Several languages mark for gender, meaning the language distinguishes the gender of nouns and their corresponding adjectives. This doesn’t mean an object is inherently male or female, but that the word itself is. About 25% of languages use grammartical gender; in Indo-European languages, grammatical gender is more common than not. Some of the most widely spoken languages that mark for gender are French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian, and Arabic.
So how do you distinguish the gender of words in these languages? We’ll look at French, Spanish, and German for now.
It’s easy to remember the gender of nouns like man, woman, girl, or boy, but in French, all nouns have gender. Sometimes it’s not logical; a person is feminine: une personne, and a child is masculine: un enfant. And often it’s downright impossible to guess; cars, tables, houses, trees, rocks, and all other nouns have gender. It’s best not to overthink it! Just memorize the gender of each new noun you learn.
The easiest way to tell the gender of a French word is by looking at its article – the equivalent of a, an, or the. In French, the articles une/la indicate a feminine noun, and un/le to indicate masculine.
un/le divan (a/the couch)
une/la maison (a/the house)
You will always be able to see gender in the indefinite article, but French gender gets harder to detect with the definite article when the word begins with a vowel or appears in the plural:
un avion (an airplane), l’avion (the airplane), les avions (the airplanes)
une agrafeuse (a stapler), l’agrafeuse (the stapler), les agrafeuses (the staplers)
Why is gender important to know in French? The adjective used to describe a French noun will change depending on the gender of that noun, so you need to know the gender in order to modify the adjective.
le divan vert (the green couch)
la maison verte (the green house)
l’avion (m) bleu (the blue airplane)
l’agrafeuse (f) bleue (the blue stapler)
A demonstrative (this, that, these, those) will also correspond to gender: ce (masculine before a consonant), cet (masculine before a vowel), cette (feminine), ces (masculine plural), cettes (feminine plural). With demonstratives it’s easier to spot the gender of words that begin with a vowel since it will be either cet or cette.
Spanish gender is much like French gender, so many of the same tips as above apply. You can most easily tell Spanish gender by the article:
un/el río (a/the river)
una/la ciudad (a/the city)
Spanish doesn’t contract the article with words beginning with a vowel, so gender is easier to see.
un/el espejo (a/the mirror)
una/la escuela (a/the school)
Again, gender is important for adjectives in Spanish. Notice how the ending of the word pequeño (small) changes depending on which noun it follows.
un río pequeño (the small river)
una ciudad pequeña (a small city)
el espejo pequeño (the small mirror)
la escuela pequeña (the small school)
German has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Again, you can see the gender of a word in its article as we see here with the definite articles:
|der Tisch||the table (masculine)|
|die Wohnung||the apartment (feminine)*|
|das Schlafzimmer||the bedroom (neuter)|
*It’s important to note that the German plural definite article is also die, though you can tell if it’s plural or just feminine singular by whether or not the noun itself appears plural through adding an umlaut, an -n, or an -s (das Vater [the father], die Väter [the fathers], die Schwester [the sister], die Schwestern [the sisters]). A few nouns don’t change in the plural at all, but these are more rare.
You can also see it in the indefinite articles:
|ein Tisch||a table (masculine)|
|eine Wohnung||an apartment (feminine)|
|ein Schlafzimmer||a bedroom (neuter)|
Though note that since the masculine and neuter indefinite articles are identical, it’s harder to tell the gender of the noun.
As with French and Spanish, German adjectives match the gender of the noun, but this change also depends on whether they appear with a definite or indefinite article, and what case the noun is in (Nominative, Accusative, Genitive, etc.). When used with a definite article in the nominative case, the ending of the adjective will be the same for all three genders:
|masculine -e||der kleine Tisch (the small table)|
|feminine -e||die kleine Wohnung (the small apartment)|
|neuter -e||das kleine Schlafzimmer (the small bedroom)|
But will change with the indefinite article:
|masculine -er||ein kleiner Tisch (a small table)|
|feminine -e||eine kleine Wohnung (a small apartment)|
|neuter -es||ein kleines Schlafzimmer (a small bedroom)|
Once you learn other cases in German, you’ll learn that the article and adjective behave differently in each case, but that the gender of the noun is an important part in learning how the change is made.
Ready to learn some more language beyond just the grammatical gender? Start here.