Tag Archives: noun gender

Say it isn’t so, (Trader) Joe

I love Trader Joe’s. We live about midway between two of their stores, so I end up shopping there two or three times a week. My husband would probably starve to death if I didn’t keep our freezer stocked with Chicken Tikka Masala, Mac ‘n Cheese, and the like for his lunches. And their goat milk brie reminds me of the excellent cabra cheese I enjoyed in Spain last summer, with a firm crust and a soft center.

But ever since TJ’s introduced their Chicken Asada, my happy shopping mood is punctured every time I cruise the refrigerator case. The problem is that chicken (pollo) is masculine in Spanish, so Asada should really be be Asado. The abominably feminine Asada is no doubt a carry-over from the more famous Carne Asada, which Trader Joe’s also sells. However, TJ’s gets chicken gender right in their Pollo Asado (this is just chicken, no vegetables or sauce), and Pollo Asado pizza.

Wrong gender! Abomination!

pollo-carne

Correct gender for pollo (with or without pizza) and carne

If you care about Spanish grammar, please contact Trader Joe’s to complain — maybe they’ll fix the product name if they hear from enough hispanophiles! Here is some suggested wording.

Please change the name of your Chicken Asada product to Chicken Asado, to match the (correct) gender you use for your ‘Pollo Asado’. Chicken (‘pollo’) is masculine in Spanish, so ‘asada’ is just plain wrong. ‘Asada’ is correct in ‘Carne Asada’, but that’s because meat (‘carne’) is feminine.

 

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!

Un nuevo recurso – A new resource

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

Actualmente estoy investigando los múltiples orígenes de las palabras españolas que son masculinas aunque terminan con -a. En el proceso descubrí el sitio web BlogoLenga. Tiene el sumario más útil sobre este tema que he encontrado, incluso el de la nueva Gramática de la Real Academia. Es una lástima que su autor no diga nada de su identidad.

BlogoLengua

No dudo que mis lectores encontrarán algo de interés en el blog. ¡Que disfruten!

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Right now I’m looking into the many origins of Spanish nouns that are masculine even though they end in -a. In the process I came across the website BlogoLenga, which has the best summary I’ve seen of this topic, including the one in the Real Academia’s new Gramática. It’s a pity that the blog’s author has little to say about his (or her) identity.

I’m sure that my Spanish-speaking readers will find something of interest in the blog. Enjoy!

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.

tenistas

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