Spanish lesson #4361

18 July 2007
8:00 AM

Gender agreement in Spanish is a giant pain in the butt. We English-speakers mostly ignore gender. A select group of nouns are masculine or feminine—mostly people and animals—and the rest are lumped into the neuter category. In Spanish, all nouns have gender, which is mirrored in the adjectives, articles, and pronouns you use with them. There is a masculine and a feminine version of “the,” which needs to match the gender of the noun. You shouldn’t say el bebida or la teléfono; you need la bebida and el teléfono, respectively for the drink and the telephone. To complicate matters further, some words can take either article (el or la), but with a change in meaning. La papa is the potato, but el papa is the pope. (And you need to get the accents and stress right too, because el papá means father, not pope or potato.)

There are rules to help you remember which words are which, but Spanish is not unlike English in that it is a system based more on exceptions than rules. Take the following set:

  1. Words ending in -a are feminine, e.g. la casa
  2. But words ending in -ma are masculine, e.g. el problema
  3. But some words ending in -ma don’t follow rule two and are feminine, e.g. la palma

People for whom Spanish is a second language still make gender-agreement mistakes even after years of practice. This is exacerbated by the fact that no native speaker makes gender mistakes. Just like all the other aspects of language, gender intuition is written into the mind at a young age. One Chilean offered me a helpful suggestion for telling the difference between masculine and feminine nouns: “The words that sound masculine are masculine, and the ones that sound feminine are feminine.” I told him that wouldn’t work for me and he was flummoxed.

There are some benefits to the Spanish gendered system, however. It’s easier to remember related words because you just need to switch the ending from masculine to feminine or vice-versa. In English knowing “brother,” isn’t going to help you remember the word “sister.” In Spanish, knowing hermano is just one letter away from knowing hermana. Plus you get more information from a single word. If someone talks about his cat in English, you don’t know whether it’s male or female without more information. But someone talking about her gato has already told you that the cat is male because she used the masculine verb ending.

Trying to remember all these gender rules while composing sentences on-the-fly isn’t easy. Non-native speakers are often just not used to thinking about the gender of the objects they are talking about, so it throws a wrench in the mental machinery. I try, but I still fail occasionally, although never with such disastrous consequences as last week.

Ramón and I work together in Br. Donald’s kitchen. Last Thursday we were talking about how we finally got the elderly women who work with us to use our system for storing dishes. Often we arrive to find thermos #1 connected to #23, #5 with #19, and so on, all mixed up. Thursday everything was just as it should be, #1 with #2, all the way down the line. “Well,” I said in one of my typical there’s-no-need-to-say-anything-but-I’ll-just-talk-anyway comments, “it looks like we taught those old dogs a new trick, huh?” Since I was talking about women, I thought I’d swap the word ending on “dogs” to make it feminine. The result? Looks like we taught those old bitches a new trick, huh?

Ramón laughed. I went into an interior monologue. “Do you always have to say something? Couldn’t we have left well enough alone?” I guess not. Stupid gender.