Before you read this section, test your knowledge of the ways in which nouns (words that refer to people, animals and things) are classified in Spanish. Indicate whether each of the following statements is VERDADERO (true) or FALSO (falso).
Spanish, like many other languages uses specific categories to classify nouns. These classification systems require speakers to combine words in a sentence so that they correlate (or match) the classification of that noun and create patterns that can then be considered “grammatically correct” according to standardised norms.
These categories are typically reflected in the ending of words. This happens in English with plural forms, for instance, the word “book-s” in which the -s represents number: “more than one”. To form a grammatically correct sentence we have to consider this quantity and choose other words that match the use of that plural form, so we might say “THE books ARE on the table” rather than *“A books IS on the table”.
A similar kind of classification, but one that works differently from this type of agreement between words, is the classification that languages such as Mandarin Chinese have. In Mandarin Chinese, for instance, if you are going to count or measure a noun, you need to use specific words according to the class that noun belongs to. Let’s talk about pets, for example, “dog” is gǒu, and “cat” is máo, but if we want to say one dog and one cat, the expression “ONE” (yi) needs to match each of these noun categories: “one dog” is yi tiáo gǒu and one cat is yi zhī máo (you count dogs with the word tiáo, also used for other nouns such as legs, lives, and notes, while you count cats with the word zhī, the same counting word used for pens, parrots, and sleeves).
Spanish, like English simply uses the -s to represent plural forms in countable nouns. But in addition to NUMBER (singular/plural), Spanish also uses another classification (or gender) system for all nouns: “grammatical gender”. This type of classification system requires a binary distinction between “masculine” and “feminine” nouns.
Typically, this distinction is based on the ending of the word, with the majority of “grammatically masculine” nouns ending in -o and the majority of “grammatically feminine” nouns ending in -a (although there are a few exceptions to this rule).
And just like what happens with plural nouns, the grammatical gender category requires correlation or agreement with the rest of the associated words within a sentence. So, for instance, if we look at the noun “teléfono” (telephone, mobile), we can assume that it is classified as a grammatically masculine noun because it ends with an -o and also that it is singular because it does not have an -s at the end. So, in order to form a sentence about this noun we need to make sure that all accompanying words match the masculine/singular category that it belongs to.
EL teléfono ES nuevo.
[THE phone IS new]
If we instead talked about “calculadoras” (calculators), we can assume that this refers to a grammatically feminine, plural word because the last two letters are -a and -s, in that order. In this case we could therefore say:
LAS calculadoras SON nuevas.
[THE calculators ARE new]
In Spanish, therefore, like in many other grammatical gendered languages which rely on the binary distinction between grammatically “feminine” and “masculine” nouns, when it comes to identifying yourself and also when referring to other people this results in having to gender the person addressed according to the social/biological categories of “female” or “male”.
While in English such gendering practices are reflected in the use of titles (Mr, Mrs), pronouns (he, she) and possessive adjectives (his, her), in Spanish this extends further to all other adjectives (tall, short, old, young, etc.) and describing words (that, this, those, etc.) associated with how you choose to identify yourself and the person you are referring to. We discuss the implications of such decisions in other entries.
Finally, while in some languages like Hebrew the grammatically femenine/masculine distinction extends to verb forms, that is, verbs also have to match the grammatical gender of the subject in a sentence, in Spanish, the grammatically femenine/masculine distinction in nouns DOES NOT affect the correspending verbs (phew!).
- How are nouns classified in the language(s) that you speak or are familiar with? Can you give examples?
- What do you think is the biggest challenge when it comes to learning grammatical gender in Spanish?
- What learning strategies do you think you can use to study the grammatical gender of nouns in Spanish?
- What implications do you think having to gender yourself and other people may have in your Spanish language learning journey (inside and outside the classroom)?
Curious to know more? You may find this YouTube video useful to learn more about grammatical gender in other languages.
What was most the surprising fact discussed in the video?
Still curious? You may also want to consult:
Audring, J. (2016). Gender. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Retrieved from https://oxfordre.com/linguistics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.001.0001/acrefore-9780199384655-e-43.