Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

If there’s one thing that really vexes native English speakers when embarking on learning a second language, then it’s the curious feature of grammatical gender. The concept that nouns can be feminine, masculine or neuter is most baffling to them. English is one of the few Indo-European languages which do not have gendered nouns. Or, rather, it no longer has them.

Since English is the haughty offspring of an ancient variant of German, it once boasted three genders, just like its parent. But sometime after the Norman conquest, the genders bit the dust. German and French genders were clearly no love match and battled it out until total annihilation.

In my observation, the biggest hurdle for native English speakers is not the existence of grammatical gender per se, but all the mental energy they waste in their futile attempts to find logic in it. So, once and for all: THERE. IS. NO. LOGIC. It’s just like the weather. Or taxes. Or what happens to pairs of socks in the laundry.

It would probably be a bit harsh to imply that native English speakers are the only numpties in this regard. I have witnessed several curious reactions when speakers of a gendered language are confronted, for the first time, with another language whose genders don’t match theirs. I remember one instance, in a Portuguese class a few years ago, when my Spanish classmate, a builder in his early fifties about to start a job in Brazil, was dumbfounded by the discovery that a Portuguese ballpoint pen (caneta) was FEMININE, when, to his mind, pens (bolígrafo in Spanish) were MASCULINE.

“Look, Pablo,” I said, “if it ain’t got a dick or a cunt, how do you know what sex something is?!” (Note to aghast US readers: In Spain, such evocative vocab does not usually cause affront*)

But even this seemingly convincing line of argument has to be approached with extreme caution: In German, for instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.

The German word for “girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.

And, returning to our colourful vocab once more, it gets even more paradoxical: In Spanish, for example, the aforementioned naughty words for male and female genitalia are feminine and masculine, respectively, not the other way around, as you might expect.

In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.

Taking the genders of nouns in one’s native language to be universal brings some interesting problems. A Spanish friend of mine told me once that he had encountered some toilets in a German restaurant labelled not with the internationally recognised stick man and woman, but instead with a sun and a moon. In German, the sun (die Sonne) is feminine, while the moon (der Mond) is masculine. In Spanish (and all other Romance languages, I believe) it happens to be the other way around. I leave it to you to imagine the rest of the anecdote…

As a native German speaker, the concept of gendered nouns gives me no trouble, but I am nevertheless experiencing a maddening – and unexpected! – predicament.

I speak Spanish fairly well by now and know the genders of most nouns. I cannot, however, for the life of me, get my adjectives and pronouns to consistently agree with my nouns. This is not so much of an issue when the adjective either immediately precedes or follows the noun: una chica gorda, un buen hombre, etc. easy peasy.

But if the adjective or pronoun appear in a different part of the sentence at some distance from noun they refer to, or in another sentence altogether, I find that my brain will often revert to the GERMAN gender rather than the Spanish one, because that’s how genders were first installed on my hard drive.

On some primal level, a table will always be masculine to me rather than feminine as in Romance languages , and, hence, it takes an immense amount of concentration to maintain gender agreement in my Spanish/Portuguese/French sentences. When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.

Messing up difficult grammatical constructions and features, such as the subjunctive, is one thing, but coming to terms with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to get something as basic as adjective-noun gender agreement down to a pat, is, quite frankly, a crippling blow. Just how am I going to get over it?!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ah yes… something like this sure dulls the pain 🙂

[*For those interested in colloquial language, you may enjoy reading about how the most worstest of bad words in the English language is part of everyday parlance in Spain: Language Matters: C-Words of Difference]

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

Advertisements

83 thoughts on “Language Matters: Gender Benders On The Rampage

  1. expatlingo

    Don’t think Dutch has gender either … unless I just completely missed the boat on that one. They do have “de” words and “het” words which is a little bit the same in terms of being nonsensical. Lovely to be back in the genderless, conjugation-less world of Chinese!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  2. freebutfun

    Finnish has no gender either, and therefore interpreting from Finnish into German is (was) often too much of a guessing game to be fun :). The most annoying thing in interpreting from German into any of my languages was that the verb is at the end of a sentence, and in my languages I needed a verb in the beginning. So, you know how sometimes the German sentences can be looooooong, and when interpreting simultaneously you drop too far behind if you wait till the end before starting to talk so again there is a bit of guessing and correction going on… Conclusion: so much easier to work with people with mental disorders, at least you can just ask what’s up ;).

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I didn’t know that about Finnish!
      (P.S. The German verb *sometimes* comes at the end, in certain subordinate clauses. In most sentences, it’s not actually at the end. This verb-always-at-the-end myth is on a par with Japanese food consisting only of raw fish 😉 I imagine that separable verbs are a nightmare, since the separable part can often slip to the end and “pose” as a preposition. Unless you’re a native speaker and you KNOW what’s coming, this must be really tricky.

      Like

      Reply
      1. freebutfun

        It is ALWAYS at the end when you need ASAP! : D But to be exact, you are right, of course. I’m not German so I tend to exaggerate based on my feelings instead of sticking strictly to grammar rules 😉

        Like

  3. Trippmadam

    “When I’m tired or my attention slips for just a few seconds, my brain will go straight to its native-language default setting – how could it be any other way? Since I’m pedantic to the extreme conscientious in my linguistic exploits, I find this insanely frustrating.” Glad that I am not the only one who has this problem when speaking Spanish. It is not so bad when I am writing.

    About the sun/moon toilets: I might have made the same mistake. Despite being a German native speaker, due to family history and living conditions I was exposed to romance languages from an early age. Although I will obviously say “der Mond” at the same time I might be thinking of the moon (la luna, la lune) as a female. My landlandy in Granada once explained to me she was very devoted to “La Muerte” (Death). To make sure I understood whom she was referring to she pointed to a crucifix attached to her kitchen wall. A few days later I found out that this particular image of Jesus Christ was called “Jesús de la Buena Muerte” (Jesus of the Good Death? – I always find it difficult to translate the names of the Spanish saints and devotional images.)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. Winter Eve

    Your posts are really informative and I love reading them, though some of the things do go beyond me. Still, I enjoy the description of diverse cultures and everything else. Mouthwatering cake by the way. Did you make it yourself?

    Like

    Reply
      1. Anna

        In the olden days (pre-Revolution), the proper way to say coffee in Russian was “kofij”, with the final sound as a “y” in “may.” Not a typical ending for a noun, but very common for masculine adjective (krepkij/strong, sinij/blue, krasivyj/beautiful etc) –> masculine. This pronunciation has since become antiquated, and the word has morphed into “kofe,” which is a much more typical neuter sound, like solntse/sun, morye/sea, etc. But because of historical precedent, it’s considered proper to treat the word as masculine, so you have off-sounding combinations like “krepkij kofe” where much more logical “krepkij kofij” used to be. But when “less cultured” people slip up and say “krepkoe kofe”, people like my mother will give you a very judgy raised eyebrow and correct you.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Giovannoni Claudine

    Well… that is interesting. Really I think that English is the best of all language since the is only “the” and that is. The trouble, as you said, is that the more language you know, you have the more probability to mix up everything. Frankly I believe that this, in the regular colloquial life, doesn’t really matter… actually if you need to be perfect this is going to give you a run for your money. It is more important to let yourself go and try to communicate, doesn’t matter if with the wrong gender or with grammar imperfections.
    Mmm and that piece of pie… doesn’t matter the gender, looks awful good!
    Serenity :-)claudine

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      In the early stages, certainly… but I’d quite like to iron out those kinks eventually. Maybe not in all THREE Romance languages that I’m trying to learn, such a goal would probably drive me round the bend 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Giovannoni Claudine

        No reason to became mad… after you live for some time in a place, you start to act, speak and swear like the inhabitants!
        Give me some to think if you are willing to learn 3 idioms at the same time… THAT is a mess especially if they are from the same roots, for ex. Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.
        😉 get another piece of that gorgeous pie
        claudine

        Like

  6. heatherinde

    Your response to Pedro is priceless. It would be nice if we were allowed to be that direct in every language, haha. I usually just take a shot in the dark in German with what things are. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong but short of going all Michael Scott (see the last half of this: https://youtu.be/LMhi_MMPvEw), I don’t know if I’m ever going to wrap my head around every verdammte noun in German. There are just too many words! Gah! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      German is probably impossible to get 100% right if you start learning as an adult – even I don’t know the genders of IT-related terminology, because these terms didn’t exist when I still lived in the country. LOL that vid 😉

      Like

      Reply
  7. Susan Foley

    Mmmm…eggnog. One of my favorite flavors.

    When we would complain about masculine knives and forks (el cuchillo, el tenedor) and feminine spoons (la cuchara) my high school Spanish teacher would just shrug and tell us, “I wasn’t there when they invented the language!” In other words, “it just evolved that way so you’ll have to get used to it.”

    Like

    Reply
      1. Susan Foley

        With eggnog I don’t know because the stuff tends to disappear after the holidays. I made my father some bread pudding yesterday and today I want to try a pound cake recipe using olive oil and clementines that I saw in the Washington Post. But there’s shopping to do first. Friday there’s an event for 300+ people at work. It’s a dessert bar so I’ll have to make about 75-100 cake pops depending on how many other desserts have been ordered.

        An interesting fact about curses: in Quebec, they are almost all derived from words used in the Catholic liturgy. So if you’re in Montreal and you hear someone say “Tabernak!” it’s not necessarily a good thing.

        Like

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Same in Bavaria, re. curse words 😉 Ooooooh, I want to eat 300+ of your desserts!

        Eggnogg cake is very popular in Germany. Just google “Eierlikörkuchen” and a million recipes should come up…

        Like

  8. joannesisco

    Since I’m hopelessly helpless (or is it helplessly hopeless?) when it comes to languages, I love these posts since they seem to give me some justification for my ineptness.
    I loved the anedote about the sun/moon washroom signs. I would simply be paralyzed with indecision and have to wait patiently for a clue.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  9. Ellen Hawley

    For no apparent reason, the nouns I can’t keep straight in Spanish are the ones I had no problem memorizing,oh, it must’ve been a hundred or so years back, when I was in high school: the five whose gender (masculine) doesn’t match their endings because they’re of Greek origin: El mapa I’m sure of. El papa, I think, isn’t one of them because it’s not Greek. La mano isn’t one of them because it’s feminine with a masculine ending (and probably not Greek) but my brain dumped it in the category anyway. The other four have leaked out of my porous memory. If you happen to know what they are, I’d love to know.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Susan Foley

      “El programa,” “el dogma” are the other ones I remember that end in “-ma.” “El agua” takes feminine endings; it’s el in the singular because of the stressed “a”. So its Las Aguas Mansas (the name of a really good Colombian telenovela) but “el agua fría.”

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Spanish nouns of Greek origin, like programa, problema, dogma, planeta, are always masculine despite ending in -a. Words like agua, alma, arma, etc, are still feminine, despite taking a masculine (el) article.

        Like

      2. Ellen Hawley

        Thanks. Programa and dogma fill in two of the four slots and remind me that el idea is another of the four. Yay! Only one left. The nouns that take “el” because of the stressed A are in a different category–nothing I need to memorize. because the sound will guide me.

        Thanks again.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. TBM

    I remember way back in the day when I took Spanish and French in high school and college, whining about the whole gender thing. It never made sense then and glad to know that it still doesn’t make sense to others. And you said the dreaded t word! I hate taxes, even though I seem to be doing taxes all of the damn time.

    Like

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    Well, here we are then, the English… What do we do about these fools?
    Beyond a certain age, in some schools we were not even taught English,let alone anyone else’s language. What people like me do, is make the best of what we have. If we find it difficult to understand, why don’t you jus have a laugh and speak with incredulity at our lack of understanding – after all it’s funny, right? Happy to oblige…
    Nouns, adjectives, verbs, conjugation,masculine, feminine – wtf are they, and, actually, who cares??
    Maybe we should just not bother and leave it to non-english European intellectuals…

    I’m very sorry if this has offended people, but then, i’m quite offended by the tone of the article.

    You want a moral? OK… Stop taking the piss out of people who don’t have the educational background that you lucky Europeans took for granted..
    Yours,
    Neil ….. a “numptie”

    “In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking”

    If this refers to me Simone, perhaps it would be wise to remember the English affection for tongue-in cheek humour rather than turning it into an opportunity for ridiculein one of your blogs…

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi Neil! I’m sorry you don’t like the piece. I didn’t think it would cause offence, especially not among Brits, as they are usually the first to laugh at themselves and their perceived “shortcomings”.

      The point really was to illustrate that everyone struggles with this gender thing, and for different reasons, all of which are legitimate. We’re all disadvantaged/compromised by our native languages in some way.

      I guess there’s always a risk in trying to write a humorous piece, which is how this was intended to come across, it’s impossible to tickle everyone’s funny bone…

      Like

      Reply
      1. Neil

        Laughing at yourself, or even being laughed at is no problem at all. If you read the piece, you should be able to see that my comments are in fact, tongue in cheek. However, as a result, to be ridiculed for perceived idiocy, machoism, and complete inability to grasp what others find easy – and to have that pointed out in public – is a ltttle more insulting than humorous. Just my opinion, Being so poorly educated, i have no idea who said it but someone much wiser than me once said “i do not agree with what you say, but i will defend to the death your right to say it”
        In my opinion, this is correct… I, however, have the choice whether to read it or not… I’m afraid i choose not to, sorry but good luck..

        Like

  12. Neil

    Quote: “In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking.”

    Above a certain age, in some areas of England, us poor, stupid English people were lucky to be taught ENGLISH in school, let alone a foreign language.
    i Made a similiar reference on a forum not long ago, so i assume it’s me and my lack of intellect that you are taking the piss out of. Perhaps it’s a a mainly British trait, the ability to self-mock!.What doesn’t go down very well is to then see that taken out of context, exagerated and twisted in order to create a cheap laugh for your readers i guess, being able to mock oneself Is a mainly British form of humour,… and i should now be mocking you for completely missing the point?

    Like

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      The examples I brought up are really quite common and nothing to do with “a lack of intellect” but rather with the effects of our linguistic conditioning. I did not single out English people as the sole “target” here, nor call anyone “stupid”. Native English speakers struggle particularly with the gendered nouns concept, and there is a good reason for that, as I tried to explain in the piece.

      All humourists (not that I would call myself that!) use exaggeration to a certain extent, and I am guilty of that, but audiences tend to take that for granted and the examples are, in essence, truthful.

      Like

      Reply
  13. Neil

    Quote from your piece….. “In the native English speaker’s mind, this sort of thing causes mayhem. Let me illustrate: I respond to queries on language learning forums, and a few weeks ago, a Brit (that would be me then?) had a minor existential crisis over the fact that person (persona) is feminine in Spanish, and that, when referring to himself as a person, he would – shock horror! – turn into a GIRL! Oh, the indignity of it! Just imagine what will happen the day he finds out that the…erm… most masculine of his male parts is a feminine entity in Spanish. At least grammatically speaking”

    Read it Simone – you make me sound like a neanderthal idiot. Do you really think i am concerned whether my “parts” are classed as masculine or feminine in German?
    I am a language novice, not an imbecile..
    Here, tell you what, design and construct me a motor racing chassis – from scratch,with no background knowledge of engineering whatsoever. If you struggle at all, write it down (tongue in cheek’s fine) and i’ll post your frustration for the “engineering savvy” world to have a good laugh at…

    Who needs languages anyway?

    Like

    Reply
  14. Kim G

    Lovely post! Sorry I don’t have time for a more detailed comment.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    Boston, MA
    Where we are frantically packing, tying up loose ends, etc before tomorrow’s departure to Mexico City.

    Like

    Reply
      1. linnetmoss

        Your pal Neil seems unfamiliar with the concept of artistic license. I for one thought that bit was hilarious! And then when he called himself a neanderthal idiot, it got even better 🙂 But learning a language is a frustrating business as you point out. No wonder he’s grumpy.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I’ve had exchanges (NOT of the disagreeable kind) with Neil before, so it saddens me that he got so upset by this. In fact, the “la persona” issue comes up virtually every month on this particular forum I was referring to – it’s a really common stumbling block for many.

        And yes, it is a frustrating business… I fail to connect with French and it’s bugging me. Probably just a phase… and a very grumpy one indeed!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oleg

        In all Slavic languages ‘persona’ is feminine, and its Slavic equivalent ‘osoba’ also is feminine.
        It’s worse with ‘majesty’: in Russian ‘velichestvo’ is neuter, in Ukrainian ‘velychnist’ is feminine, in Polish ‘majestat’ is masculine

        Liked by 2 people

      4. Kim G

        Gracias! I’m now in Mexico City, at a Starbucks and after a lengthy twiddling and reboot, I can finally get connected to the wifi and the world, haha…

        When I started to read your post, I thought particularly of the example you cited — genitalia being the “wrong” gender in Spanish. I think this post would be very helpful for anyone struggling with this particular issue. You are 100% right — stop trying to make sense of it, and just memorize!

        My own particular challenge is noun-adjective agreement when I’m constructing a lengthy sentence and I’m not sure how I’m going to end it. That’s where I’m most likely to make that mistake.

        By the way, do native speakers *ever* get the noun/adjective gender agreement wrong? I think I hear this from time to time in Mexico, but it’s hard for me to believe as I’d think that that’s a mistake only a foreigner would make.

        Saludos,

        Kim G
        Mexico, DF
        Where our conscious decision to not bring an umbrella has resulted in at least 2 rainy days in the forecast.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. ladyofthecakes Post author

        Aw, I so enjoy your contributions – thanks for taking the time and I’m delighted to get one from such a glamourous place as Mexico City. (Even if it is the Starbucks, lol)

        As to your question, it’s an interesting one. In colloquial speech, all of us make grammatical mistakes, because we start a sentence, suddenly a new thought occurs and then the second half of the sentence doesn’t match the first half. And gender agreement might suffer in the process 😉

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Oleg

      The famous Yin-Yang concept presents not only dark-light duality, but also feminine-masculine one, Yin being dark-feminine and Yang light-masculine. The traditional writing 陰陽 contains ‘dark’ and ‘light’ radicals, while the simplified form 阴阳 has ‘moon’ 月 and ‘sun’ 日. So for Chinese, Japanese, Korean – you name them – people ‘moon’ is feminine, and ‘sun’ is masculine

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  15. Neil

    Just to finish, then i’ll leave you alone Simone – and supporters. My confusion was regarding the fact that, as a male i am masculine yet, as a person, i am classed as feminine. As you say, a common cause of confusion among English speakers. What i took exception to, or got grumpy about if you prefer, is the fact that you implied i was mortified that in some way my masculinity was being called into question. I’ll admit to showing a little mock indignance, but for you to twist that into what appeared to be genuine alarm on my part at being labelled as less masculine in some way, paints me in a very poor light. Poetic licence? If that’s what you call making things up about people, then fair enough, “poetic licence” it is! I knew immediately that you were talking about me specifically, and painted a completely false picture of the kind of person i am.

    If i became too emotional for the taste of some here, then i apologise..
    Good to you luck in the future

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there. I do remember that forum conversation, and it was laced with good humour throughout from all contributing parties.

      When I wrote my post in the way that I did, I didn’t think that any of my readers would truly believe that anyone would be experiencing genuine mental or emotional anguish over a confusing grammatical point – they would know that there was some degree of humorous exaggeration at play. I wasn’t concerned about it, since, to my mind, it’s not like making “fun” of someone’s religion, values, sexual orientation, disability or dearly held moral convictions. Inadvertently, however, I seem to have hit a raw nerve there for some reason.

      I would like to point out, though, that my piece does not contain anyone’s real name(s) nor any details by which they could possibly be personally identified. And even if a blog reader found the specific forum, and searched the millions of comments, they would come up with several threads on this topic started by different contributors – I’ve participated in at least three discussions of the very same point.

      Anyway, I hope none of this has dampened your enthusiasm for your language studies, that would be a great shame. I sincerely hope that you will continue to bash away at it and succeed.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  16. Kim G

    By the way, since I last commented on this post, another example of “gender bending” came to mind. As you know, the proper Spanish word for “penis” is pene, a masculine word if not a masculine concept. But in Mexican Spanish, verga is the slang for the same organ, only when you go slang, it undergoes a sex-change and becomes feminine.

    If that’s not enough to convince people that this whole gender thing is completely arbitrary, then I don’t know what is.

    Saludos,

    Kim G
    DF, México
    Where gender-bending seems to be a popular sport at night, with cash “prizes,” on certain street corners.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
  17. restlessjo

    What a very handsome piece of ciastko/bola/torte, Simone 🙂 Sorry I don’t know the German or Spanish 😦 I have a couple of faithful German followers and I do try to reply to them in kind, but having no experience of the language I get in a bit of a kerfuffle. I just sort of toss the words in willy nilly and hope for the best. Language skills, huh!
    This has to be the year I get to grips with Polish! Truly! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  18. Pingback: Sauce for the Gender – Luso

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s