A Linguistic Irony

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. 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?

By Andreina Ojeda, M.A. Modern Languages and M.A. International Studies.
President and Founder of Lingua Language Center at Broward College.