The expression of gender in English is confined to pronouns of the third person (he, she, it). Therefore, we will here essentially be concerned with this pronominal domain. Nevertheless, we will see that varieties of English may differ with respect to the sets of referents for which they use these pronouns. Moreover, some varieties distinguish only two genders on third person pronouns, while others have only one pronominal form. We begin by providing some background information on the category of gender. Following that, we will explore gender-marked pronouns in varieties of English. Finally, we will embark on a cross-linguistic survey of pronominal gender systems, which will allow us to assess English pronominal gender from a wider perspective.
We can define gender as a relationship of covariance between two or more sentential elements and a so-called ‘gender controller’ that determines the shape of the other elements (the ‘targets’ of the gender). Consider the examples from German in (1), where the relevant nouns (the gender controllers) determine the shape of the definite articles (the gender targets) that occur in front of them. In German, the controller of the gender also determines the shape of adjectives, pronouns, and some other elements.
a. der Löffel ‘the spoon’ masculine gender
b. die Gabel ‘the fork’ feminine gender
c. das Messer ‘the knife’ neuter gender
Strictly speaking, English does not possess a comparable gender system, as only the pronouns of the third person show gender distinctions (he, she, it), though other sentential elements (e.g. adjectives) do not show gender marking. Moreover, the use of he, she, and it follows exclusively semantic principles, while in German and other languages with a gender system based on formal principles of gender assignment the occurrence of masculine, feminine, and neuter gender markers is primarily determined by the phonological and morphological properties of the gender-controlling noun (and therefore usually perceived as difficult to learn). The semantic principles regulating the distribution of he, she, and it are (i) humanness/animacy and (ii) sex, with male human referents triggering the use of he and female human referents the use of she, while all other referents take it, as shown in (2).
An additional complication is that pronominal gender markers can occur without a preceding or following noun controlling their gender, since pronouns – besides their anaphoric uses – can also be used deictically. Hence, it is more correct to say that the distribution of these gendered pronouns is determined by the properties of the relevant referents, rather than the nouns encoding them.