35. How can we get kids to memorize "genders"?

The term "gender," like "direct object," or "indirect object," etc., derives from the grammatical studies that Classical Latin grammarians did many centuries ago. Today, we apply the term "gender" to a variety of word features that are prevalent in many languages.

In connecting reality to language forms, Classical Latin grammarians noticed that humans belonged to two basic groups: males and females. They also noticed that some Latin words had certain features when referring to males and other features when referring to females. In addition, they noticed that when these words were used to refer to things (or animals), the word features that applied to males were present in some cases and the word features that applied to females were present in other instances. The conclusion was reached that "things" had an implicit "gender," and that, like male and female, some things were "masculine in gender" while others were "feminine in gender."

In Spanish, we can observe what Classical Latin grammarians observed about Latin words. For example, we can say:

The tall young man. El muchacho alto.
The tall young girl. La muchacha alta.

In these examples we are referring to people, and people have a given sex: male/female.   We can also say in Spanish:

The tall ladder. La escalera alta.
The tall bush. El arbusto alto.

In these examples we are referring to things, and things have NO given sex, but the modifiers of the words that name the things (La / El ; alta / alto) change, just like they did for male/female. Thus, grammarians assign a "gender" to the words that name the things: "escalera" is feminine; "arbusto" is masculine.

Professor William Bull, one of the most notable linguists of the 20th Century and Professor of Spanish Linguistics at UCLA, redefined the issue of word "gender" more than 40 years ago. Professor Bull wrote in his extraordinary treatise "Spanish for Teachers" that the "gender" of Spanish words is based on matching sounds, and is NOT an arbitrary characteristic of Spanish words that has to be memorized for each word.

In Spanish, there are words that refer exclusively to PEOPLE. These words, nouns, name people and belong to two categories:

  1. words that name people, one for male and one for female: muchacho / muchacha, abuelo / abuela, señor / señora, etc. The words that name the male usually end in the letters -n/-o/-r/-s/-e/-l. The words that name the female end in -a.
  2. words that name people, the same word for both, males and females: dentista, periodista, oportunista, etc. The modifiers around the word tell whether the person is male or female. El dentista nuevo. / La dentista nueva.

In Spanish there are words that refer to THINGS, animals, abstractions. These words, nouns, belong to two categories:

  1. words that name things and have two forms: naranjo / naranja, jarro / jarra, etc.
  1. words that name things and have only one form: teléfono, página, etc.

In Spanish there are words that express the qualities of people and things. These words, modifiers like adjectives, articles, etc., belong to two categories:

  1. modifiers that have two forms: el / la, uno / una, bueno / buena, etc.
  2. modifiers that have one form: mi, su, inteligente, verde, etc.

What the students need to know is:

  1. If the modifier has only ONE FORM, the modifier can be used with ALL NOUNS:
  2. viejo verde, pacifista verde, jarro verde, jarra verde, teléfono verde, página verde.

  3. If the modifier has TWO FORMS,

The forms that end in the letters -n/-o/-r/-s/-e/-l match nouns ending in any of those letters, and nouns naming the male person:

el abuelo bueno, un periodista bueno, ese jarro bueno, aquel teléfono bueno.

The form that ends in -a matches nouns ending in -a, -ción, -sión, -isis, -itis, -d,

and nouns naming the female person:

la abuela buena, una oportunidad buena, la situación buena, la crisis extranjera.


Teaching "gender" in Spanish, then, is not a matter of asking students to memorize some arbitrary characteristic of each Spanish word. It is something that can be approached "by categories" making students understand that there are features in reality (males/females) that are important when we talk about them, and there are word features that are important when we use the words.

In English, "gender" appears in reference to persons in some modifiers and pronoun forms: (s)he, (h)is/er, (h)is/ers. The form "it" usually refers to things, but can refer to a small child whose sex may not be known. In speech, "she" may be used to refer to things, and "mother/father" may name country – motherland/fatherland.




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