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Historical gender change in West Frisian


In Frisian, grammatical gender is an abstract lexical property, which is not spelled out on the noun. It manifests itself in an indirect way, through the agreement relations the noun enters into. It is, thus, understandable that phonological regularities and residual (abstract) case marking in a prepositional context can be crucial for two instances of historical gender change in Frisian. In the Dutch–Frisian language contact situation, however, factors which are strictly speaking non-linguistic in nature play a role as well. These are, first, the low degree of standardisation of Frisian at the time the gender change set in and, secondly, distancing from Dutch at the time when Frisian developed its own standard vis-à-vis Dutch, which implies the propagation of the gender which diverges from the Dutch one. It is the interplay between these factors which lends the case of gender change in Frisian an inherent linguistic significance. Not every Frisian de-word could become an it-word and vice versa, since the language system puts its limits here. For instance, all nouns ending in schwa are de-words, a formal regularity which prevented them from switching to it-words. Neither are there only regular patterns of gender change in Frisian. The general tendencies are clear, but as far as individual words are concerned, there is much which must be left unexplained.


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I am deeply indebted to Geert Booij, without whose help and encouragement this article would not have existed. Thanks are due to my colleagues Siebren Dyk, for his comments on a preliminary version, and Jarich Hoekstra, with whom I once wrote an article, in Frisian, on the same subject (Hoekstra and Visser 1996). I would also like to thank the editors of Morphology and three anonymous reviewers for their generous and valuable comments. All disclaimers apply.

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Correspondence to Willem Visser.

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Visser, W. Historical gender change in West Frisian. Morphology 21, 31–56 (2011).

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  • Gender
  • Gender assignment
  • Gender change
  • Minority language