¡Viva la diferencia! The Concept of Gender in Spanish

Written by: Ronald Batchelor

A sign using symbols for men and women

To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine (henceforth>M.) and feminine (henceforth>F.) gender for Spanish nouns seems bewildering. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Pashto, Hindi, among many others, but excludes Basque, Finnish, Hungarian or Turkish, gender distinction forms an integral part of grammatical discourse. But let’s play the devil’s advocate. For any beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. It seems to make more sense that gender should find no place when applied to inanimate objects, as in English. One may quote she for a ship, but we are out of our depth after that.

The idea of gender in Spanish is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, Spanish inherits the concept of M. gender (i.e. el=the) and F. gender (i.e. la=the) just like French, Italian, Romanian and Portuguese. One may understand M. and F. nouns in the context of humans (male and female) and some animals (again male and female). But that a mesa (table) in Spanish should be F. (=la mesa), like the Italian la tavola, and la table in French, while el cuchillo in Spanish, il coltello in Italian and le couteau in French (all three=knife) are M., defies rational explanation. Spanish torments us even more sharply with a F. form for big, butcher’s knife, la cuchilla, and Italians sing loud and clear that tavolo is M.

Linguists agree that no rules may be established in this duality of gender to justify their arbitrary application to nouns, save for those pointing to persons and some animals. And even here, gender seems to go a bit transvestite. That a male should be F. as in Spanish víctima, French victime, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in Spanish miembro, French membre or Italian membro merely perplexes the foreigner even more.

Moreover, in many European languages, from Greek and Latin, through to Czech, German, Polish and Russian and the Scandinavian languages, for example, one has to confront a further gender applied to nouns: neuter. In Romance languages, fortunately this is not the case, although in Spanish, there exists the vigorous use of adjectives with a neuter value (=lo). However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on Spanish M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.

The gender of numerous Spanish nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all Spanish speakers. The same comment applies to other Romance languages. This variability is partly due to the diverse origins of words, changes based on analogy with other words in the same language, and the constant requirements of adapting to new circumstances, as with the accession of females to what was once an exclusive male precinct. How do we feminize el piloto (the pilot), el soldado (the soldier), el médico (physician/doctor)? The present author leads his Spanish friends/colleagues a veritable merry-go-round with this question. F. forms, “pilota/soldada/médica” would send the Real Academia Española into a paroxysm of linguistic rage.

Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries are the Spanish F. noun la miel (honey) which is M. both in Italian (il miele) and French (le miel); flor (flower) is F. in Spanish and French (la fleur) but M. in Italian (il fiore); ópera (opera) is F. in Spanish and Italian (l’opera) but M. in French (l’opéra). Singing the gender changes with opera is clearly determined by the Latin neuter opus/operis. Avoiding gender changes in opera must have had something to do with the castrati.

As most beginners learn very quickly, the most distinctive feature of Spanish M. nouns appears with the ending o: barco (boat), libro (book), caso (case). They also soon recognize Spanish F. nouns, ending in a: casa (house), puerta (door), ventana (window). Exceptions abound: dínamo (dynamo), radio (radio) are F., as is mano (hand). But cross the Atlantic pond from Spain and the fun begins: in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico, radio and dínamo are M. Confused? How about further confusion then? Radio in the sense of radius is M., wherever you are.

The ending o for M. nouns contrasts with the ending a for F. nouns. Knowing this is the easy part. Remembering the difference in meaning between the same root of many nouns but differing in endings o and a is the complicated feature. Three examples, among innumerable “doublets” of this kind, must suffice: acera (sidewalk/pavement)/acero (steel); banda (music band, gang)/bando (faction, group, very often the opposing side); cera (wax), cero (zero). Our Mexican friends do not make this distinction any easier. For instance, bolso (lady’s handbag), in Peninsular Spanish ends up as their bolsa which is any bag in the Peninsula, witness bolsa de plástico/de compras (plastic/shoppng bag). You are warned!

A fascinating digression: a striking point related to the vowel a marking the F. noun is characteristic of numerous European languages. Latin-derived languages fall into this category, although the a is modified in French to e, in many cases: porte (door), dame (lady: compare with Spanish dama). Slav languages mark the F. form with a: compare žena (woman) in Czech, Martina Navratilova (Czech tennis player), Sharapova (Russian tennis player), Dostoevskii’s mother, Mariya Fyodorovna, and Marya Sklodowska=Marie Curie (of Polish origin). Contrast these female names with that of the Polish novelist Korzeniowski, later Joseph Conrad.

There do exist some concessions to foreign learners of Spanish. You would expect names and designations of human males, and the males of large well-known animals to be M., whatever their ending, and you would be right: amigo (friend), chico (boy), cura (priest), monarca (monarch), cardenal (cardinal), tigre (tiger), gato (cat), caballo (horse). And you would expect the female counterparts of this type of noun to be F. Right again: amiga, chica, monarca, gata. Yet, let’s not get carried away with these assumptions. Caballa is not a female horse (i.e. a mare=yegua in Spanish). It means mackerel, an edible fish.

Spanish radio, at the end of four paragraphs above, provides a clue to a testing area of Spanish gender. You’ve guessed it: many Spanish nouns have two genders, according to their significance. High flyers in Spanish will know that M. cometa is the object streaking across the sky=comet. Much lower down in the sky is the F. counterpart I used to fly as a child=kite.

You’ll soon get heated over these double genders. Calor=heat, is a good case in point. Most Spanish speakers use the M. form, to be recommended, and this fits the Italian (il calore). This M. gender has its root in the Latin calor. However, parts of southern Spain, doubtless influenced by Catalan (calor) and French (chaleur) favor the F. form.

You’ll probably get even more heated over the oddity of gender of pornografía which is F. but the abbreviated form porno is M. Temperatures still stay high with desnudo (nude) which is M. for both females and males.

Unlike pornografía/porno, motocicleta/fotografía are F., as are the shortened forms=moto/foto. Things stay hot, even to the point of sizzling, with the noun sartén=fry(ing) pan. F. in Peninsular Spanish but M. in the Americas.

Now a sigh of relief. Some nouns are both M. and F. with no difference in meaning. Thus, among a goodly number: armazón (structure of a frame, e.g. for a tent), interrogante (question), linde (boundary), maratón (but usually F.).

Towns are often F. but there is no true, reliable guide. As against LA Ávila de la Edad Media (medieval Avila), en la Roma antigua (in ancient Rome), Guanajuato es bella (Guanajuato is beautiful), we come across: todo Chihuahua (all Chihuahua), el Buenos Aires de la Avenida Corrientes (Buenos Aires of the Corrientes Av.). Baffled? You will be even more baffled with the following. In the same paragraph in Argentina’s newspaper Mundo, 15 August, 2007, we read: nuestrA Buenos Aires and todO Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires really does some cross-dressing here.

Intractable problems arise with certain professions: el físico (physicist) practises la física (physics). El policía (policeman) forms part of la policía (police force). El informático (computing expert) is skilled in informática. The latter F. forms are not the female equivalents of the male practicioner. Some promote the use of la policía as a policewoman, but room for confusion here.

Gender of compound nouns is a minefield, since they are often of modern creation with unestablished forms. Yet, logic determines the following: 1. Two M. nouns give rise to a M. compound noun: buque fantasma (ghost ship), piso piloto (show apartment), tiempo récord (record time). 2. Two F. nouns lead to a F. compound noun: bomba trampa (booby trap), barra brava (soccer fans in Argentina), madre patria (mother country). 3. With two nouns of different gender, the first decides the gender: EL camión cisterna (tanker, with liquid), LA cama nido (trundle/bunk bed).

Compound nouns with other parts of speech, often verbs, are usually M.: abrelatas (can opener), marcapasos (pacemaker), lavavajillas (dishwasher). Mexico, always keen to muddy the waters of dishwashing, uses the F. form here. Argument: it is a machine (la máquina).

This short analysis of Spanish gender cannot be concluded without reference to the noun azúcar. True linguistic, probably unique, conundrum here, to be savoured. Quite exciting. M. in Spain and Colombia, it is F. in Argentina and Mexico. One would expect therefore in Spain el azúcar blanquillO (white sugar), but NO, we read and hear el azúcar blanquillA (i.e. M. definite article+F. adjective). Since azúcar is F. in Argentina and Mexico we would anticipate LA azúcar blanca/morena BUT NO: we read and hear EL azúcar blancA/morenA (i.e. M. definite article+F. adjective). A linguistic contortion to be enjoyed.

One further comment to be emphasized: sex and gender are not the same thing in Romance languages You could be very male with a F. gender (see víctima above, and pareja=partner) and very female with a M. gender (see miembro above).

The study of Spanish gender is riddled with countless traps, and falling into them, as with F. hoya (very large depression in ground), and M. hoyo (relatively small hole in ground/hole in golf) could get you bogged down. Yet, help is at hand. Our Reference Grammar of Spanish devotes some twenty pages to the subject of Spanish gender in the light of current Peninsular and American usage. Above all: ¡Viva la diferencia!

Enjoyed reading this article? Share it today:

About the Author: Ronald Batchelor

Dr Ronald Batchelor is the author of A Reference Grammar of French (2011). He taught French and Spanish for forty years in the Department of Modern Languages at the University of Nottingham. He has published many books on French and Spanish language, often with sec...

View the Author profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!