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.


What Gender Is The Sea?

sea waves sunrise

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?

The Bilingual U.S. – Portuguese Cambridge, MA

Just across the river from Boston, the City of Cambridge boasts 100,000 inhabitants, two of the most important universities in the world (Harvard and MIT), and a plethora of high-tech companies in a quickly growing modern industrial zone. The neighborhoods behind the evolving face of the industrial quarter and far from the beautiful views of the Boston skyline seem far removed from the world-wide academic and technological fame of the city, and yet these neighborhoods have an international character of their own. A stroll down Cambridge Street, which runs along the backside of the city from Lechmere by the locks of the Charles River to the heart of the city’s pomp in Harvard Square, passes through a living piece of Portuguese-American history.

At the beginning of its journey, Cambridge Street climbs up a small knoll which was originally an island and is the heart of the old neighborhood with enumerated streets known as East Cambridge.  At number 292 Cambridge Street on the top of the hill, sits the headquarters of the East Cambridge Savings Bank, headed by Gilda Nogueira, native of the Portuguese Azore Islands and client of the bank since the days that she grew up here.  The bank provides complete services in Portuguese to its clientele.

Further down the street at number 575, the Filarmonica Santo Antonio has been promoting Portuguese music for 35 years. Members of the Filarmonica are prominent participants in the Day of Portugal Parade which starts in Portuguese Square in neighboring Somerville before running down Cambridge Street to finish at the corner of Cardinal Medeiros Avenue in East Cambridge at St. Anthony Church. St. Anthony Church offers masses in both English and Portuguese.

The railroad tracks mark the official boundary of the East Cambridge neighborhood but do not however put a boundary on the local Portuguese culture.  Ramos Snack Bar, which sits at number 691 on the edge of the tracks, serves cultural cuisine like their bife a casa with the nonchalance of a diner. Further up at number 1200, the Casa Portugal offers the full restaurant experience with specialties like Bacalhau. In between the restaurant and the diner, the Sunset Cafe at number 891 prides itself on serving up Portuguese-American food and hospitality, and the Portugalia Restaurante at number 723 focuses on specialties from Northern Portugal.

For those who want to cook at home, peixe e mariscos (fish and seafood) in the tradition of the great sea-faring population are on sale at the Fernandes Fish Market at number 1097. The Portuguese love to accompany their fish with vinho verde (literally, “green wine”), to be found in the surrounding liquor stores and in places like Albert’s Market ( number 638) along with a wide variety of other transoceanic products such as delicious salty manteiga (butter) direct from the Azores. If exaggerated enjoyment of these culinary delights leads to a pança (belly) problem, area residents can work it off at the Clube Desportivo Faialense at number 1121.

On the academic side of things, Cambridge Street is also home to centers for the study and diffusion of the Portuguese language such as the Manuel Rogers, Sr. Center for Portuguese Culture and Studies (part of the Cambridge public library system) at number 826 and the Massachusetts Alliance of Portuguese Speakers at number 1046.

In the shadow of the ivory towers and modern high-rises of the city of Cambridge lies a quiet back-street of low, simple buildings which may not be as famous as those to be found in Harvard Square- but by no means are they less interesting!