Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

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