Gender issues (with nouns)
Masculine or Feminine (or Neuter)?
This can be one of the most frustrating things for beginner to intermediate learners; the added information they have to learn of associating a gender with each word. Not only can it seem pointless to assign a gender to inanimate sexless objects (especially for native English speakers who aren’t used to this), but it can be confusing! Mark Twain amusingly put it (on German):
“A person’s mouth, neck, bosom, elbows, fingers, nails, feet, and body are of the male sex, and his head is male or neuter according to the word selected to signify it, and not according to the sex of the individual who wears it! A person’s nose, lips, shoulders, breast, hands, and toes are of the female sex; and his hair, ears, eyes, chin, legs, knees, heart, and conscience haven’t any sex at all…
Now, by the above dissection, the reader will see that in Germany a man may think he is a man, but when he comes to look into the matter closely, he is bound to have his doubts; he finds that in sober truth he is a most ridiculous mixture; and if he ends by trying to comfort himself with the thought that he can at least depend on a third of this mess as being manly and masculine, the humiliating second thought will quickly remind him that in this respect he is no better off than any woman or cow in the land.”
How are you supposed to learn all of these seemingly random associations? And most importantly, why are languages so random in assigning gender? It almost seems like the “creator” of each language blind-folded himself, span around in circles to make himself dizzy and pointed at random objects with someone noting what sex to assign to them…
It had been suggested to me that I just simply learn the gender with each noun that I learn; sure(!) There are only anywhere up to a million words in a language – I’ll just imagine little girly dresses on keys or paper with bulging manly muscles. Or just learn the word with its article (el/la, le/la, der/die/das etc.) and repeat it over in your head thousands of times until it “sinks in”. I don’t think so.
I was struggling with this concept when I first started learning languages, but then something clicked for me (as it does for most other learners, and I hope this post helps beginner learners); it’s not the OBJECTS that have the gender, it’s the WORDS!
Words have gender, not objects
This realization makes a world of difference. The conceptual one is the most important one, since it’s confusing to talk about a male victim in Latin languages, but be obliged to assign feminine articles and adjectives. The word doesn’t care what gender the object it describes actually is. The word victim (la victima/victime in Spanish/French for example) is feminine. The word coche (in Spanish) is masculine and happens to describe a car.
This helps a lot in also figuring out why a word is a certain gender. If you try to imagine why an object is masculine or feminine you will need crazy jumps of logic indeed! But a word can easily be masculine or feminine and have nothing to do with actual sexual gender, or necessarily being “manly” or “girly”. These are just convenient titles for different categories, and may as well be yin and yang or positive and negative. Other than actually being associated with people of that gender (like father, sister, girlfriend), these gender associations are useless.