There has been an email doing the rounds on this topic, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to dig it up. I know I’ve saved it somewhere in one of my email folders. This post is more about a misperception that some English speakers have of Spanish, which they naturally bring to the classroom.
“Grammatical gender” (masculine, feminine and neuter) is a morphological characteristic shared by most European languages. It applies to inanimate objects as well as to animate beings, and for some learners it comes as a weird surprise to find out that a table (una mesa) is feminine, for example, or a desk (un escritorio) is masculine. Add to that the genderisation of adjectives, and many English speakers learning Spanish are thrown into a New World in which they have to be seriously Brave. Allow me the bad joke 🙂
You guessed right: the ending -a is feminine and -o is masculine. Apart from the above mentioned feminine and masculine, there are other expressions of grammatical gender that you’ll find very clearly explained in the Wikipedia article on grammatical gender in Spanish:
- Neuter (género neutro), such as in words like ello (it) and the neuter article lo (only translatable as “the” into English). Example: lo bueno, lo malo y lo feo (the good, the bad and the ugly).
- Common (género común), in words that can be used to refer to both feminine and masculine, such as for example el / la violinista (the violinist).
- Epicene (género epiceno), applied to those nouns that have only one grammatical gender, masculine or feminine, but can refer to a living creature of either sex, for example la rata (the rat), el ratón (the mouse), la liebre (the hare), el búho (the owl).
- Ambiguous (género ambiguo), in the case of nouns such as el mar (the sea) or la mar (poetic or among sailors).
In any case, Spanish learners that stick to it finally get it right, exceptions to the rule included. However, from some English speakers, it’s the fact that the masculine is used as super-ordinate term when it comes to plurals referring from both genders that they tend to find kind of jarring, for example, los niños meaning “the children”.
A former student of mine who had barely scratched A2 level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (read: a beginner) volunteered the most mind blowing assessment on to what an extent Spanish can be a macho language based upon the fact that the masculine is used as super-ordinate term. I have to confess that I rebuked her rather inelegantly, without my usual cool headedness … However, I was able to provide her with two PDF documents written by an academic from a Salvadoran university. I wanted to include those references in my current blog post, but unfortunately they don’t appear to be online.
While I was scouring the Internet to look for the sources I gave my misguided student, I discovered that the blogosphere doesn’t know what to make of the gendered nature of languages like Spanish. Even some native speakers of Spanish have aligned themselves with this point of view (I wonder if my former student has become an online agitator on this topic and persuaded some Spanish-speaking feminists…).
In my next article, I will discuss the real ways in which Spanish speakers can express sexist thoughts, and it’s got nothing to do with what my former misguided student so firmly believed 🙂