petite anglaise

September 28, 2004

gender reassignment

Filed under: Uncategorized — petiteanglaiseparis @ 10:48 am

These days I’m often mistaken for a French person, at least over the phone (because apparently I will always ‘look’ English). That is until I make some unforgiveably basic gender mistake. Because let’s face it, you can study a language to degree level, live in the country for donkey’s years, but you can’t re-programme your brain to think that a table is feminine and a glass is masculine. My theory is that when a French person learns to speak, the le or la is learnt as an extension of the noun in question, one cannot be dissociated from the other. Whereas when I learn a new French word, I retain the noun itself, but not its gender. I’m just not hardwired that way. This is the main reason I didn’t feel capable of teaching French. “Please Miss, you just said une verre but yesterday in the book Fifi la Folle said un verre…”

I’m always astonished when I get a gender wrong, for example when shopping, and the person serving me stares back blankly, genuinely not understanding what it is that I want. You would assume, would you not, that if you asked for une éclair au chocolat instead of un éclair au chocolat it wouldn’t be the end of the world? Apparently not. I am generally reduced to repeating my mistake a few more times, in a louder voice, until finally the shop assistant has a flash of inspiration and replies: “Ah oui Madame, vous voulez dire un éclair au chocolat, bien sûr…”

What really doesn’t help is that many words simply have the wrong gender, in my opinion. How can I possibly be expected to get my head around the following blatant mismatches between concept and gender?

masculine: le repassage (ironing), le ménage (housework), le sein (breast), l’accouchement (giving birth), le feminisme

feminine: une bitte (sl. – penis), la guerre (war), la paresse (sloth, laziness)…

I propose a wholesale revision of the French dictionary and will be writing to the Académie Française forthwith.


  1. How absolutely true. The blank look of incomprehension is all too familiar. Having lived in France for 20 years I get used to the Gallic shrug and the eh? uh? quoi? Sorry .. I am English.
    You explain it so well in your blogs – bravo.

    Comment by Hairy — September 28, 2004 @ 11:24 am

  2. Masculine/feminine. That’s where I fall down to. It’s completely insane in my opinion. Just the french trying to overcomplicate things as usual!

    Comment by Ms Jones — September 28, 2004 @ 2:30 pm

  3. Don’t forget une moustache and une barbe. I’m sure those folks at the good ol’ AF just do it to make fun of us poor, unfortunate anglophone souls.

    Although I wonder, for those who go from one language with masculine/feminine nouns to another, is it even harder? does the sex of these words often differ between tongues, or is it usually the same? And is it then easier to learn, since you’ve always grown up with gender association, or even more difficult, with a fixation on the gender you learned in your mother tongue? Hmm…

    Comment by kim — September 28, 2004 @ 3:02 pm

  4. Even between closely related languages, the gender of nouns is not maintained. You have to learn one by one, even when the noun is similar. For example, the portuguese “o leite” (milk) becomes the spanish “la leche”, making learning a language properly frustating and time consuming, which made me resig myself to speaking spanish to my in-laws at a 5 year old level.

    Comment by Cal — September 28, 2004 @ 4:46 pm

  5. bloody genders. that’s all i have to say for them. i learnt french up to the first year of ‘A’ levels (yes, i’m that old – ‘A’ levels, children!) and then dropped out. when i moved over here 22 years ago i had to start learning french all over again. guess how ? by watching ‘dallas’ and ‘dynasty’ in frog as the bbc wasn’t available back then.

    so obviously i make mistakes – but my daughters correct me. especially for certain tenses. one verb that i always avoid is ‘baisser’ – i’ve confused it once too often with another ….

    other than that, i do come across as fluent!

    Comment by zed — September 28, 2004 @ 5:21 pm

  6. Nice new site! :) Congrats.

    Comment by cass — September 28, 2004 @ 6:08 pm

  7. Just found your site through Buttercup and I think it’s great. I totally agree about the masculine/feminine argument. I did become farily fluent in French 35 years ago and haven’t been there since until this year. I can still read easily in French but speaking has become rather less easy, which I regret because i do love the language and enjoyed all my time over there. Hope to read more of your blog and link to it if you don’t mind.

    Comment by Jennytc — September 28, 2004 @ 6:45 pm

  8. oh you and me both. bloody genders. at least we all only have two, lucky we don’t have to speak german.
    uma boa noite de um sítio muito estranho

    Comment by madge — September 28, 2004 @ 7:17 pm

  9. Gender messes me up with German. I’ve given up. Unless I know the gender (and by know I mean it’s hard wired with the word, I couldn’t recite it to you), I tend to put the female die in front of everything. My colleagues are used to it and either correct me or let it go. After three years more and more words are becoming hard wired. However, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the genitive case. Argh.

    Comment by Anna — September 29, 2004 @ 7:47 am

  10. English is about the only language that does not have gender distinctions. . .and they always say it’s the hardest language to learn. Ha! Au contraire!

    Comment by Emily — September 29, 2004 @ 8:09 am

  11. As frustrating as it is (learning the genders), I get the biggest kick out of my husband assigning genders in english. I can’t help it – no matter how serious the conversation as soon as he replaces “it” with “she” I have to suppress a giggle.

    Comment by ViVi — September 29, 2004 @ 10:31 am

  12. Thank god I could give up French after 7th Grade. I never got much past “Janvier, Fevrier”, that, and I was constantly in detention for cutting French class anyway. Although looking at my lack of grammer in my first sentence in this comment, makes my poor English teacher turn in her grave (and it’s my first language). I am mucho impressado at your ability to adapt in another culture by the way, and love the new site too.

    Comment by Van — September 29, 2004 @ 11:07 am

  13. Speaking of blank looks, when I go to a bakery over here and ask for a “muffin”, I get the look; when I ask for a cup of Earl Grey, I get the look, plus a “oooohhhhh a cup of eaaarl greeeeyyyy”. Same for chocolate [I still pronounce it sometime chocol8…]
    And people feel thay have to speak to me louder, and as if I was 5 years old. Typically british!

    Comment by emilie [mimile] — September 29, 2004 @ 3:09 pm

  14. Must admit to laughing out loud at this post – I especially remember the odd looks from French colleagues during business meetings if I got the gender of somehting wrong. They have no conception on how difficult it is for us Brits to need to remember the gender as well as the noun. Mind you if you were to learn chinese, it’s all in the intonation – how the hell can you learn that I wonder….

    Comment by Sylvia — September 30, 2004 @ 6:24 am

  15. I remember a comment by a French diplomat about a British politician: “C’est un con, mais il a ni le charme ni la profondeur.” Surely the 1st noun should be feminine – & the last 2 don’t sound right, either.

    PS Anyone remember exactly who said it? Google has failed me.

    Comment by Tony S — September 30, 2004 @ 4:46 pm

  16. I sympathize will you entirely, those genders should ne abolished. I have had a similar experience speaking Dutch – which curiously boasts a vast number of diminuti ves (e.g. a cup kop becomes a cuppie kopje). This is only found with proper nouns in English, I think. Each diminutive takes the neutral form. Dutch is so weird that it doesn’t even sound incongruous. Maybe French has something equally wonderful to offer. It’s also well worth trying to categorize the damn things. It might be, for example, that nearly all animals have the same gender.

    But hey, how about some EU-wide legislation for the simplification of European languages – shouldn’t we be thinking in the longer term?

    Comment by Liam — October 1, 2004 @ 8:35 am

  17. liam, don’t try portuguese then, it’s got more diminutives than you could shake a (masculine) stick at. though generally they keep their gender once diminished(?!) there are dozens of potential endings that anyone can put on ANYTHING (nouns, adverbs, adjectives) at will that make absolutely no sense to anyone but themselves – obrigidinha pelos livrinhos para a minha pequenote, Ela é mà zona e um bocadinho rabugentita mas este livro lindíssimo tem dentro umas pernocas bonitinhas – (that made no sense after the first line, but hey, I make it up as I go along) ;)
    apologies to anyone portuguese reading that thinking, “jeez…she will have to be expelled from the country.

    Comment by madge — October 2, 2004 @ 9:10 am

  18. Ah and I have the fun of German which has three genders and confusingly a young woman Maedchen is das – neuter. A skirt is masculine – couple this with the Swiss German dialect and I find it easier to just point at things and grunt.

    Comment by heather — October 2, 2004 @ 10:23 am

  19. Don’t get me started on german. They went and ‘reformed’ their spellings and removed all the umlauts to fox me…

    Comment by petite anglaise — October 2, 2004 @ 5:04 pm

  20. Ohh I remember my (beginners’) French classes at uni – not only could I not work out noun genders (who cares if a ship is a he or a she!), I couldn’t even pronounce “un” and “une” properly, which used to drive our teacher up the wall!

    So much so that he left us after a term to go back to his degree-level students, and we got someone who taught French at kindergarten level :-)

    These days (the BF’s mother is French so we go over regularly) I just steamroll my way through, caring nought for genders or tenses – and I’m sure I get away with it because I’m “foreign” and therefore not expected to know better!

    Comment by OJ — October 6, 2004 @ 10:33 am

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