Grammatical gender resolution in Icelandic
Þorbjörg Þorvaldsdóttir
(Leiden University)
Saturday (April 22nd), 11:30-11:55
Lipsius 148

Grammatical gender is a lexical feature of nouns in a great number of the world's languages (Corbett, 1991). But how are conflicting gender values in conjoined noun phrases resolved in agreement? In this talk, I will explore the gender resolution rules (cf. Corbett, 2006) in a language with extensive gender marking: Icelandic.

Icelandic has a three-gender system (masculine, feminine and neuter) and gender is marked on nouns, pronouns and adjectives both in the singular and plural. It is usually assumed that for a conjoined noun phrase consisting of singular nouns of two different genders, the resolution is neuter plural, while matching gender values are resolved with the plural form for each gender (Friðjónsson, 1989; 1991). 

Resolution in Icelandic is most often found with nouns that are concrete and countable, while agreement is normally with one conjunct only for conjoined phrases that include abstract and mass terms (Friðjónsson, 1991). However, there is considerable variation regarding the distribution of resolution. In this research, I attempt to account systematically for that variation. Essentially, I believe that the Animacy Hierarchy (Comrie, 1989) will provide a valid means of explanation, as grammatical gender always has a semantic core (Dahl, 2000).

In my talk, I will present preliminary results from an online questionnaire. The distribution of resolution seems to follow the Animacy Hierarchy. Icelandic speakers resolve clashing gender values with almost unanimously when the nouns denote humans or animals. In contrast, with inanimate objects, speakers use different strategies alongside the neuter plural. Furthermore, with abstract mass terms - resolution is frequently avoided altogether.

Comrie, B. (1989). Language universals and linguistic typology: Syntax and morphology (2nd ed.). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Corbett, G. (1991). Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Corbett, G. (2006). Agreement. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dahl, O. (2000). Animacy and the notion of semantic gender. Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs, 124, 99–116.
Friðjónsson, J. (1991). Beygingarsamræmi með samsettu frumlagi. Íslenskt mál og almenn málfræði, 79-103.
Friðjónsson, J. (1989). Samsettar myndir sagna. Reykjavík: Málvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands.