Mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine (part 2)

Costa Blanca News (South Edition) - - Basic Spanish -

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.

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