Great Gender Shift, English, linguistics, nouns, semantics, pronouns, agreement hierarchy, frequency drift, animacy, number, sex, typology

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