For a few months we have been looking at the concepts of masculine and feminine genders in the Spanish language. We noted that a noun is a word that represents a ‘thing’ or an ‘idea’ and that in Spanish each of these words has a gender which we need to know about to help us form correct Spanish sentences. The gender of the noun in a sentence affects many of the words around it.
We have also looked at a few guidelines to help us determine what the gender of a particular noun is, but in many cases we just have to learn each one individually and gradually, knowing that if we make a few mistakes along the way it is not going to affect people’s understanding of what we say.
One of the things that is affected by the gender of a word is the accompanying word for ‘the’ and ‘a’. We are lucky in English as these words have only one form. ‘The’ in Spanish actually has five forms, but only four that concern us now. These four words depend on whether they apply to masculine or feminine nouns and also whether the nouns are in the singular or plural.
Let’s take a practical example – the word for ‘child’ or ‘boy’ – ‘niño’ and the word for ‘girl’ which is ‘niña’. This is how the ‘the’ bit works:
el niño – the boy
la niña – the girl
los niños – the boys
las niñas – the girls
We have four different words for ‘the’:
el (masculine singular)
la (feminine singular)
los (masculine plural)
las (feminine plural)
Now we’ll look at the words meaning ‘a’ or ‘an’. There are two of these: masculine singular un and feminine singular una. Logically we cannot have a plural of ‘a’, so that gives us for example ‘a boy’, un niño and ‘a girl’, una niña.
All of these forms apply to words for things as well. Let’s use two more examples of words for things rather than people.
vestido (dress – masculine)
el vestido (the dress)
los vestidos (the dresses)
un vestido (a dress)
camisa (shirt – feminine)
la camisa (the shirt)
las camisas (the shirts)
una camisa (a shirt)
One of the indicators of word gender we have already mentioned is the characteristic ‘a’ ending for feminine and ‘o’ ending for masculine nouns. Niño, niña, vestido, camisa all follow this pattern. However as I mentioned, there are other words that don’t do this at all. For example:
reloj (clock – masculine)
el reloj (the clock)
los relojes (the clocks)
un reloj (a clock)
pared (wall – feminine)
la pared (the wall)
las paredes (the walls)
una pared (a wall)
Notice in both these cases the words end in consonants (j and d). When this happens we make the word into plural by adding –’es’, rather than just –’s’.
To complete this picture let’s look again at a couple of words that have endings the opposite way round from what we expect, to see how they deal with this ‘agreement’ business:
problema (problem – masculine)
el problema (the problem)
los problemas (the problems)
un problema (a problem)
mano (hand – feminine)
la mano (the hand)
las manos (the hands)
una mano (a hand)
Most foreigners learning Spanish get these wrong to start with. The Spanish are quite used to people saying things like Tengo una problema and this kind of mistake would never prevent someone from understanding that you had a problem!
Just to round this up and lead on to our main point for your next lesson. There are other things that are affected by the masculine/feminine divide as well as ‘the’ and ‘a’. It also influences the adjectives, or describing words, that go with the nouns. Here is what I mean: the word for ‘small’ is pequeño. It can be applied to all the above nouns. We can talk about a small boy, girl, shirt, dress, clock, wall, problem or hand. Here are some examples of how we would do this, by making the word pequeño match the noun each time.
el niño pequeño; la niña pequeña
los niños pequeños; las niñas pequeñas
el vestido pequeño; los relojes pequeños
la camisa pequeña; las paredes pequeñas
un problema pequeño; una mano pequeña
We will start off at this point next month, as there are plenty more things to say about adjectives. I bet you can’t wait!
Jane Cronin’s “Step by Step Spanish” articles are now available as e-books at www.janecronin.eu where you can also obtain Jane’s brand new “Step by Step Internet Spanish” course.