Gender assignment in six North Scandinavian languages: Patterns of variation and change

Yair Sapir, Gerd Carling, Briana van Epps

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This study addresses gender assignment in six North Scandinavian varieties with a three-gender system: Old Norse, Norwegian (Nynorsk), Old Swedish, Nysvenska, Jamtlandic, and Elfdalian. Focusing on gender variation and change, we investigate the role of various factors in gender change. Using the contemporary Swedish varieties Jamtlandic and Elfdalian as a basis, we compare gender assignment in other North Scandinavian languages, tracing the evolution back to Old Norse. The data consist of 1,300 concepts from all six languages coded for cognacy, gender, and morphological and semantic variation. Our statistical analysis shows that the most important factors in gender change are the Old Norse weak/strong inflection, Old Norse gender, animate/inanimate distinction, word frequency, and loan status. From Old Norse to modern languages, phonological assignment principles tend to weaken, due to the general loss of word-final endings. Feminine words are more susceptible to changing gender, and the tendency to lose the feminine is noticeable even in the varieties in our study upholding the three-gender system. Further, frequency is significantly correlated with unstable gender. In semantics, only the animate/inanimate distinction significantly predicts gender assignment and stability. In general, our study confirms the decay of the feminine gender in the Scandinavian branch of Germanic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)264-315
Number of pages52
JournalJournal of Germanic Linguistics
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Swedish Standard Keywords

  • Specific Languages (60202)
  • General Language Studies and Linguistics (60201)


  • Elfdalian
  • Gender Assignment
  • Germanic languages
  • Jamtlandic
  • North Scandinavian
  • Swedish dialects
  • historical linguistics
  • language change
  • typology


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