Gender in the Romance Languages

man and woman gender

Last week we saw how Ernest Hemingway addressed the interpretative possibilities of linguistic gender in his seminal novel The Old Man and the Sea. As Hemingway showed, identifying the gender of nouns is not always a straightforward task in Spanish, and the same can be said for the other Romance languages as well.

In most Romance languages the masculine or feminine gender of a noun may be denoted by the article which precedes it, be it the definite article (“the sea” may be el mar or la mar) or the indefinite article (“a cat” may be un gato or una gata). In Romanian the definite article is added at the end of the word, so while “a man” is un om and “a woman” is o femeie, “the man” is omul, and “the woman” is femeia. Considering that Romanian also has a neuter gender, it should be clear that its grammar is remarkably different from that of its Western cousins. We’ll limit today’s discussion to Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian.

A further distinction can be made between Spanish, Portuguese and Italian on the one hand and French on the other. Gender is often reflected in the ending of the noun, as shown in the example of the cat (el gato, la gata). Spanish, Italian and Portuguese frequently use -o for masculine nouns and -a for feminine nouns; however there are many exceptions to this paradigm. Nouns of Greek origin which end in -ma or -ta are masculine; so system is el sistema in Spanish and planet is o planeta in Portuguese. Some other Greek nouns ending in -a are masculine as well. It is often confusing to visitors to Italy to find men named Andrea, Luca, and Nicola; however, these names derive from the historical Greek names Ανδρεας (Andreas), Λουκάς (Loukas), and Νικολαος (Nikolaos). “The hand” is feminine in all three languages (la mano in Spanish and Italian and a mão in Portuguese) and many other Portuguese words which end in -ão are feminine, such as a nação (the nation).

It is therefore impossible to establish the gender of a noun using a simple -o vs. -a criterion, especially considering that there are many nouns which end in consonants or in other vowels: -e can indicate a masculine noun such as il cuore (heart) or a feminine one such la decisione (decision) in Italian. “Crisis” – another word of Greek origin – is feminine across the board despite the fact that it ends with a different letter in each of the three languages: a crise in Portuguse, la crisi in Italian, and la crisis in Spanish.

“The crisis” is la crise In French, falling into the typical French paradigm wherein masculine nouns end in a consonant while feminine nouns end in -e. Thus a male cat is le chat while a female one is la chatte; however exceptions – such as la mer and l’homme – abound.

Gender, therefore, is a fundamental characteristic of a noun which may or may not be deducible from the noun’s ending; it is more properly understood through an etymological study of a word’s origin. As shown, the gender of nouns in Greek has often dictated their gender in the modern Romance languages; Latin has had an even greater influence. The nouns “hand” and “nation” are feminine in all of the Romance languages because the Latin nouns manus and natio are feminine.

Language is much more than a cold study of letters on a paper; it is an organic complex which has resulted from millennia of culture and history. The Old Man and the Sea shows us how gender opens up expressive possibilities. The brief review of nouns that we’ve gone through today should show how the student of a modern language can benefit from learning about the history behind the language he or she is studying.

Having Problems Pronouncing ‘th’?

The “th” sound is one of the most distinctive of the English language. For many foreigners it is also one of the most difficult- “fire ze cigarettes missiles!” declared the Frenchman in the viral video “End of Ze World?” The reason that pronouncing the definite article is ornery for most French speakers is that the “th” sound simply does not exist in the French language. Although the “z”, “d”, or “f” sounds used by non-English speakers from across the globe may be close approximations of “th”, “zese”, “dose”, and “fis” will always sound slightly foreign to the English ear.

Like all sounds, the production of “th” can be reduced to a physical process. It is made by sticking the tongue slightly beyond the upper front teeth and pushing air through the space. When we activate our vocal cords during production of this sound we call it “voiced”; if they remain inactive it is “unvoiced.” If you want to check if you are making a voiced or an unvoiced sound simply place your hand on your throat- vibration indicates vocal cord activity.

Although they are designated the same way in written language, voiced and unvoiced “th” are distinctive sounds; the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) refers to them as ð and θ, respectively. The second symbol will be familiar to many people from high-school trigonometry courses; although it does not represent an angle here but rather the Greek letter “theta.” In fact, the Greek language possesses the unvoiced “th” sound and uses it in words such as θεωρία (theory).

Those who have completed more advanced mathematical studies may have seen the other “th” symbol as well; ð is sometimes used in partial derivatives, although this operation is more commonly represented by the lower-case Greek “delta” δ. In fact while in Ancient Greek δ represented a “d” sound, in the modern version of the language it is pronounced as the voiced “th” ð sound– such as in Δαίδαλος (Daedalus).

However unlike θ, ð comes to us not from the balmy blue waters of the Aegean but from the icy North Sea. In the Icelandic language the letter is known as “Eð” and is used in words such as bróðir (brother). In Faroese the symbol appears for more etymological reasons and actually indicates a glide between two vowels- in the expression góðan morgun (good morning) the ð simply indicates a transition sound between the “o” and the “a”, in this case with the semi-vowel “w.” ð can therefore be considered a type of “false friend” in the Faroese language, which does not have the voiced “th” sound. In fact, most of the Northern Germanic languages no longer have the ð (aside from Icelandic, the other exception is the Elfdalian dialect of Swedish); the symbol was eventually replaced by the letter “d” and the “th” sound was lost, except for in Danish.

The ð was a letter in Old English as well. The letter which the Anglo-Saxons referred to as ðæt survived in written Old English until around 1300. Another symbol- þ, known as “thorn”- was used interchangeably with ð in Old English texts and survived somewhat longer. It eventually morphed shape to look something like a Y, leading to signs such as “Ye Olde”, which really should be pronounced “The Old.”

The adoption of printing presses limited to Latin characters was probably a major reason behind the disappearance of þ from the English alphabet (although it continues to be used in Icelandic to represent θ), but the sounds which it denoted have continued to be an important part of the language. They are also fairly unique; few major languages use the θ and ð sounds. The Arabic language is an exception; it uses both ð and θ- written as ﺫ and ﺙ, respectively.

Additionally, although the “th” sounds do not officially exist in Spanish or Portuguese, many speakers use them anyway in words such as “Sevilla”- a habit that is often mistaken for a lisp. Although the Spanish “lisp” is sometimes the butt of jokes, it certainly comes in handy in making a command such as “fire the missiles!” No matter how it is written- θ, ð, þ, Y, ﺙ, ﺫ, or s- pronouncing the “th” sound correctly is an imperative part of learning to properly speak English.

Know Your Vowels

Did you know that the English language has at least 15 vowels? The pure vowels in English, technically known as monophthongs (from the Greek mónos “single” and phthóngos “sound”) are:

/iː/, /ı/, /ε/, /æ/, /ɜ:/, /ə/, /Λ/, /u:/, /ɔ:/, /ɑ:/, /ʊ/, /ɒ/, /a/, /oː/, /e/

These strange-looking symbols which come from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) are more precise than the A, E, I, O and U (and sometimes Y and W) which we use in written English. In fact the five written vowels themselves can be transcribed (in their “long” form) with IPA symbols as:

/eɪ/, /iː/, /aɪ/, /oʊ/, and /ju:/

As can be seen, the letter E is the only real pure vowel (the two dots after the “i” mean that it is long); the others are combinations of multiple sounds. All syllables and words in English- or any other language- are built up of combinations of vowels with consonants and with other vowels. This makes a working knowledge of phonetic symbols a great boon for two categories of people- those who are learning a foreign language and those who are teaching their language to foreigners.

Imagine teaching the word “stood” to a Spanish-only speaker. You are trying to get him to say /stʊd/ but what comes out is /stu:d/- which usually corresponds to the written word “stewed.” The smart ESL teacher will realize that her student is having a problem because the Spanish language only has 5 monophthongs:

/a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/

The /ʊ/ – a sound which we use in words like “good”, “should”, and “hook”- is just not part of a Spanish speaker’s repertoire. Likewise, an English-only speaker learning Spanish will find difficulty in pronouncing the Spanish “o”, which we usually read as a diphthong, a combination of two monophthongs. In the United States “o” is generally /oʊ/ while in England it is /əʊ/. We might consider ourselves fortunate if we’re from Minnesota, where “o” is said in the same way as it is in Spanish; the state that is /mɪnɨˈstə/ for most of us is /mɪnɨˈsotə/ for the natives.

The Italian language is phonetically very similar to Spanish; however it has two extra vowels- /ε/ and /ɔ/- which we refer to as “short E” and “short O”. These vowels give the Italian-speaker a significant aid in learning English as they are used in many words, such as bed (/bεd/) and cot (/cɔt/). The Italian-speaker from Naples has an additional advantage, as her dialect contains the vowel /ə/ as well. This vowel, also known as the “schwa”, is the most common vowel sound of all in the English language. It is generally used in unstressed syllables, such as in the second syllable of “sofa” /`soʊfə/ or in the definite article “the” whenever it appears before a consonant.

English speakers find that the tables are turned when they are learning a vowel-rich language such as German, which has 17 pure vowel sounds, including the distinctive /ø/ sound, which appears in such common expressions as dankeschön (thank you very much).

Being aware that the language you are studying has not only different grammar and vocabulary, but a different set of sounds as well can help accelerate the learning process. Foreign language teachers and students are only doing themselves a favor by getting to know the symbols of the IPA.