Saturday, March 23, 2013

Telling Boys and Girls Apart

In most languages, not including English, nouns have a gender, i.e. masculine, feminine, and sometime neutral.  The requirement to have adjectives agree with their nouns requires the speaker or writer to quickly identify the gender of the noun.  In speaking, a person can guess or fudge the sound.   This is not true in writing.  Alas, some languages are more user friendly than others.

Italian makes life the easiest.  If the noun ends in o, it is masculine; if in a, it is feminine.  So, Italians say uno bello carro but una bella casa.  If the ends in an e, it can vary.  You have to memorize those.  So, uno fabricante is masculine while una delusion is feminine.  All, it is not too difficult for the learner, as is typical for Italian in general.

French is a different story.  I personally have spent hours checking and rechecking the gender of nouns.  The only rule that seems to stay in my head is that nouns ending in ion and é are feminine.  To see the problem, look at this site:  It reinforces my sense that the rules are only indications of probability.  A learner either has to have a good ear and memory and do what I do, check it in the dictionary.  La vie est dure sans confiture.

Hebrew is not too bad.  If a nouns ends in a consonant except for ת  (tov) or ה (heh), it is masculine, with only a few exceptions.  So,  כותבת(kotevet – address) is feminine while מכתב (miktav – letter) is masculine.   Hebrew is an easy language to learn in this sense.

By contrast, Russian is a challenge. It adds a third gender, neutral.  Moreover, whatever rules exist are more than equally matched by the exceptions.  The indications on this site,, are a bit misleading.  A comprehensive Russian grammar book can provide a rather long list of exceptions to every rule.  Sometimes I wonder if native Russian speakers get it right all the time.

Clearly, English is the easiest – there are no noun genders.  There are few feminine forms of professions – stewardess, waitress, and actress, to name a few.  However, those are fairly obvious.

So, not languages are equally kind to their learners.  Just having long hair and an a at the end of the word may not be enough to say whether it is a girl.

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