Home Language & Literature Historical Sociolinguistics: Language Change in Tudor and Stuart England
Gender and Real-Time Linguistic Change
The majority pattern that emerges from the 14 cases analysed by us is one in which women are found to lead the process of linguistic change. But as pointed out above, these cases, too, require further analysis before we can conclude that gender is a more robust variable than, say, social status in the diffusion of linguistic changes in the periods investigated. When examining the way in which gender differences are distributed we will pay attention to three issues: (1) the point in time at which gender differences become noticeable, (2) the consistency of these differences across time and (3) the social strata from which the changes emanate. The data are presented following the patterns that emerge: women ahead of men (6.4.1.), switches from male to female advantage (6.4.2.), and men ahead of women (6.4.3.). The distributions are based on the variable totals shown in Appendix II (see also Nevalainen 2000a: 54-55).5
Women Ahead of Men
Subject form you
Figure 6.1 shows that the replacement of the subject form ye by you is not only rapid - the change is plotted in periods of 20 years instead of 40 - but it is also markedly and consistently promoted by women from the early sixteenth century onwards. This systematic gender advantage emerges when the process has exceeded the frequency of 20 per cent.
In the mid-course of the change the male-female margin is at its widest (and statistically highly significant). It may be explained by the fact that at the time the change diffuses from the upper and middle ranks to the lower, with only social aspirers lagging behind. In the latter half of the century these social status differences are levelled out (see 7.4.3.).
We could argue that you spread 'from below' in terms of public consciousness on various grounds, not just because of women's general lack of learning. First, the origins of the change suggested in the literature point to a typical vernacular change: similarity of rapid-speech forms of the subject and object pronouns. Second, the change was completed only within a couple of
Figure 6.1. The replacement of subject ye by you. Gender distribution of you. CEEC 1998 and Supplement; quota sampling.
generations in all the ranks included in the CEEC. In King Henry VIII's official correspondence the majority form switched from ye to you around 1535. Mixed usage of the subject pronouns even extended to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer (Prins 1933: 72-74). Both cases speak for the wide-ranging acceptability of the incoming form at the time.
My and thy
A systematic gender advantage also appears in the diffusion of the short possessive determiners my and thy as opposed to mine and thine. Figure 6.2 illustrates the process in prevocalic contexts. The change begins to be promoted
Figure 6.2. Mine and thine vs. my and thy. Gender distribution of my and thy before vowels. CEEC 1998 and Supplement; quota sampling.
by women once it has reached a frequency level of 30 per cent. Looking for the social locus of the change, our data show little variability across the social spectrum at the beginning of the sixteenth century, but a clear trend from below can be traced for the rest of the century (7.4.3.). The relatively small difference between women and men may therefore be accounted for by the change progressing from the lower ranks. These are overwhelmingly represented by men, especially for the period 1540-79. Figure 6.2 indicates how consistently upper-ranking women spread the incoming forms throughout the sixteenth century.
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