A note on the Concept of Gender in French

written by Ronald Batchelor

To the English-speaking beginner, the notion of masculine and feminine gender for French nouns comes as a surprise. Perhaps it should not be so. For in most European languages of Indo-European origin, and this includes Arabic, 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 such a beginner, the concept of gender assigned to inanimate objects appears extraordinary, lacking all logic and convincing definition. So much for the logic of “Ce qui n’est pas logique n’est pas français.” 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 this is the limit.

However, the idea of gender in French is a presence to be reckoned with. One of the neo-Latin languages, French inherits the concept of M. and F. gender, just like Spanish, 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 table in French should be F. (=la table), like the Italian tavola (la), (but M. tavolo (il)is also common in  Italian!), and mesa (la) in Spanish, whilecouteau (le) in French, coltello (il) in Italian and cuchillo (el) in Spanish are M. defies rational explanation. Indeed, linguists agree that no rules may be established to justify this arbitrary application of gender 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 French victime, Spanish víctima, or Italian vittima, or a female should be M. as in French membre, Spanish miembro or Italian membro merely dims our understanding 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). The imagination is stretched beyond all reasonable bounds in Old Church Russian where a fourth gender occurs with a mixture of plural M. and F., the equivalent of they. However, for our purposes, we may safely concentrate on French M. and F. nouns which have repercussions throughout the French sentence since they require agreement of adjectives and past participles. Oddest of anomalies, here we come.

The gender of numerous French nouns has never been stable over the centuries, which explains serious hesitation felt, at one time or another, by practically all French 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. Three simple examples of the variability of genders over the centuries is the French M. noun le miel which is also M. in Italian (il miele) but F. in Spanish (la miel); fleur is F. in French and Spanish (la flor) but M. in Italian (il fiore); opérais M. in French but ópera is F. in Spanish, and opera is also F. in Italian. Little wonder that perplexity reigns here since opus/operis is neuter in Latin. In short, the study of gender is a testing minefield, requiring meticulous attention. Indeed, our Cambridge Reference Grammar of French devotes thirty-six pages to the subject in the light of current French usage.

                        The common expression “discuter sur le sexe des anges” (“to indulge in Byzantine quibbling”) says it all. Such a discussion points to an interminable and seemingly fruitless wrangling over the sex, and therefore gender, of angels, although sex and gender are not the same thing. Whether angels can be exclusively male or female, and whether their gender in French is M. or F. are unresolved issues. Of course, only the gender of ange concerns us here. Consensus of opinion suggests that ange is only M, witness the entry in the admirable Canadian MULTI Dictionnaire of de Villers which states unequivocally that “ange est toujours masculin” (our underlining). This opinion finds support in the Belgians Hanse and Blampain’sexcellent Nouveau dictionnaire des difficultés du français moderne. Yet, this trenchant assertion flies in the face of evidence adduced by Grevisse’s Le bon usage which quotes such prestigious authors as Vigny, Flaubert, Nerval, Zola and Saint-Exupéry, who also assign a F. gender to it. The simple fact is that French, as with other Romance languages, finds itself unavoidably caught up in gender issues that remain adamantly blurred by virtue of the relationship of the nature of gender and the constantly shifting sands of nouns. To conclude the matter of ange, nearly all contemporary French speakers view it as M. For further confusion on the sex of possible supernatural beings, démon/démone is merely another illustration of this labyrinth, although the F. form is little used these days. This said, Chateaubriand uses the F. form in his Mémoires d’outre-tombe (near the beginning of chapter 12, book 3).

(Adapted from the Cambridge A Reference Grammar of French)


Find out more about Dr. Ron Batchelor here

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