A tale of language the gender of words, and the Chileans that are trying to mess with my brain.
Spanish is pretty easy to learn, as far as sounds go. Sure, you’ll probably never get your rr or r quite right, and if you arrive too late in life (which is up to interpretation), you’ll always (as I do) have a bit of an accent. But it’s pretty rule-driven, the only weird things (to an English speaker) are pretty much idioms, slang, reflexive verbs, the subjunctive, and then the dreaded concordancia.
Concordancia is agreement. Verbs have to agree with their people, as in Yo no entiendo=I don’t understand and not *Yo no entiende=I/you don’t understand, which, given what it is trying to say, it is no wonder that no one understands what is going on. There must be verb-person agreement. Every person has an ending. Sure, there’s the complication of the something like sixteen tenses, for things you didn’t even know you’d ever want to say, but that would be a tangent. And I *don’t like tangents (trying out the asterisk=untrue function).
There must also be noun-adjective agreement, and this is based on the gender (and number) of the noun in question. And here’s where infierno in the tierra begins. As you probably know, every noun has a gender. This gender is unrelated to anything actually gendered about the item in question, which explains (or doesn’t) that, for example, uterus is masculine (el útero). There are a few rules, like that things that end in -o are masculine. Except for handy (oh! I slay me) words like mano (hand), which is feminine and the pesky agua, which is feminine but takes a masculine article in the singular, but not in the plural (and many thanks to all who corrected me on this point!).
As in English, only the strongest can survive, so in general, words that violate the rules tend to be important ones. In English, the most irregular verb we have is “to be,” which is also one of the most important. If you want to read more about that, I recommend pop-linguist Steven Pinker’s Words and Rules. And damnit, there goes that tangent again.
And we’re back. So you’ve got your -o words, and you’ve got your -a words.
Then there are the -ma words, which are mostly masculine. Problema, tema, drama, etc. All masculine (and easy to figure out what they mean in English). And the -ión words, educación, administración, constitución etc. All feminine, and also easy to decipher.
And then there are words that there are no rules about, and that you just have to remember, and which may vary from romance language to romance language. Like la leche (easy to remember, if you ever buy it in a Spanish-speaking country, as it says “leche descremada” and you can back-engineer and figure out that due to concordancia, leche must be feminine. And so it is. But not in portuguese, where it is o leite, and masculine. Darn Portuguesians. (kidding). More on this later.
There are rhyming words that don’t have the same article, which is grr-worthy. My favorites are puente (bridge) and fuente (fountain). Fountain is easyish, because here we have the fuente alemana (German fountain, both a fountain and a sandwich shop), and you can do the back-formation, as shown above with the leche descremada, or semi-descremada, if you prefer. Puente is harder, because it’s often paired with words like colgante (hanging), and peatonal (pedestrian), neither of which belie the gender. Puente, to be honest, I remember in this grouchy nothing-makes-sense kind of way, using the fact that it works the opposite of how fuente does, and then I remember the fuente alemana, and did someone say something about a bridge? It’s a good thing humans make connections quickly. Otherwise you’d be standing there all día (masculine, despite the -a ending) wondering what was going on.
And the list goes on: sal (salt). Sal is feminine, la sal. But in French it’s masculine, le sel. Lest you overestimate my linguistic prowess, I do not actually speak French, but I do, occasionally remember snippets from high school French. Like the gender of salt. Same re: Portuguese and milk. These strengthen my argument about how languages are out to confuse us.
And then there’s…
There’s people in Chile that are trying to KILL me with the articles. Not just confuse, but kill me. Really.
I’ve been here a long time, and I speak a lot of Spanish. I know that incertidumbre (uncertainty) is feminine, like its sort-of-rhymers, costumbre (custom) and muchedumbre (a word we don’t use in Chile, but which means crowd.). Also feminine is niñez (youth/childhood), despite lack of indicators (words that end in -z are sometimes feminine, looking at you, matríz (matrix, or water main), and sometimes masculine, Mr. disfraz (costume, masculine).
So what to do?
If you want to know what’s what, or who’s who, google with quotes and see what gets you more hits. Some words are feminine in one place, and masculine in another, especially between Old and New World, and in the case of some words, no on is quite sure what’s going on. Explained more here.
One of the words they talk about as having a gender-bendy quality to it is calor (heat). I have always been taught that it is “el calor“. As in No es el calor, es la humedad (it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity, and btw, that’s another good rule for you, if it ends in -dad, it’s feminine).
But recently, “la calor” is sweeping the city. I don’t know where it came from, but I keep on hearing people on the bus say, as they’re selling one of those microwaveable or freezable wraps, pa’l frio pa la calor (for cold, for heat). And it’s not just on the bus. I hear my friends say it, and I know it’s a joke, and I suspect if it is, it’s classist, but these are the same people that drag out the middle rr in horror, making fun of the upper class, so I try not to get my calzones in a nudo. (knickers in a knot, both masculine, and no, that is not an expression in Chilean Spanish, though it should be). Anyway, you already knew calzones was masculine, because the photo on top says calzones rotos which means “torn undies” but in this case is a kind of sweet, twisty fry-bread, denser than a sopaipilla, and eaten with a dusting of powdered sugar.
I had almost gotten my brain around la calor, when I started hearing the wrong article pop up in other places as well. Just the other day, I was at the feria, and I heard a fruttivendola (possibly my favorite Italian word ever, it means female fruit vendor, and we don’t use it in Chile, but we should, and I also don’t speak Italian) shouting. And what was she shouting?
La brocoli (5150 google results)
but I know, deep in my cruciferous vegetable-loving soul, that the word is el brocoli (537,500 google results).
So I am left with the following thoughts.
1. any masculine word can now be willy-nilly changed to feminine with a simple article-ectomy followed by an article implant.
2. Chileans are connecting with their archaic poetic souls, back to a time when calor was feminine (it really was, see article above), and maybe brocoli was, too (though I doubt this).
3. Maybe it will become fashionably adorable for me to misremember the gender of words.
4. Unfortunately, it will never become fashionably adorable to use the wrong-gendered adjective to go with my appropriately-gendered nouns, which is really the crux of el problema que me delata (the problem that gives me away). But I’m just going to pretend it’s my faulty rs and rrs.
And the fact that if it weren’t enough that the name of the aforementioned dessert is unappetizing, they also sit in my stomach like a roca, or a piedra, which are both feminine.