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But why do they have to have masculine and feminine?

Updated: Apr 10

The gender of nouns

The question crops up quite regularly in our language lessons, in a tone of anything from genuine academic interest to exasperated disdain:

“But why do they have to make words masculine and feminine?”

Fair point, but perhaps a more striking issue is why doesn’t the English language assign a gender to *her* nouns, when pretty much all other European languages do?

Well, until the 1200s we did!

*It feels almost mischievous to use “her” in this context. Whilst it is not an official rule of English as such, there are certain groups of words which are sometimes considered feminine, if only to sound poetic or quaint:

Car-lovers refer to their prized old Jag in the feminine form; when a new ship is built we talk about ‘her’ maiden voyage. Countries are another sub-set: “Denmark is in agreement with ‘her’ neighbours.” By extension to the last one, it might be stretching a point, but if a country is feminine, then it seems reasonable to think that so is her language.

Back to the now obsolete genders of English nouns.

I am by no means an expert in Old- or Middle English, so I won’t go down that route here, but it is worth mentioning that being a Germanic language, English originally had the same system as others in this group: not two but three distinct genders: masculine, feminine, and Middlesex, as I like to call the third one. All three have remained stubbornly in place in modern German and Icelandic, but have eroded away in other languages: Dutch has two and a half, Swedish is down to two and, as we all know, English has dispensed with the differentiation completely.

It is a common trope in textbooks to state that speakers of these languages do not deem a noun to actually be of that gender when referring to it. When a French or Spanish speaker mentions “la table” / “la mesa”, they do not, surely, consider the intrinsically feminine qualities of a table. If a thing were self-evidently masculine, feminine, or indeed neuter, then surely all languages would agree with each other. To take this same example, ‘table’ is masculine in German, der Tisch, and even such elemental items such as the sun, the moon, and the sea have different genders in the respective languages.

The sun is masculine in French and Spanish: le soleil, el sol, and feminine in German: die Sonne.

The moon is feminine in French and Spanish: la lune, la luna, and masculine in German: der Mond.

The sea is feminine in French: la mer, masculine in Spanish el mar, and neuter in German: das Meer.

“What,” one might reasonably ask, “is all that about?”

Even within any given language, there are anomalies which are confusing or amusing, depending on your standpoint: the word for person (in all three of the languages we’ve been mentioning) is feminine. When speaking French, even the most macho, hairy misogynist has no option but to refer to himself as “une personne”. If someone dared to call him a “girl’s blouse” they could then use a masculine word “le chemisier”, whereas the man’s shirt he would most likely be wearing is a feminine word: “la chemise”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that there is no rhyme or reason to this system. That is not quite true: there are definitely patterns that can be learned, such as English words ending in –tion often have direct equivalents in French, German, and Spanish, and are invariably feminine. There are lots of other language-specific rules, which we don’t have time for here, but which we can talk about in lessons.

It was recently pointed out to me that “How did we get here?” could almost be a catchphrase of SameSky language lessons, and that we should get T-shirts made. Another contender might be “Can of Worms”, which is my favoured way of ducking out of a grammar point that’s too tricky to explain.

The Spanish equivalent of this latter phrase is “caja de los truenos” which literally means “box of the thunders”.

From the endings of the words, ‘—a’ and ‘—o’ respectively, you can tell at a glance that caja is feminine and trueno must be masculine. It’s not a hard and fast rule, there are a few exceptions, but it’s a good starting point.

But how about if we go deeper than merely stating what the genders are?

Is caja a feminine word because it ends in ‘–a’, or does it end in ‘–a’ because someone somewhere decreed that a ‘box’ should be a feminine word? Do you see the logic of my question? Which came first, the shape of the word or the assumed gender? And does it matter?

The most fascinating TED Talk that I have seen in the last few years deals with the issue of the gender of nouns, as part of the bigger question of how we are influenced by the language we use. You can watch it here:

If you don’t have inclination or fourteen minutes to watch it yourself, the key point can be illustrated out by the following example:

The word for ‘bridge’ is feminine in German (die Brücke) and masculine in French (le pont) and in Spanish (el puente). When asked to describe pictures of the same bridges, German speakers tended to use feminine-sounding adjectives, such as elegant and beautiful, whereas Latinate language speakers favoured more typically masculine vocabulary: strong, sturdy.

Political correctness

The current trend in English-speaking countries is to try to make nouns as neutral as possible. A fireman is now a firefighter, a chairman is a chairperson, or even just a chair, and for the last couple of decades – have you noticed? – ‘actor’ has become a unisex job title. ‘Waiter’, or indeed ‘server’, is beginning to follow this lead.

For once I am going to stick up for English over the other languages that I teach and say that our PC leanings have simplified things, whereas the French/Spanish/German insistence on assigning a gender to every noun has made things more complicated.

When Anne Hidalgo became mayor of Paris in 2014, she insisted on begin known as Madame la Maire. This did not go down well with the Academie, who would not budge on the fact that ‘maire’ is – always has been, always will be - a masculine noun. Given that the word ends in –e, there is nowhere to go in terms of demonstrating the gender of the office-holder, and so common sense would be in Mme Hidalgo’s corner. Right?

Right! She was the first woman to be allowed to refer to herself as Madame la maire, and this became one example of the sweeping modernisations.

Not everyone is happy about it, and I don’t just mean conservative old stick-in-the-muds. I have a French friend who is as modern and forward-thinking as the next person, but she baulks at new-fangled artificialities such as “autresse” (the official new word for a female author). The need for women’s equality is a given, but many people find these new introductions to the language cumbersome, ugly.

More controversially even than this: pronouns. Almost too thorny an issue to even mention, but…

By way of example, imagine that you are selling your house and have arranged to meet with the estate agent, whose name you know to be Sam Jones. “Is that Samuel or Samantha?” you wonder. When phoning to confirm the appointment, you ask to speak to the agent in charge of your house, but are told that “Sam” has just popped out. You need to know when you might phone back, so how do you phrase the question?

· “When will Sam be back?” Overly repetitive.

· “When will she be back?” Brave! Equal odds of being right.

· “When will he/she be back?” Ridiculous

· “When will they be back?”

This last option is probably what most of us speakers of twenty-first century English would go for, whether or not we are actively favouring this modern convention. Quite clearly a plural pronoun, “they” has been repurposed as the pronoun for the singular person of unknown gender – and this is where the “waters” get “muddied”: that non-specificity can be due to the speaker literally not knowing the gender of the person, or because that person has chosen to be deliberately vague. Empowering? Infuriating?

There is heat on either side of the argument. For the record, my instinct is to live and let live; be as inclusive as possible; never let grammatical pedantry trump human kindness. There’s another T-shirt slogan: “It’s sometimes better to be kind than right.”

In characteristically efficient Scandinavian fashion, Swedish has got around this problem by inventing a completely new pronoun: “hen” is the neutral he/she pronoun, half-way between han (he) and hon (she). Whilst not universally accepted, it has certainly gained more currency than the French equivalent: combining il and elle to make the new gender-neutral hybrid, “iel”. Not being a native speaker, it’s hard to gauge quite how weird this sounds, but the last time I asked a French friend, I was told that it was still at the stage of being little more than a passing fad, roundly ridiculed by all but the most ‘out there’ modernisers.

So, what was originally intended to be a single-paragraph explanation of how and why the French word for table is feminine, has become rather more fulsome. It seems I have managed to open a few different can of worms.

How did we get here?

Andrew Wenger has been attempting to explain things about language to anyone who will listen for 25 years. If you would like to join a class to improve your level of the spoken language, why not give it a try? It will certainly not be lectures about obscure points of grammar, but you will be given the opportunity to chat, with no judgement about how many mistakes you might make. SameSky groups are friendly and welcoming, and there is an atmosphere of “it’s fine to make mistakes” – we all learn from each other’s!

Please contact me here if you would like to find out more about joining a group. We run classes to cater for people at all different levels of their language-learning journey, in French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Japanese and other languages are also available upon request.

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