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instance, while man (Mann) and woman (Frau) are respectively masculine and feminine, the German word Weib, which is an outdated (and in modern usage a vulgar) term for “woman” closely related to the English “wife” is, in fact, neuter and NOT feminine.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“girl”, Mädchen, is also neuter, although there is at least some logic to that one, as it’s the diminutive of the (also outdated) feminine noun Maid (maiden), and all diminutives are neuter in German.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?!
[*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