What gender is the sea?
In the masterful novel The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway doesn’t shy away from addressing how the Spanish language spoken by his fictional creations might mean that they see the world around them in a different light than the English-speaking author (and most of the readers of the original, untranslated work) would.
The possibilities which looking at the world through a different language can open up are immediately apparent in the book’s title. “The Old Man” has a quite clear gender – masculine – but what about “the Sea?” The boats which travel the sea are usually feminine for English speakers, and the cities that they dock in often are too. The sea, on the other hand, isn’t usually attributed a gender in the English language – we might say that the question is moot.
In Spanish, on the other hand, the question of gender is omnipresent. The sea – el mar – is masculine, meaning that the title could be perceived as a conjunction of two masculine nouns – The Old Man and El Mar. However, it is likely that Hemingway did not want his novel to be about a relationship between two masculine entities, and to this end he inserts a substantial internal soliloquy in the mind of Santiago, the Old Man:
“He always thought of the sea as ‘la mar’ which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her. Sometimes those who love her say bad things of her but they are always said as though she were a woman. Some of the younger fishermen, those who used buoys as floats for their lines and had motorboats, bought when the shark livers had brought much money, spoke of her as ‘el mar’ which is masculine.They spoke of her as a contestant or a place or even an enemy. But the old man always thought of her as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them. The moon affects her as it does a woman, he thought.”
Through this bit of the text Hemingway helps to correct the way in which readers receive his novel, but he also illuminates us as to the possibilities which the Spanish language offers. Just by changing the article which precedes mar, a speaker of Spanish can indicate a feminine or a masculine perception of the sea.
Spanish has a number of “ambiguous” nouns whose gender may depend on desired connotation, usage, or regional differences. The Catalan language demonstrates the same phenomenon, and allows for both el mar and la mar. In Italian (including all Italian dialects) and Portuguese, the sea is strictly masculine: il mare (Sicilian: u mari, Venetian: el mar, Neapolitan: ‘o mare, Sardinian: su mari, Corsican: u mare) and o mar (the same for Galician); however in French and Romanian it is feminine: la mer and la mare.
What gender is the sea in your mind?