‘Norwegian dialects are changing quite a lot these days’, says Terje Lohndal, a Professor in English linguistics and project leader of the CAS project MultiGender: A Multilingual Approach to Grammatical Gender: Acquisition, Variation & Change.

The Research Council of Norway grants him funding for his project Grammatical Gender in Norwegian Dialects: Variation, Acquisition & Change.

The goal is to study the extent to which the traditional three-gender system across most Norwegian dialects (masculine, feminine, neuter) is changing into a two-gender system (common, neuter), he explains:

‘We will conduct a large-scale cross-dialectal experimental study to investigate the scope of the change and also try to understand why the change is happening now.’

‘Feminine gender is changing right now’

Lohndal explains that in Norwegian dialects, the way words are pronounced is often changing in the direction of spoken Eastern Norwegian. Additionally, inflectional endings are often changing, also in the direction of a spoken Eastern Norwegian variety.

Furthermore, the major cities are influencing the surrounding dialects so that dialects are being levelled towards the region and also towards spoken Eastern Norwegian’, he says.

What changes do you find most interesting?

‘One of the ongoing changes is precisely that feminine grammatical gender seems to be vulnerable to change. What’s especially interesting about this change is that it seems to be happening right now. The collapse of the feminine grammatical gender has been seen in other languages, such as Danish and Swedish, but those changes happened hundreds of years ago. There are few cases of grammatical gender change that can be observed as it is happening, which makes the Norwegian case especially interesting. It allows us to potentially better understand the nature of these historical changes too.

What dialects will you investigate?

‘I have selected seven areas that will be studied in detail. For each area, three groups of speakers will be investigated: 4-6 years of age, 14-15 years of age, and adults (above 25). These areas have been selected on the basis of the large dialect corpus NorDiaSyn, where I have identified areas where there are significant differences between the production of indefinite feminine and masculine articles (ei bok ‘a book’ vs. en bil ‘a car) for ‘young’ vs. ‘old’ informants. The counties Nordland, Møre og Romsdal, Vestland, Innlandet, Agder and western parts of Viken. For each county, a smaller and a larger location will be chosen.’

Lohndal says that the project will make use of a range of experimental methods:

‘It will use production experiments to see whether participants produce feminine or masculine gender markers, it will use eye-tracking to probe how they process grammatical gender, and background information regarding language usage and other factors that are known to affect language production (so-called sociolinguistic variables). We will then look for correlations across these methods to better understand how and why the gender system may be changing.’

Many CAS fellows and visitors will be part of the project: his co-project leader at CAS, Marit Westergaard, Björn Lundquist, Tor Anders Åfarli, Guro Busterud, Yulia Rodina, Tanja Kupisch, Holger Hopp and Artemis Alexiadou.

‘The time spent at CAS has so far been immensely productive and useful also for this project. We are reading a lot of literature and discussing issues that are extremely relevant also for this new project’, Lohndal says.