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Guest post by Luke Rudge

 

If you’ve ever learned a language, or are in the process of doing so, then chances are that you’ve been subject to learning the perils of a little thing known as grammatical gender. Native speakers of a gendered language make it look easy, but for non-native learners, especially if English is your Mother Tongue, then the challenge begins! You are dropped into the middle of a sea without any apparent rules, until you reach a land where everything and anything seems to come with a set of XX or XY chromosomes.

Stay strong! It is possible to conquer the apparent mountain of mass confusion that is grammatical gender, and this post aims to give you a little more clarity as to why this seeming inconvenience will become invaluable in your language-learning endeavors!

 

So what exactly are we dealing with?

Grammatical gender aims to classify certain aspects of a language into distinct groups, such as the French male/female dichotomy that is  ‘masculin’ and ‘féminin’ respectively. Grammatical gender usually affects the nouns of a language, but it can also cause other parts of speech to change.

 

Gendered words in English

We don’t really see this in English, except for certain nouns such as waiter and waitress, where the suffixes of these words have been inflected to denote natural gender. In other words, it’s easy to tell if the actor you’re speaking to is male while his actress counterpart is female. However, can we still create a similar distinction with doctor, builder and artist? This is where we can use our pronouns to help indicate gender: he and she; him and her; his and hers.

As for the distinctions of genders goes – both natural and grammatical – that’s about it for English.

 

Now let’s compare this to German

German has all of the above including not two but three grammatical genders, translated as masculine, feminine and neuter. For the German language learners and speakers out there who are reading, you are probably aware that there are no concrete rules as to which noun is assigned which gender and just to throw an additional spanner in the works, natural gender doesn’t always match grammatical gender. So if we take the example of ‘the sea’ in German, which has no biological gender, we can see that it can be referred to in three ways, each one with a different grammatical gender identifiable by their article:

  • Der Ozean (masculine)
  • Die See (feminine)
  • Das Meer (neuter)

 

So, why do we have grammatical gender?

You may be thinking (and certainly wouldn’t be alone in doing so!) that these genders are just there to confuse; a remnant of an inefficient older part of language that has, somehow, remained in tact long enough to cause you headaches on your pathway to fluency. In fact, one of the most common questions I am asked while teaching languages goes something like this: “Why do they have le and la in French whereas we only have the in English?”

And it’s a very good question; why do we need this classification? English speakers seem to get along fine with a minimal grammatical gender system, so why do other languages have to go and make it all so complex?

Out of the many thousands of languages that are in use across the world, noun classifications such as grammatical gender are going to play a part.  To name a few reasons why these classifications exist, we can consider:

  • Their historic context – some languages have evolved in such a way that grammatical gender is as important to them as the distinctions between there, their and they’re are to us in English. Nevertheless, some languages do evolve to a point where grammatical gender all but disappears, such is the case from Old English to Modern English
  • The concept of animacy – perhaps in a more poetic sense, but giving an object a gender could also give some sort of life to objects, concepts or abstractions. Think about it… how many times have you heard someone refer to their vehicle as a “she,” despite having nothing biologically female to attribute to said vehicle?
  • Their assistance in the disambiguation of situations and making utterances easier to understand…

Yes, easier! Grammatical gender can clear up ambiguity very quickly.

 

Grammatical gender in action

To exemplify this, take a look at this quote:

“Did you find my mascara and my nail file? It’s black.”

Okay, so these two sentences won’t be winning me any awards in creative writing any time soon, but they serve to prove a point. This is a perfectly acceptable, grammatically correct utterance in the English language, yet it leaves us with a momentary conundrum – which is black: the mascara or the nail file? It’s impossible to tell given just this information. The logical step would be to ask a quick follow-up question to clarify which object the speaker is referring to, but we can see here that there are no gender markings on the nouns mascara, nail fail, or the pronoun it.

Let’s now translate this into French:

“As-tu trouvé mon mascara et ma lime à ongles? Il est noir.”

We have now created a situation where we know exactly what is going on. In this case, we have both the ‘masculin’ and ‘féminin’ genders visible by the use of mon  and ma respectively, and the English pronoun it has turned into the French masculine pronoun il. We can match up mon with il, thus indicating that it is the mascara that is referred to as black and that the nail file is not being referenced at all.

We could also flip the gender of the pronoun to produce:

“As-tu trouvé mon mascara et ma lime à ongles? Elle est noire.”

Can you see how elle has caused a shift in meaning, and that we’re now referring to the nail file? Did you also spot that the adjective noire has gained the additional ‘e’ at the end? This is known as agreement, and is another grammatical aspect of many languages that occurs with regards to gender, number, animacy, tense… I could go on, but I’ll save that for another blog!

 

So how can you remember what is masculine, feminine, neuter, etc.?

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix or concrete way of telling for most languages. But don’t panic; each language has little hints to guide you along the way, for instance:

  • Most Spanish nouns ending in -ez are feminine
  • Most French nouns ending in -isme are masculine
  • Most Russian words ending in -o or -e are neuter

 

You’ve probably guessed by this short list – and if you remember the English nouns that inflect for gender – that most indicators will be hidden in the suffixes of the nouns. A quick search online will give you a myriad of resources on your language of choice and how grammatical gender works in that language, and learning real-time with native speakers of the language will prove invaluable for mastering this skill. Remember, too, that even the most fluent of speakers will be occasionally caught out by an incorrect gender attribution! Nevertheless, it all comes down to one thing:

Practice.

The more you practice using a language, the more you’ll get used to its tricks and idiosyncrasies. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but do be prepared to learn from them. If you cannot immediately remember the gender of a noun, try putting it into a sentence – a trained ear will let your instincts know that it’s une table, not un table.

Whether you’re free from the world of grammatical gender – such as in Afrikaans – or up to your eyeballs in noun classifications – such as the seven different varieties in Polish – remember to keep your chin up when it comes to grammar such as this. It may seem like a struggle at first, but it won’t be long until you can tell your le from your la and your das from your der. Your fluency will soar, and so will your confidence!

 

 

 

 

headshotAbout Luke Rudge

Luke is a linguistics graduate and Teacher of Languages in Bristol, UK. His interests range from the inner-workings of languages to the greater aspects of different cultures. He can also be found over at his blog: colourlessgreenlinguistics.wordpress.com