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?

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.