No doubt you have rushed to this page this month in your anxiety to find out the answer to last month’s question – is the word ‘agua’ masculine or feminine?
First let’s look at the evidence. The word ends in the letter ‘a’ which makes it look feminine; also when we talk about cold water, for example we say ‘agua fría’ which obviously suggests it is a feminine word. However, for ‘the water’ we say ‘el agua’, using the masculine form ‘el’ for ‘the’. This is very strange and here are some other words that do the same thing:
The word for ‘eagle’ is ‘águila’ which is the same for a male or female of the species. The word seems to be feminine, confirmed by the fact that the plural is ‘las águilas’ and yet the singular, strangely is ‘el águila’.
‘El ama’, is another example of the same thing. We have ‘el ama de casa’ – ‘the housewife’, or ‘el ama de llaves’ – ‘the housekeeper’. Both of these jobs are associated with females, but this is not the point. ‘Ama’ is a feminine word, using the masculine ‘el’ for ‘the’.
A further example is the word ‘hacha’ meaning ‘axe’. ‘The sharp axe’ is ‘el hacha afilada’.
Another word that behaves in the same way is ‘el hambre’ – ‘hunger’. Here we do not have an ‘a’ ending to make us think it is feminine, but if you are very hungry you say ‘tengo mucha hambre’.
Finally, ‘el alma’ – ‘the soul’. ‘El Alma Herida’ – ‘The Injured Soul’ is apparently the title of a very bad Mexican soap opera. Google is a wonderful thing!
Before I unravel this great mystery, I will just mention that these particular feminine words also take ‘un’ instead of ‘una’ for ‘a’ or ‘one’, so ‘one housewife’ is ‘un ama de casa’. A context for this might be ‘There was one housewife and two nurses in the class.’ ‘Había un ama de casa y dos enfermeras en la clase.’ (Don’t forget though, that when you describe someone’s job using ‘ser’ you don’t translate ‘a’ – ‘Soy ama de casa’ – ‘I am a housewife’.
To understand the reason for this strange phenomenon, our first guess would probably be that it is because the words start with the letter ‘a’ (agua, ama, alma, águila) or the sound ‘a’ (hambre, hacha). However, this explanation doesn’t work, as there are many words starting with ‘a’ which do not behave in this way – la actriz (the actress), la apertura (the opening), la hamaca (hammock).
Well, my friends, I will try your patience no longer, here is the answer. It is all to do with the ‘beat’ or emphasis of the voice when speaking these words. In all of our key words the beat falls on the initial ‘a’ sound (Ama, as opposed to hamAca). The issue of beat or stress and how words link together in speech is complex, but in this particular instance there is a fixed substitution of ‘la’ for ‘el’ in both spoken and written forms.
You may think that this is not the most important or practical thing you have ever learnt about Spanish and in one sense you may be right, but actually we have just looked at one of the single most important things to understand about the Spanish language and that is that where the ‘beat’ falls in a word is of maximum importance in making yourselves understood.
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