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.
agua is feminine. (just uses “el” in the singular).
One of my faves is “mar”, which can be legitimately masculine or feminine, depending on who you’re talking to.
agua is feminine! Thanks to you and everyone who reminded me. One day I’ll get this right!
Fun post Eileen–you know I love this stuff!
How about “la color”–you know, that stuff made with ají de color and oil to drizzle on top of porotos grandos.
puente/fuente has always tormented me and I remember fuente is feminine because fountains are all pretty and nice and then I want to make the bridge (puente) kinda girly too, and it just doesn’t work that way… just like revolución and demolición, and destrucción all end in an o-ish sound and just by definition ought to be masculine but aren’t–although some guys have told me they do these things for their women (!)(oh, and thanks for the el útero example! there’s an aberration if there ever was one!)
The words that always get me are tos and nube, which are both feminine but I want to make them masculine. I always remember that words like agua and alma are really feminine because I had a Spanish teacher who was explaining why they take “el” in their singular form by making the whole class say “laaaaagua” and “laaaalma” trying to make us realize how bad it sounded.
the problem in Spanish is that they don’t have the glottal stop! They should get one, and then a) agua wouldn’t need el, and b) they could say earthquake without saying “hearthquake,” which is a whole nother problem.
Yes, puente and fuente… we should clearly change the gender on one of those.
Agua is tricky, like several other of those words that start with “a” (sound) and a stressed syllable (a tònica) (alma too is feminine but uses a masculine article– el alma… but alma gemela… and ave, and ala, and hambre, and azùcar–though that a is not stressed and aula, even though that is more of a dipthong than a pure “a” sound)
They should get a glottal stop!… then they can pronounce my last name instead of asking me if it is MARteen or marTEEN… it is Mar-glottalstop-uhn, thank you very much!
I knew you’d like my glottal stop importation scheme. We should start small though. And then we should get them an initial and wo and wou that isn’t preceded by a g. How much guood could a guood chuck chuck if a guood chuck could chuch guood? Hey, I make fun of my R all the time, the least I could do is spread the joy!
Genders and languages, what a combination! Here in Norway there are three genders, although most people use only two: neutral and masculine. Feminine is used only by the people who speak pure bokmål (Norway has two written languages bokmåal and nynorsk).
So, most people will say “en jente” = “a girl” instead of “ei jente”. And of course “en” is the masculine form of the “articulo indefinido”, while “ei” is the feminine form. So, all the time you hear “un niña” which sounds wrong.
In Chile people tend to speak bad on purpose. After living in Chile for as long as you have lived, you should have become used to hearing people pronounce words the wrong way or changing letters for fun. My last update from Chile was to say “perfesto” instead of “perfecto”, same thing with “exasto” instead of “exacto”.
Not to mention some classics like “te la voy a dartela!” or “sube pa’rriba”. Teasing with genders is another way of making fun of the language, and making it harder for foreigners to follow up our conversations. Some times I have wondered if we in Chile have decided to start our own language (a fact almost proved by Profesor Campusano writing a Chilean Grammar book) just to mark a difference with the rest of the world. Who knows…
Maybe it is the mountains on the east, the desert on the north and the ocean on the west…. 🙂
I think that perfesto and exasto come from making fun of people who say peksi and piksa (for pepsi and pizza, respectively). There’s also the generalized s-ification (I made that up) of words and names. Hola is holis, tatiana is tatys, etc. Perhaps that comes from the (incorrect) fuistes? I would love to know more about this, but I would not love to go back to school to study linguistics yet again. If anyone knows a linguist who studies these topics (José Luis? got any ideas?) I would love to know.
Also, in general, you people are damn smart, and I’m so happy to have you along for the ride!
actually, there is a glottal stop in Chilean Spanish but it is used rarely, mainly by children, in expressions such as: “si i” o “no o” and the glottal stop would be placed between both vowels, but again this is a very rare case. E.g. Mamá: ¿Hija, te comiste la comida? Hija: “Si i.” I hope this helps 😀
Awesome! a native informant who is as much of a linguistics geek as I am! And in fact, now that you say it, I think Chileans also have it when they say “oh-oh” as in the English “uh-oh.” But I still get the feeling it’s more noticeable in (at least US)-English. So José Luis for the win. When are you back, btw?
how about “modelo”? “la modelo”? what the…
yes. I think that before they expect me to learn this language well, they should clean up all the inconsistencies in it. I get all of the la things that end in -o, such as foto and radio, because I know they come from fotografía and radiografía. But la modelo I have no answer for. Maybe Carlos or José Luis would like to check in!
I think la modelo is just the fact that they took the masculine word “el modelo” and made it feminine by changing the article.
They’re inconsistent about how to make a masculine noun/role feminine. Sometimes the article changes, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes they change the article and add an “a” at the end.
I like to think that somewhere, there’s something that makes sense here, but much like many Spanish speakers complain that English pronunciation, grammar and collocations don’t seem to follow any rules, I guess we’ll have to allow that Spanish is a little al azar (random) sometimes, too!
Oh this is annoying too. Like for instance you say el/la guardia, el/la dentista but it’s el doctor and la doctora. What gives?!
Modelo is masculine. I think the reason why we use “la modelo” in fashion context is to state the difference between a female model and a male one.
To be honest I Don’t know the technical reasons for words like modelo but I have some ideas. Imported words, such as doctor, are neutral so they shouldn’t have a gender (although once uses the masculine form because that is the tradition). The funny thing is that inn Chile we don’t follow the rules, we like too have genders so we end up with things like “doctora” which is not correct according to spanish (should I say Castilian rules? Not even in Spain they agree on a common set of rules). I don’t know where this comes frombut everybody does it.
You can see this pattern in lots of words and you will find people that follows the Castilian way and people that does not. Complicated words are “abogado”, which some people will use as “la abogado” and others “la abogada”.
In the specific case of “la modelo”, that probably comes from Don Francisco so used to say “Que venga la modelo”
it’s funny, too, because in the states, people have started to say “actor” for both men and women sometimes, presumably to be more inclusive? I would say la doctora, but el médico, for the same person. My Spanish is very usage-formed, since I mainly learned most of it from just talking to people, and actually don’t know that much about the rules, and certainly the etymology, as this post has proven! I wonder what other Don Franciscoisms we’re all running around saying without realizing it’s from him!
The annoying thing about using “actor” in English for both men and women, is that they will still use “actress” when it is a lighter sort of acting, almost as an insult, but there is no equivalent term for a lighter sort of acting for men… they are all just naturally “actors”… that doesn´t seem quite fair, does it?
or how about la policìa for the police department and el policìa for police officer
I also have no idea… STILL… what the difference between el bolso and la bolsa (not wall street related… just talking bags)
also el enfasis and el anàlisis, but la sìntesis and la metamorfosis
I think the difference between bolsa and bolso is that bolsa is plastic or a tote, and a bolso is anything else that’s not either a cartera, maleta or mochila. But I am not actually sure, either. Also, you talk about a much more intelectual set of ideas than I do in Spanish. Perhaps if I took up that grad degree I just said I would not, those words would come into play more often.
Yes, I know… I think I just revolt against the riduclousness of having the same word with different genders to refer to a slightly different version of the same thing.
To make matters more confusing, “puente” was actually feminine and then, some time between the XVI and the XVIII centuries, it changed gender. In some parts of the Spanish speaking Americas “puente” is still used as feminine and this dialectal use is recognized by the RAE, albeit it’s not part of the normative register in any country. Euphony takes a overtly important place in Spanish and it’s what dictates the article and thus the gender that words take.
Really? I had no idea. This is good info! I wish I were inclined to take up yet another graduate program, but when I have smart people like you commenting on the blog, why bother? Do you remember that off the top of your head?
Not at all to question your expertise Eduardo, but I always thought, with the little historical linguistics I have taken, that the word`s origin often plays a major role–which is why words like programa are masculine, for example. Euphony is probably the factor in changing the article from fem. to masc. in words like ala, but it doesn´t change the gender of the word…, at least in these cases– it is still feminine– so it seems to be set some other way. I would love a little more explanation…
Well, I’m neither an expert (in the sense that I’m not a professional linguist), just a person interested in the language probably more than the average and a passionate aficionado of literature. You are right, the origin of the words plays a major role (probably the most important) in the gender of the Spanish words, sometimes with unusual twists; but I have stumbled upon words for which I have found no explanation for their Spanish gender other than euphony, like “árbol”, whose Latin predecessor was actually feminine. Also, this “gender issue” is actually in constant flux, and is one of the points where the Spanish in the Americas (in my opinion) is starting to diverge from the Spanish in Spain.