Linn Iren Sjånes Rødvand – University of Copenhagen

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The definite suffix as a gender clue – evidence from American Norwegian

Linn Iren Sjånes Rødvand (University of Oslo)

Two recent papers – Johannessen & Larsson (2015) and Lohndal & Westergaard (2016) – have discussed the status of gender in American Norwegian (AmN) by considering noun phrase-internal agreement in CANS (Corpus of American Norwegian Speech). Both papers take Hockett’s (1958: 231) definition of gender as point of departure: “Genders are classes of nouns reflected in the behavior of associated words.” Still, the two papers reach different conclusions. Lohndal & Westergaard (2016) – who explicitly reject that the singular definite suffix could indicate gender – conclude that the gender category in AmN is vulnerable. Johannessen & Larsson (2015), on the other hand, argue that gender is retained since they treat the definite suffix as an exponent of gender.

The research reported in this paper was conducted in 2016–2017, and investigates the gender system in AmN by looking at the indefinite article and the personal pronoun, in addition to the definite suffix. The data were collected during fieldwork in the American Midwest, using elicitation tasks consisting of pictures depicting items corresponding to the three grammatical genders. In total, the analysis includes data from 25 speakers between the age of 58 and 92 (average: 79 years), most of which are 3rd or 4th generation immigrants. This paper contributes to a broader understanding of gender in AmN in two ways. Firstly, the personal pronoun has not been investigated as a gender agreeing element in AmN before. Secondly, this is the first time the gender system in AmN can be investigated at the level of the individual, since the elicitation method ensures more data on each participant than what is found in CANS. By focusing on the individuals, these data shed new light on the relation between the definite suffix and the gender system.

Arguably, the gender system has to be analyzed at the level of the individual. In doing so, great inter-individual differences are revealed. However, all speakers show at least relicts of the original three-gender system, and there is no sign of a complete restructuring of the gender system, nor a break-down of gender altogether. As many as 11 of the 25 participants clearly have retained the original three-gender system and show little or no difficulty with grammatical gender. 4 more speakers have retained all the original gender distinctions, but these speakers are less target-consistent. The remaining 10 speakers have lost the three-way gender distinction in some, but not all, gender agreeing elements. However, the original three-way distinction is retained for all speakers in the definite suffix, and the use of definite suffix is to a great extent target-like.

In this paper, I argue that the retention of the definite suffix could explain the overall retention of the gender system. That speakers use the definite form as the basis for classifying nouns into genders seems to be the best explanation for the retention of the gender distinctions found in this study. If we accept the definite suffix as a gender clue, the evidence for the gender system in Norwegian will be pervasive. We can thus expect the gender system to be quite robust.

Selected references

  • Hockett, C. F. 1958. A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York, NY: MacMillan.
  • Johannessen, Janne B. & Ida Larsson. 2015. Complexity Matters: On Gender Agreement in Heritage Scandina-vian. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
  • Lohndal, Terje & Marit Westergaard. 2016. Grammatical gender in American Norwegian heritage language: Stability or attrition? Frontiers in Psychology, 7.