Generalities about gender in French
Genres et dénomination
Genders and their denomination
French knows 2 genders (genres) called masculine and feminine, and does not know neuter/neutral gender unlike Latin, German or English. The similarities on that point are to be found in other Romance languages like Italian or Spanish.
The Académie française calls the terms masculine and feminine "inappropriate " and claims that genders should be referred to as respectively unmarked and marked genders.
In the case of nouns referring to human beings, masculine or unmarked gender plays two distinct parts:
1. Characterization of male human being opposed to female : client m. / cliente f.
2. Representation for both genders : clients m. (both males and females)
The latter is called "extensive" by the Académie which defines it as having the capacity to represent elements of both genders.
Attribution du genre
For nouns referring to non-living things, plants and the vast majority of animals, the assignment of gender is random, it means that there is no proven link between gender and meaning. Gender is said grammatical (masculine vs. feminine).
The situation is different for the vast majority of nouns referring to human beings and animals raised or hunted by them, the allocation is then motivated by natural gender or sex (male vs. female):
D'où viennent les genres ?
Origin of genders in French
French genders are a Latin heritage. During the transition from Latin to Old French, two major changes occurred:
1. The loss of the Latin nominal declension: The nominal form of accusative case won over the nominative case (subject case), both at the singular and plural forms.
2. The loss of neutral gender: Latin had originally three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. French has retained only two. Feminine nouns from Latin remained feminine in French when both masculine and neutral nouns became masculine, except neutral nouns with a plural form as -ia due to their similarities with feminine nouns.
The switch from Old French to Middle French, and then to Modern French has not brought major gender changes, only on few points. (Picoche, Marcello-Nizia, 1993)
In this work, we are not discussing how genders were originally assigned in Indo-European languages or what is the purpose or use of having genders in a language. These are separate issues.
Répartition entre les genres
Distribution among Genders
We notice a ratio of 55-45% in favor of masculine nouns (n.m.), in general dictionaries such as Larousse and Le Petit Robert, so the balance leans slightly on the side of masculine nouns in terms of number of words.
Aquisition des genres
Gender acquisition is not a problem for native speakers. Hesitations, if any, are confined to a few words such as: opinion - coriandre or some specific cases like: après-midi m. or f. - amour m. / amours f.
For learners and second language speakers though, genders can be a real concern or annoyance, especially if the phenomenon is unknown in their mother tongue.
Natural assimilation of genders results from phonic learning acquired when using the language. At some point, some final sounds call a gender rather than the other.
This learning process is based on the recognition of two types of finals.
1.1. Finals of simple nouns (nouns that are not derivatives, nor compounds)
- Simple masculine nouns end mostly in an open syllable (a vowel sound).
a nasalized consonant : son [sɔ̃], parfum [parfœ̃], clan [klɑ̃], pain [pɛ̃],
or a mute consonant: banc [bɑ̃], nid [ni], bois [bwa], drap [dra], rang [rɑ̃], nez [ne], saoul [su].
For that reason, nouns ending with a vowel sound will be naturally identified as masculine.
- Simple feminine nouns, on the contrary, end mostly in an closed syllable (consonant sound).
For that reason, nouns ending with a consonant sound will be naturally identified as feminine.
There are however several areas of uncertainty.
- In the case of final consonants –r and –l that are not mute:
The pairs bar m. and barre f. [bar] or bal m. and balle f. [bal] are pronounced exactly the same way.
- In the case of final consonants that are occasionally pronounced like in parc [park], bus [bys], huit [ɥit], cap [kap], sens [sɑ̃s], van [van] or blog [blɔg].
- In the case of final vowels followed by a mute –e, like in allée [ale], boue [bu], vie [vi], plaie [plE], rue [ry], queue [kø], voie [vwa].
Impossible is those cases to figure out the gender from the pronunciation.
1.2. Finals of suffixed nounsThanks to suffixes, the gender of large families of derivatives is easily identified.
Examples of masculine suffixes:
-age (voyage), -ment (développement), -eau (tableau)… ;
Examples of feminine suffixes:
-ion (création), -ure (fermeture), -ade (promenade)... ;
But here also, there are some limitations and areas of uncertainty due partly to homonyms such as:
suff. m. -eur (baladeur) / suff. f. -eur (fraîcheur)
suff. m. -oir (pressoir) / suff. f. -oire (patinoire)
suff. m. -ail (bétail) / suff. f. -aille (ferraille)
suff. m. -is (fouillis) / suff. f. -ie (maladie)
suff. m. -aire (vestiaire) / suff. f. -ière (frontière)
…or tricky endings like:
suff. f. –ion (union) / suff. m. –on (avion)
suff. m. –age (garage) / mot simple f. (image)
The acquisition process relies also on many clues offered by the grammatical environment often indicative of the gender (determiners, adjectives, past participles ...). For instance, the two homonyms tour m. and tour f. can be differentiated once in a sentence :un bon tour (article and adj. are explicitly masculine in writing & orally)
une belle tour (article and adj. are explicitly feminine in writing & orally)
la bêtise qu’il a faite (suffix, article and past participle are explicitly feminine both in writing and orally)However, this information does not always appear, like for instance when determiners such as des pétales, l’après-midi, votre groupe, mon opinion, leur foi, cet exemple (orally) or certain adjectives such as: ces livres rouges or tes chaussures marronare being used.In those examples, neither the grammar nor the pronunciation will provide any clue.
3. Mechanical assimilation
To complement these learning "in vitro" or to remedy their absence, learners use various mnemonics means which can include:
Often recommended in language classes, this technique has proved its worth. Indefinite articles are very stable and suit this method.
List of single words: un stylo, un fromage, un ange, une table, une bombe, une forêt… ;
List of pairs : un vélo, une voiture / le soleil, la lune / un océan, une mer / un appartement, une maison
Memorization of endings together with their exceptions
Many books, articles and websites about French as a foreign language offer long lists of endings with their exceptions, such as:
Are masculine, nouns ending in:
-eau except peau and eau,
-u except glu, tribu and vertu
-age except cage, image, rage, nage, plage and page... ;
Are feminine, nouns ending in :
-ette except squelette;
-ade except grade, stade, jade;
-nde except monde... ;
Memorization by mental associations
Some students develop from their French classes, their readings, or by associations of thoughts links between meaning and gender, like for instance:
Tree names are male (oranger, bananier), but their fruits are female (orange, banane)
The sky (le ciel), protective father, is male but the earth (la terre), nurturing mother, is feminine.
The shirt (la chemise) worn by men is feminine, while the one worn by women (le chemisier) is masculine.
In a word, any technique is welcome to ease cross this first class hurdle that represent genders. Many advanced learners/speakers admit that mistakes on genders remain their most recurrent blunders when using French.
Prédiction du genre d'un nom
In terms of statistics, the probability to guess the correct gender is 1 out of 2, which is not that bad, when you think about it.
According to traditional grammars, the level of predictability is quite low. In reference books such as “Le Bon usage” by famous grammarians M. Grevisse and A. Goosse, you can read that “gender has no consistent link with the noun form. It is therefore impossible to give strict rules about it.” However, the reader is sent to a list of categories :
Six categories are identified as masculine:
1. nouns ending with suffixes -ier, -age, -as, -ement, -ament, -in, -is, -on, -illon, -isme and -oir.
2. names of trees
3. names of metals and chemical body
4. names of languages
5. names of days, months and seasons
6. final –a seems to produce masculine nouns (opera, sauna ...)
Only two categories for feminine:
1. nouns ending with suffixes -ade, -aie, -aille, -aison, -aine, -ison, -ance, -ande, -ée, -ence, -esse, -eur (except honneur and labeur), -ie -ille, -ise, -sion, -tion, -ing, -ure
2. names of sciences: géologie, physique, grammaire, chimie
Grammar textbooks do not provide any satisfactory overview or thorough explanation of the gender phenomenon in French. Mnemonics might help memorize but don't give any clue to how the whole system works.