Or, The Gender of Things, People, Animals, Places and Ideas in Spanish – Part 1
– Vertigo makes me dizzy – a student said.
– Of course it does, that’s what it means – another replied.
– No, I mean my head spins … why are “los días” (“the days”) in Spanish, masculine? But come “las tardes y las noches” (“the afternoons and the evenings”), they are feminine? Similarly … “vertigo” … the word “el vertigo”, is masculine in Spanish. Why does the word “vértigo” need a gender?
For those who are used to speaking in neutral terms it will be a “strange novelty” that things, people, animals and ideas in Spanish are gender specific.
The gender of nouns in Spanish
Spanish nouns, that is these words we use, for example, to name things, people, animals, places or ideas have gender, such as the words “dia”, “noche” and “vertigo”, are either feminine or masculine, but not neutral. There are no neutral Spanish nouns.
This is the result of the idea that these words are feminine or masculine – although, in many cases, the gender element of these words has nothing to do with the actual meaning of it.
Spanish speakers master it at a very early age and any Spanish language student will master this with a bit of practice and dedication.
Why is it relevant to know the gender of a noun in Spanish?
Because of all the elements that relate to the noun in a sentence, for example:
– the adjectives (words that describe a noun), such as: “casa bonita“ (nice house), “día soleado“ (sunny day); and
– the articles (words we use to indicate a noun); la casa bonita (the nice house), “el día soleado” (the sunny day);
must have the same gender as the noun. This is known as “atracción genérica”, generic attraction.
In Spanish the definite articles are “la” and “el”, feminine and masculine singular respectively; and “las” and “los”, feminine and masculine plural. In English it is what we know as “the”.
la casa bonita / las casas bonitas
el día soleado / los días soleados
I’d like to advise Spanish language students to avoid, when possible, learning words from lists and to favour communicational context. When doing this attention should be given, at a very early stage of learning Spanish, not only to the noun, for example; “niña” but also to the article next to it “la niña”, when learning new vocabulary.
Paying attention and learning nouns, with their respective articles, will help students to memorise the gender of nouns in a more effective way.
Generally, “nouns” ending with the letter “a” are feminine and the ones ending with the letter “o” are masculine.
la niña niño
las niñas los niños
la taza (the cup) el vaso (the glass)
las tazas los vasos
la perra el perro
las perras los perros
la idea (the idea) el pensamiento (the thought)
Now, some exceptions … or special rules:
a) Some masculine nouns end in “a”
el clima (the weather) el día el problema (the problem)
b) Some feminine nouns end in “o”
la radio (the radio)
la moto (the motorbike)
la foto (the photograph)
c) The nouns ending in “aje” are generally masculine
el masaje (the massage)
d) The nouns ending in “ción” y ”sión” are generally feminine
la television (the television)
la canción (the song)
la prisión (the prison)
e) Be aware of the “gender trap”
We may associate certain words with a particular gender but these words do not conform to the stereotype:
La corbata (the tie)
El maquillaje (the cosmetic)
f) When there is a mix of gender in a group, use the masculine plural
In Spanish the masculine plural is used to describe any group with a male element in it. For example, parents could refer to a daughter as “hija” and to a son as “hijo”, but when referring to all of them: two daughters and a son, they will use “hijos”, the plural of son. This is the case regardless of the ratio of the male to female gender.
In doing this the female aspect of the group gets overridden. Similar use occurs when referring to a male-female couple:
“mis padres” (my parents) refers to: “mi madre” and “mi padre”. The masculine form is the default in these cases.
What do you think?
Is the prevalence of masculine gender in Spanish a symptom of sexism in the language? Is the language a reflection of the culture or viceversa?
To be continued…