Have you ever noticed that the French have a funny way of interchanging le and la depending on what they are discussing? The waiter may bring you le café but when it comes time for dessert you’ll be ordering la glace.
One of the first thing you discover when studying French is that all nouns have a gender (French is a masculine term, le français, and language is a feminine word, la langue). Even inanimate objects are considered to be masculine or feminine and have a definite and indefinite article to match. The gender of a noun impacts the pronouns used for it, the way adjectives are formed (e.g. la langue français)and even changes the associated verb forms.
But often gender can prove quite troublesome for learners as it doesn’t seem to communicate any important information (e.g. the telephone is masculine) and is just one extra thing you have to memorize.
The history of gender in language
The anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir thought of gender as an archaic form that was no longer useful in language. He used English and its removal of most gender as a primary example and looked at romance languages as irrational. Nonetheless, modern day anthropologists have designated certain universal oppositions, including sex, as fundamental to our experience of reality. Therefore, by having gender for all nouns, a language like French is subtly communicating that the associated culture finds gender distinctions important.
Is the sun le soleil really more masculine than feminine and how come the moon is la lune? Quite often it can seem that the gender of words has been randomly assigned. Some researchers postulate that feminine gender is typically associated with an object that has weak and delicate traits. However, it turns out this wasn’t always the case. Ancient languages actually showed a preference for the feminine when discussing all things sacred. It was only with the development of monotheism and patriarchal societies that the world’s languages saw a massive shift in gender, and many previously feminine words became masculine.
So, do all languages have gender? Historians know that gender goes way back in the Indo-European language family. Some languages have a neuter, a common, a masculine and a feminine gender (e.g. Danish), others skip the common and have three categories (e.g. German). Still others, like French and most romance languages, have only the binary masculine and feminine. The neuter is expressed using the masculine form. More theories on the origins of gender in French.
Tips & tricks for dealing with masculine and feminine
Think red and blue
When you first meet a word and are trying to remember its gender, picture the object in a particular color. If you aren’t comfortable remembering red grenouilles (frogs) or blue éléphants then try to add something to the mental image like a frog with a bow or an elephant with a mustache. The more amusing the image you conjure up (and the longer you spend brainstorming a gender tag that works for that word), the better your chances of remembering its gender.
Look for spelling clues
There are certain endings that tend to signify that a word is feminine or masculine . The good thing is, overtime, your brain picks up on these patterns without you noticing. However, be on guard as there are always a few examples that flout the norms and masquerade as feminine when they are really masculine (or vice versa). More on noticing.
Listen for pronounced consonants
When you meet a new word on paper, identifying gender is one thing. But, how do you know its gender if you are just going by sound? Listen to the adjectives that accompany the noun to see if they have their final consonant pronounced. Feminine words require an adjective to have an ‘e’ on the end which changes the pronunciation and forces the speaker to pronounce the final consonant, for example the ‘t’ in la fille est intelligente.
Pay attention to the l’
It can seem like stumbling upon a word beginning with a vowel or an ‘h’ is your lucky day. You don’t need to know the gender because the definite article will just be l’. However, you will need to know when it comes to using the word with an adjective or a verb, so pay special attention and make an effort to look up the gender and memorize it.
Read, listen, repeat
The more you encounter a word, the more you will learn about it, from its co-locates or words that tend to hang around in its vicinity, to less mainstream usages, and of course, gender. Repeat exposure via reading authentic texts or listening to native speakers (Youtube for starters) is the best way to expose your brain to ample examples of a given word’s gender. Overtime, you’ll start to develop a good feeling for what the gender might be and the more you use your words, the better you’ll be at assigning them the correct gender in conversation.
How do you remember the gender of nouns in French? Share your tips in the comments!