Thursday, July 21, 2005

Gender Identity in Spanish

What makes a table feminine and a tree masculine?

The many forms of the word "the" in Spanish – el, la, los, las – present a challenge for kids (and adults) learning Spanish, and not just because you have to memorize which gender each noun is and then make sure you match up the gender and number every time you refer to that noun. The very concept of inanimate objects having a gender is practically impossible for those of us who are non-native speakers to really understand.

I've always loved the discussions kids have on this subject when they first learn about it, and try to figure it out in their minds – before they can learn to just accept it. They come up with all sorts of reasons for the gender of a window, a clock, a shirt. Eventually, though, they will have to internalize it, so that it becomes natural to them.

If there is a sense behind the gender of inanimate objects, I don't know what it is. Having taken my four years of Latin, I vividly remember having to learn three genders – masculine, feminine, and neutral – but not every inanimate object was neutral. So the gender identity of nouns reaches far back into the very origins of language, with reasons probably too old for any of us to understand now, even if there originally was one.

And even that designated gender identity is not always consistent. Sometimes you can use the same word with el or la, and it will change the meaning, as in the case of el radio, the actual radio itself, and la radio, the programming that you listen to on el radio. Then there are the mixed-up el and la, as in el día and la mano. And then, of course, the variations of Spanish that cause one object to be feminine in one country and masculine in another. "Computer," for example, is feminine in Latin America – la computadora – and masculine in Spain – el ordenador. (there are a ton of chistes on this subject, actually – "Why is a computer feminine" vs. "Why is a computer masculine" – but I doubt that was the original reasoning behind how the words came into use.)

Yesterday, I came across a great passage in a book I'm reading, The Hummingbird's Daughter, by Luis Alberto Urrea, which added a whole new nuance to the subject of gender identity:


"Whereas the North Americans," Aguirre announced, "have no gender in their language."

Aghast, Tomás let out a small puff of air.

"No 'el'?" he said. "No 'la'?"

Aguirre, quite satisfied with his latest astonishment, said: "No. They have the following word: the."

"As in tea?"

"Not té! The!"

"No male, no female?"


"C'est bizarre, mon ami!"

"Los gringos," Aguirre lamented, "are hermaphrodites."

Which begs the question – I wonder if some words in Spanish can be gay?

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