Masculine and feminine (part 2)
The idea of ‘gender’ in the Spanish language is something most students have to come to terms with quite early on in their learning. The idea that a chair can be ‘female’ and a car ‘male’ usually gives rise to a few jovial remarks, followed by general incomprehension as to why such female related objects as ‘bolso’ (handbag) and ‘vestido’ (dress) should be masculine, although for some reason no one ever worries that ‘camisa’ (shirt) and ‘corbata’ (tie) are feminine. There is possibly some strange psychological reason why we question some words and not others, but I have no idea what it is. In any case, I always insist on making sure that people use the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rather than ‘male’ and ‘female’, and also explain that this gender distinction belongs to the words themselves, and not what they represent. Sometimes I wish they were called ‘apples’ and ‘pears’ or ‘giraffes’ and ‘elephants’, but at some point in the development of the language, the distinction was made in terms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’, and whilst this is meaningful when applied to male and female people and animals, it is really arbitrary when referring to anything else.
The next question that arises is whether there is any way of knowing whether a word is masculine or feminine. As usual, the answer is not conclusive. There are certain characteristics which can indicate which gender a word is, but there are exceptions, and also many words that give us no indication whatsoever. The bestknown indicator is the characteristic ‘o’ ending for masculine and ‘a’ ending for feminine words. There are some notable and very common exceptions, such as ‘la mano’, ‘la radio’, ‘el sofá’ ‘el planeta’ and so on. Then there are many words that have other endings which do not indicate gender in any way. Here are just two examples out of thousands: ‘reloj’ (clock) and ‘pared’ (internal wall). You cannot tell by looking which one is which! In fact the word ‘reloj’ is masculine – ‘el reloj’ (the clock) and ‘pared’ is feminine ‘la pared’ (the wall). We just have to learn these differences gradually, and not worry about getting them all mixed up at first.
Having said that, there are some very common endings that are always feminine (I’m very wary of using the word ‘always’, but in this case I have never come across any exceptions). These are ‘– ción, -sión and –xión’ (la estación, la televisión, la conexión), and also the ‘– dad’ endings (la comunidad, la universidad, la felicidad). On the other side you have the ‘ema’ endings (el dilema, el problema, el tema) and a few other bits and pieces. Apart from that, you are more or less on your own.
I’ve always found the gender issue a little strange when it comes to people. We have the usual clear distinctions (el niño – the boy, la niña – the girl), but some people words are always feminine irrespective of the gender of who they refer to. Two common examples of this are ‘la víctima’ and ‘la persona’. We can say things like: ‘Mi hermano Pedro es una persona muy simpática’, and ‘la víctima era un hombre de 55 años’. These sentences sound perfectly normal in Spanish, but take a bit of getting used to for us.
When it comes to job words, there is a certain amount of argument and variation. This has a lot to do with the fact that for many years in Spain professional jobs where exclusively in the hands of men, so it was not necessary for them to have feminine forms. A good example is the word for ‘doctor’ which would normally be ‘el médico’, but has evolved to ‘la médico’, and now ‘la médica’, although not everyone accepts this final form. Other cases where masculine job words have been adapted to the times are: ‘juez’ (male judge) ‘jueza’ female judge, ‘presidente’ (male president) ‘presidenta’ (female president). Some jobs do not alter their endings in any circumstances, for example: ‘el piloto, la piloto’ (pilot) and more surprisingly ‘el modelo, la modelo’ (model).
Now here’s a thought to finish off with – is the word ‘agua’ masculine or feminine? The answer and a riveting discussion on the matter to follow next week.