Tag Archives: masculine and feminine

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

Obama’s Spanish slip-ups

With civilization under attack from both terrorists and demagogues, the idea of a blog post nit-picking President Obama’s Spanish definitely feels — trivial. However, we all do what we can. I have no idea how to bring about world peace. But I hope that by sharing some useful insights into the world’s second-most-spoken language, I might, in my own way, bring the world a little closer together.

Terry Byrne of USA Today pointed out to me that Obama mistakenly said Es un nueva día ‘It’s a new day’ in his introductory remarks at his joint press conference with Raul Castro. This occurs toward the end of the clip below. Because día is masculine, the correct Spanish would have been un nuevo día. I also noticed that Obama began his remarks by wishing the audience Buenos tardes ‘Good afternoon’ instead of Buenas tardes, with the -as ending on buenas matching the feminine gender of tardes.


Noun gender — the difference between masculine and feminine nouns — poses a steep challenge to English speakers. The fact that Obama made these mistakes even though the correct Spanish was surely written in his notes reflects this difficulty. Beginners tend to ignore gender completely, especially when adjectives are separated from their controlling nouns (e.g. La casa es bonita). Even advanced non-native speakers make mistakes. I know that I still do, from time to time.

While Obama’s two mistakes — buenos for buenas and nueva for nuevo — both involved gender, they had different triggers. The first mistake was most likely a carry-over from the more common expression Buenos días. The fact that tarde ends in an -e, so that its gender is not obvious, may have played a contributing role. The second mistake was undoubtedly driven by the fact that día appears to be feminine because it ends in -a. In an earlier post I explained the historical roots of this irregularity. Essentially, dies, the Latin source of día, was the lone masculine among a set of Latin words (the “fifth declension”) that all came to have -a endings in Spanish. Others include materia/madera (both from Latin materies), especia (from species), and rabia (from rabies).

It’s particularly interesting that Obama correctly said un (masculine) and then changed the next word, nuevo, to nueva (feminine). I can think of two reasons why this happened. The first is that un isn’t as obviously masculine as nuevo because the final -o of uno is dropped in this context. The second is that nuevo immediately precedes día, so that the -a ending of día might have exerted a stronger pull.

Changing gears from linguistics to literature: in the speech that Obama gave in Cuba the next day, he quoted the Cuban poet José Martí’s “Cultivo una rosa blanca”, which alludes to the possibility of peace between long-time enemies. You can hear this reference at 1:30 in the clip below. I got a big kick out of this quote because I had just assigned the poem in my intermediate Spanish class. I can’t think of a better, and more timely, demonstration of the importance of literature!

El género desenfrenado — Gender gone wild

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

Últimamente he vuelto mi atención de los pluralia tantum al género gramatical (otra vez), y he investigado un poco la historia del género en otros idiomas relacionados al español. Ya sabía que el latín tenía tres géneros (masculino, feminino, y neutro), que heredó este sistema del proto-indo-europeo, que el francés y el italiano (como el español) solo tienen el masculino y el femenino), y que el alemán todavía tiene el neutro. He aprendido que:

  • Todos los lenguajes romanos perdieron el género neutro. Esto implica que ya habría ido fallando en el latín vulgar.
  • El alemán no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en preservar el neutro. Otros incluyen el gujarati (un idioma de India), el griego, y el ruso.
  • El inglés no es el único idioma indo-europeo moderno en haber perdido completamente el género gramatical. Otros incluyen el armenio y el bengalí.
  • El resultado romance (con el masculino y el femenino, pero sin el neutro) es el más común. Otros idiomas en esta ala incluyen el albanés, el hindi, los idiomas célticos, y los idiomas bálticos (el letón y el lituano).
  • El polaco y el serbio (los dos eslavos) han sorprendentemente aumentado sus sistemas de género de tres a cinco géneros por medio de dividir el masculino en tres géneros distintos: objetos inanimados, seres humanos, y otras entidades animadas. Para una geek lingüística como yo, ¡esto es una de las cosas más interesantes que he aprendido en los últimos meses! Se puede enterar más de ello en Wikipedia (busca la expresión “five genders”) o, para una fuente más respetable, en las páginas 425-6 de Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, por Benjamin Fortson IV. Recomiendo este libro de todas maneras.


I’ve recently turned my attention from pluralia tantum back to noun gender, and did some research on the history of gender in languages related to Spanish. I already knew that Latin had three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), that it inherited this system from Proto-Indo-European, that French and Italian (like Spanish) only have masculine and feminine, and that German has neuter. Here’s what I’ve learned in the last few days.

  • All Romance languages lost the neuter gender. This implies that it must already have been on its way out in Vulgar Latin.
  • German isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to preserve the neuter gender. Others include Gujarati, Greek, and Russian.
  • English isn’t the only modern Indo-European language to have completely lost gender. Others include Armenian and Bengali.
  • The Romance outcome (masculine and feminine in, neuter out) is the most common. Other languages in this camp are Albanian, Hindi, the modern Celtic languages, and the Baltic languages (Latvian and Lithuanian).
  • Polish and Sorbian (these are both Slavic languages) have actually jumped from three genders to five by splitting masculine into three categories: inanimate, human, and other animate. For a language geek like me, this is one of the most coolest things I’ve learned in the last several months! You can read about it on Wikipedia (search for the phrase “five genders”) or, for a more reputable source, on pp. 425-6 in Benjamin Fortson IV’s Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, which I strongly recommend in any case.

¿Why is día masculine?

[Today is Spanish Friday so this post is in Spanish. ¡Scroll down for English translation!]

La verdadera pregunta aquí es por qué día es masculina Y termina con -a. Llevo unas semanas investigando tales palabras españolas, de las cuales día es la más frecuente. Día es masculina porque viene de la palabra proto-indo-europea *diéus, que significaba el dios del cielo (un dios masculino) o el cielo diurno. Recibió su -a final principalmente porque su progenitor inmediato latino, diēs, era la única palabra masculina en la clase de sustantivos de la quinta declensión latina. Otros sustantivos en esta categoría también terminaban con –ēs, o aun –iēs. Incluían effigiēsrēs, y speciēs.

La terminación de muchos sustantivos en este grupo cambió de –iēs a -a cuando el latín se desarrolló al español. Speciēs, por ejemplo, nos dio especia. Otros ejemplos incluyen materiēs, la fuente de materia y madera, y rabiēs, la fuente de rabia.

Estos cambios eran parte de una tendencia española de extender la terminación explícitamente femenina -a a sustantivos que ya eran femeninos, tales como infanta (de infante en latin) y señora (de seniōre). Muchos sustantivos masculinos igualmente adquirieron nuevas terminaciones de -o. Estos incluyen pájaro ‘bird’, de passare, y corcho, de cortice. Ralph Penny nombra estos cambios ‘hypercharacterization’.

Para diēs el cambio a ‑a resultó en un conflicto entre el género masculino del sustantivo y su terminación femenina. Sin duda el hecho de que diēs era ambigua en cuanto al género contribuyó al cambio. Aunque normalmente era masculina, diēs era femenina cuando tenía el sentido de ‘fecha límite’ o ‘cita’. O sea, la confusión de género ha sido una parte de esta palabra desde sus orígenes.


The real question here is why día ‘day’ is masculine even though it ends with -a, the Spanish feminine ending par excellence. I have been looking into words like this lately; día ‘day’ is the most frequent of them. Día is masculine because it comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *diéus, meaning ‘Sky-god’ (a masculine deity) or ‘daytime sky’. It ended up with a final -a mostly because its immediate Latin progenitor, diēs, was the only masculine word in Latin’s ‘fifth declension’ noun class. (Doesn’t “The Fifth Declension” sound like a good name for an amateur rock band composed of linguists, like Stanford’s “Dead Tongues”?) Other nouns in this category also ended in –ēs, or even –iēs. They included effigiēs ‘effigy’, rēs ‘thing’, and speciēs ‘sight, view; shape, form’.

The ending of several fifth declension nouns changed from –iēs to a as Latin evolved into Spanish. Speciēs, for example, became especia ‘spice’. Other examples include Latin materiēs, which evolved into Spanish materia ‘matter, substance’ and madera ‘wood’, and rabiēs, the source of Spanish rabia ‘rage’.

These changes were part of a broader tendency to extend the explicit ‑a marker to nouns that were already feminine, such as infanta ‘princess’ (from Latin infante) and señora ‘madame, lady’ (from seniōre). Likewise, many masculine nouns acquired a freshly-minted -o ending. Examples include Spanish pájaro ‘bird’, from Latin passare and corcho ‘cork’, from Latin cortice. Ralph Penny refers to these changes as ‘hypercharacterization’.

For diēs the change to ‑a created a conflict between the noun’s gender and its ending. It was probably abetted by the fact that diēs was sexually ambiguous. While normally masculine, diēs was treated as feminine when used in the sense of ‘appointed day, deadline’. In other words, gender confusion has been built into the word from the get-go. Plus ça change…

Fun with CORDE

I woke up this morning determined to nail down citable examples of something I’d read online and in Ralph Penny’s A History of the Spanish Language: that words like drama, enigma, and tema, which are masculine in modern Spanish, were often treated as feminine in earlier forms of the language. These -ma masculine were borrowed from Greek via Latin; they were neuter in gender in both ancient languages.

My starting point was Ralph Penny’s mention of:

UntitledThis BlogoLengua post listed some relevant -ma words:


However, the RAE’s first dictionary did not back up BlogoLengua’s examples. The words were either not in the dictionary (apotegma, fantasma, sofiama) or defined as masculine (clima, dogma, drama, enigma, primsa) or as ambiguous in gender (aroma, cisma).

I had better luck using another RAE tool: its marvelous CORDE, or Corpus Diacrónico del Español, which provides instant search access to Spanish texts “desde los inicios del idioma hasta el año 1975”, i.e. from the dawn of the language until 1975. One can customize a search by time interval, author, and other variables. Here is the search I did for enigma, using the time limit suggested in the BlogoLengua post:enigma

This search found 219 examples. I found it most helpful to look at them in “concordance” mode, which shows each example in a one-line context:


Columns further to the right (cropped out here for display purposes) include the author, title, and country of each work cited, its theme (novel, legal document, etc.) and publication data.

On this list you can see a mixture of masculine and feminine uses of enigma. On the second result page I found my favorite example, from none other than Cervantes, the author of Don Quijote. Clicking on the word enigma in that example brought me to the full citation, from p. 399 of his first novel (pub. 1585), La Galatea:


What could be a better example of early feminine usage of -ma masculines than la enigma de Galatea? That one is going straight into my book.

Using CORDE I was able to verify most of the other words listed in BlogoLengua. Examples ranged from the title of a 16th century work by Juan Rufo (Las seiscientas apotegmas) to a line from a poem by Lope de Vega about the climate of the New World (¿Es la clima ardiente o fría?) and a reference in a 15th century medical text to las dogmas evangelicas.

Thank you, RAE, for a truly enjoyable and productive intellectual morning.

My least favorite Spanish word

In an earlier post I wrote about two of my favorite Spanish words: esdrújulo and azulejo. I love esdrújulo because it reminds me of my academic research on Spanish stress and because of its role in an amusing family anecdote. I love azulejo because it starred in one of my happiest Spanish memories, when my high school Spanish came flooding back to me in Madrid after a few years off to learn French.

I also have a least favorite Spanish word: víctima, which means victim. My problem with the word is that it’s always feminine. A woman is una víctima and a man is una víctima, too. This really bothers me as a woman. Why should all victims be feminine?

As a linguist, I have more perspective. Víctima is feminine by historical accident, not by misogynist design: it comes from the feminine Latin noun victima, meaning a person or animal killed as a sacrifice. Nor is it the only Spanish noun whose gender is unaffected by that of the person it refers to. Bebéángel, and personaje are always masculine, and the word persona itself is always feminine. (So is gente, though it doesn’t refer to an individual person.) This is a small group of words, but all well-established in the language.

Moreover, I know that there’s nothing intrinsic about noun gender, once we get beyond words like madre and padre. There’s nothing masculine about a libro and estante (book and bookshelf), or feminine about a mesa and silla (table and chair). For that matter, Spanish words referring to many aspects of the female experience are masculine, including embarazo and parto (pregnancy and childbirth), útero (obvious), and pecho (breast). This is the kind of mismatch that inspires beginning Spanish students to change el vestido “the dress” to la vestida, always a chuckle-worthy mistake. I’m sure we could come up with a similar list of feminine vocabulary related to the male experience.

Nevertheless, it is overwhelmingly the case, with the few exceptions mentioned above, that Spanish words for people “swing” either masculine or feminine, depending on whom they refer to. These include several other nouns that, like víctima, end in -a, like dentista, turista, and atleta. Thus Rafael Nadal es un atleta espléndido (masc.) and Arantxa Arantxa Sánchez Vicari is una atleta espléndida (fem.) “People” nouns ending in -e swing as well: thus el or la agente, estudiante, cantante, and so on  Most nouns that apply to people, of course, have distinct masculine and feminine forms, like profesor and profesora or médico and médica.


Un tenista espléndido y una tenista espléndida.

Even a criminal can be un or una!!!

According to the Collins dictionary, though not the Real Academia, there’s been some progress toward gender flexibility in the baby department. Collins defines bebé as either masculine and feminine, and reports a specifically feminine variant beba (no accent) in Argentina. With this example as an inspiration, and in the spirit of feminist linguistic revolt, I hereby resolve to use un víctima in my own Spanish when referring to a male victim. Won’t you join me?

UN víctima masculinO