The idea of ‘gender’ in the Spanish language is something most students have to come to terms with quite early on in their learning. The idea that a chair can be ‘female’ and a car ‘male’ usually gives rise to a few jovial remarks, followed by general incomprehension as to why such female related objects as bolso (handbag) and vestido (dress) should be masculine, although for some reason no one ever worries that camisa (shirt) and corbata (tie) are feminine.
There is possibly some strange psychological reason why we question some words and not others, but I have no idea what it is. I always insist on making sure that people use the terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ rather than ‘male’ and ‘female’ and also explain that this gender distinction belongs to the words themselves and not what they represent. Sometimes I wish they were called “apples” and “pears” or “giraffes” and “elephants”, but at some point in the development of the language the distinction was made in terms of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ and whilst this is meaningful when applied to male and female people and animals, it is really arbitrary when referring to anything else. Hopefully my present readers have overcome this initial difficulty.
The next question that arises is whether there is any way of knowing whether a word is ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’. As usual the answer is not conclusive. There are certain characteristics which can indicate which gender a word is, but there are exceptions and also many words that give us no indication whatsoever. The best known indicator is the characteristic “o” ending for ‘masculine’ and “a” ending for ‘feminine’ words. There are some notable and very common exceptions, such as la mano, la radio, el sofa, el planeta and so on. Then there are many words that have other endings which do not indicate gender in any way. Here are just two examples out of thousands; reloj (clock) and pared (internal wall). You cannot tell by looking which one is which! In fact the word reloj is masculine – el reloj (the clock) and pared is feminine la pared (the wall). We just have to learn these differences gradually and not worry about getting them all mixed up at first.
Having said that, there are some very common endings that are always feminine (I’m very wary of using the word “always”, but in this case I have never come across any exceptions). These are –ción, -sión and –xión (la estación, la televisión, la conexión), and also the –dad endings (la comunidad, la universidad, la felicidad). Then you have the -ema endings (el dilema, el problema, el tema) and a few other bits and pieces. Apart from that, you are more or less on your own.
I’ve always found the gender issue a little strange when it comes to people. We have the usual clear distinctions (el niño (the boy), la niña (the girl), but some ‘people’ words are always feminine irrespective of the gender of who they refer to. Two common examples of this are la víctima and la persona. We can say things like “Mi hermano Pedro es una persona muy simpática.” and “La víctima era un hombre de 55 años.”. These sentences sound perfectly normal in Spanish, but take a bit of getting used to for us.
When it comes to ‘job’ words, there is a certain amount of argument and variation. This has a lot to do with the fact that for many years in Spain professional jobs where exclusively in the hands of men, so it was not necessary for them to have feminine forms. A good example is the word for ‘doctor’ which would normally be el médico, but has evolved to la médico, and now la médica, although not everyone accepts this final form. Other cases where masculine job words have been adapted to the times are; juez (male judge), jueza (female judge), presidente (male president) and presidenta (female president). Some jobs do not alter their endings in any circumstances; for example; el piloto and la piloto (pilot) and more surprisingly el modelo and la modelo (model).
Now here’s a thought to finish off with – is the word agua masculine or feminine? The answer and a riveting discussion on the matter to follow next month!
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.