Learning Spanish can be quite challenging, especially when it comes to understanding the gender of nouns. In Spanish, masculine nouns end in o and feminine nouns end in a generally. They take their corresponding masculine or feminine article as in el auto or la casa. Besides some exceptions to this rule introduced last month, another exception is that of nouns that appear to be feminine but can either be masculine or feminine, depending on the sex of the person in question.
This exception commonly applies to nouns of professionals that in English end in ist, e.g. the pianist: el pianista, la pianista; the dentist: el dentista, la dentista; the alpinist: el alpinista, la alpinista. Notice that even when referring to a male dentist, the noun ends in a. The masculine article, however, indicates that the person referred to is a male. On the other hand, many traditional professions that were performed in the past mostly by men did not take the a desinence to refer to female professional as in the attorney: el abogado, la abogado. In this case, the feminine sex of the professional was indicated by the feminine article la.
During the previous century, the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, which determines how language evolves, accepted to give the feminine desinence to many professions that became popular among women with the emancipation of women’s movement. This was a positive development for women’s rights, as it allowed them to be referred to with the same grammatical desinence as their male counterparts.
Besides women’s request to change the desinence of some nouns of professions, aesthetics was a key factor in the Academy’s decision to concede this petition. It is now correct and sounds better to say la abogada to refer to a female attorney rather than la abogado. Ironically, wouldn’t men want the Academy to accept a masculine desinence for those professions ending in a when referring to a male professional and, instead of el artista, to say el artisto? But would this be aesthetically preferable?
The answer is not simple, as it is difficult to determine the level of acceptance that such a change would receive. It is certain, however, that the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language views the change of desinences of professions that were traditionally performed by men to a feminine one as a positive development, as it helps promote gender equality.
What you need to know when Learning Spanish
The concept of gender in Spanish is also important to consider when dealing with the exceptions to the rule. For example, the nouns idioma (“language”) and día (“day”) are technically masculine, but the feminine desinence is often used in both cases. The same goes for the nouns mapa (“map”) and sofá (“sofa”), which are normally masculine but can also take a feminine desinence in some cases.
In terms of ambiguous nouns, some nouns in Spanish can be either masculine or feminine depending on the context in which they are used. For example, the nouns mar (“sea”) and calor (“heat”) can be either masculine or feminine depending on the connotation or the context in which they are used. This phenomenon is known as “gênero vacilante” (“vacillant gender”) in Portuguese.
Understanding the concept of gender in Spanish is essential to gaining a better understanding of the language. It is important to note that some exceptions to the rule exist, such as the fact that some nouns that appear to be feminine can be either masculine or feminine depending on the sex of the person in question. In addition, some nouns can be either masculine or feminine depending on the context in which they are used.
By understanding the concept of gender in Spanish, you will be able to develop your own intuition and eventually remember the correct gender for Spanish nouns with greater ease. With enough practice, you can even master the exceptions and nuances of the language.
By Andreina Ojeda, M.A. Modern Languages and M.A. International Studies.
President and Founder of Lingua Language Center at Broward College.