Gender Matters

In languages with grammatical gender, such as Spanish and Swedish, gender matters and can sometimes lead to misundertandings if you get it wrong.

Some words may sound the same, but have different genders and different meanings. For example, in Swedish a team is ett lag (neuter) and a law is en lag (common gender).

I haven’t come across any other homographs like this in Swedish, but there probably are others. Do you known any more in Swedish or other languages?

I found some in Spanish, including:

  • el coma = coma; la coma = comma
  • el mañana = future; la mañana = morning
  • el moral = blackberry bush; la moral = morale, morality
  • el papa = pope; la papa = potato
  • el pez = fish; la pez = tar, pitch
  • el tema = subject; la tema = obsession

Other Swedish words I sometimes get muddled include: väg (path, road) and vägg (wall), and svart (black, dark) and svårt (hard).

So it’s not just gender that matters – accents and spelling are also important.

How do you learn the genders of nouns in languages with grammatical gender?

9 thoughts on “Gender Matters

  1. I grew up speaking two languages, one of which is German.

    And this is how I learn the gender of foreign nouns: I simply pretend they are foreign loans that entered the German language and start by learning them together with a German definite article, thus: der poêle (French “stove”) vs. die poêle (“frying pan”). German native and near-native speakers hardly ever forget the gender of “German” nouns. This even works for languages with three genders, such as Latin or Russian. (In Standard Russian feminine nouns ending in unstressed -a and neuter nouns in unstressed -o are pronounced the same, so this also helps to get the spelling right.)

  2. I can only think of two cases where nouns are differentiated in Plautdietsch purely by gender

    În Bër (a bear), Nw Bër (a berry)
    În Rot (a wheel) Nw Rot (a rat)
    Although they are different in their plural forms (Bërs vs Bërw, Räda vs Rotw)

  3. In French, the feminine noun “tour” means a tower, the masculine noun “tour” means a tour or racing circuit.

  4. In French you can do something like what Charlie describes. However, because “le” and “la” both turn into “l’-” before a vowel, you use the indefinite article (‘un’ or ‘une’) to nail down the gender.

    BTW, I’ve never seen the term “common gender” before. I’m curious.

  5. Jonathan – Swedish and Danish used to have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter, but the masculine and feminine gender words merged and are now called common gender.

    The three genders are only retained in a few words in Swedish, such as pronouns: han (he), hun (she) and den/det (it). There is also the newish gender-neutral hen.

  6. The Latin neuter “neither” is actually the negation of uter “either; both”, and German-speaking linguists call neuter gender Neutrum, and common gender Utrum.

    Someone told me that the first gender contrast to evolve in Early Proto-Indoeuropean was common vs. neuter, and that according to this theory it issued from a case contrast of (human acting) subject vs. the object (acted upon). What later became feminine gender may have started as a class of abstract nouns, or attributes to other nouns. Whether this is true or not, it might be worth trying to learn nouns in phrases where every part of speech signals a certain gender.

  7. One final remark about why gender matters. Compare the following two German sentences and note that neither of the forms ein Kind nor mit seinem Hund reveals if the nouns are masculine or neuter:

    (1) Ein Kind ging mit seinem Hund nach Hause, weil es hungrig war.
    (2) Ein Kind ging mit seinem Hund nach Hause, weil er hungrig war.
    (“A child went home with his/her dog because … was hungry.”)

    In sentence (1) es is a neuter pronoun, so it means: … weil das Kind hungrig war. (“… because the child/he/she was hungry.”) And in sentence (2) er is a masculine pronoun, so it means: … weil der Hund hungrig war. (“… because the dog/it was hungry.”)

    My guess is that most practical everyday gender contrasts in German are like that: it is rarely otherwise identical or very similar nouns that matter, but the pronouns that refer to preceding (and sometimes following) nouns according to their genders acquire a different meaning that may lead to serious misunderstandings.

  8. German has a few:

    der Hut: hat
    die Hut: protection

    die See: sea
    der See: lake

    der BMV: BMV auto
    die BMV: BMV motorcycle

    And there are words that have different genders geographically: Gehalt (salary) is neuter in Germany but masculine in Austria and Switzerland.

  9. I am reminded from having taught French, Second Language here in Canada do for 28 years that le livre is the book while la livre is the pound. Even more interesting is the fact that if you spell the word for “repeat” in French with the proper accents, it is répéter but if you leave off the accent on the first syllable it changes it to repéter with the meaning “to fart again”.

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