Linguistic Gender Crossing

Cross Gender

Last week we discussed the rhetorical figure of chiasmus in detail; however, seeing as the somewhat complicated-sounding term means nothing more than a “crossing” (like the shape of the Greek letter chi), it is often used as well to describe what happens when linguistic genders get crossed.

For those with an interest in language, linguistic gender crossing is every bit as titillating as cross dressing and sex changes. The first type of gender crossing is called chiastic agreement, a special type of agreement between a noun and its qualifiers. A qualifier is any word which specifies characteristics of a noun, such as adjectives, adverbs and possessives. So in the noun phrase “seven new red cars”, new and red are both qualifiers. The number seven, on the other hand, is a quantifier. Agreement between a noun and its qualifiers means that if a noun is feminine and singular, its qualifiers will be feminine and singular as well. So in Spanish we have “siete nuevos coches rojos” but “siete nuevas bicicletas rojas”; coches (car) is masculine and plural, so “new” and “red” are nuevos and rojos, while the feminine bicicletas are accompanied by nuevas and rojas.

Notice that the quantifier – siete – is invariable. Obviously the number seven will always be plural, but, as with all quantifiers in Spanish and most other languages, it has no gender. This is not the case in Arabic, where quantifiers in fact express agreement with the noun which they enumerate; i.e. they will be feminine if the noun is feminine and masculine if it is masculine.

However, the numbers 3 to 10 in Arabic show chiastic agreement, which means that the genders are swapped. So in the Quranic verse في ستة أيام (God created the world in 6 days), the masculine plural noun أيام (days) is qualified by the feminine number ستة (six). If the period had been six years we would have seen six written as ست, which is its masculine version, in chiastic agreement with the feminine word عام (year). All other numbers show normal, homogender agreement.

Although numbers are genderless quantifiers in most other languages, there is one Romance language in which the gender of numerical quantities can be slightly confusing. In Italian, on top of the difficulty of identifying the gender of a noun, one must also learn to recognize those nouns which undergo the equivalent of a sex change when they pass from the singular to the plural.

Two of the words which change gender when pluralized refer to numerical quantities: the masculine singular nouns il centinaio (a group of one hundred) and il migliaio (a group of one thousand) become the feminine plurals le centinaia and le miglia.

Many of the Italian nouns which undergo a similar gender change refer to parts of the body; we have il braccio (the arm, m.) but le braccia (the arms, f.), il ginocchio (the knee, m.) but le ginocchia (the knees, f.), il labbro (the lip, m.) but le labbra (the lips, f.), and l’orecchio (the ear, m.) but le orecchie (the ears, f.). Head, shoulders, knees and toes (testa, spalle, ginocchia e piedi) is all that more difficult to remember in Italian.

All of this probably sounds confusing – nice-looking rules inevitably have exceptions. Remember – grammar, in our own language as well as foreign languages, is a descriptive, not a prescriptive science. To learn to speak Arabic and Italian correctly you not only have to learn your genders; you have to learn when to cross them!

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