The Logic of Gender


Have you ever struggled to get the gender right when using nouns in a foreign language? If you are learning languages such as English, Turkish, or Basque you are lucky because there is no such thing as gender. However, if you are a learner of Czech, French, or German for example you will have to deal with it. And I would recommend that you tackle the issue even before taking your first foreign language class.


In real life it is usually quite straightforward to tell a woman from a man. With younger humans it sometimes gets a little harder, for example in situations where you try to figure out if the three-year-old is a boy or a girl.


In some languages the same holds true for the grammatical gender. For example, in Spanish most nouns ending in A are feminine and most words ending in O are masculine. But how do you know if the Spanish word for tunnel, túnel, is masculine or feminine? Well, it's just like wanting to know if the three-year-old is a boy or a girl: Ask the child's parent


What if there is no logic?


In Spanish or any other foreign language where there is a logic to most of the nouns, you can learn the rules and deal with the exceptions.


There are languages, however, where there are more exceptions than rules, or where rules just do not exist for most of the nouns. Well, you will have to just learn them all, won’t you? Hmm, yes and no, or, in other words: It depends on how you look at it.


What is a gender?


If I were an alien from outer space getting into contact with humans for the first time, I might categorize humans from a biological point of view. In order to keep things simple, let’s put them into three different groups: men, women, and children. This analogy is actually used in many languages because we classify the nouns as masculine, feminine, and neuter.


In the real world men, women, and children belong to three pretty clearly-defined groups. That means that in most cases it is easy to tell a man from a woman, a woman from a child and so forth. In the language realm, it is like dealing with one of the above-mentioned languages where there is a logic to the gender.


However, is this comparison between the human species and the grammatical noun-class system still helpful when there is no logic applicable?  Does it apply when the few existing rules are only valid for a limited number of nouns?


How would you be able to remember that Minjun is a boy and Seojun is a girl? (By the way, I just copied those names from the Wikipedia’s “List of the most popular given names in South Korea”, hoping that most of the readers of this article actually do not speak Korean.)


You would have to come up with your own strategy to categorize the nouns. Let’s have a look at one of the ways to do that.


Holistic strategy for memorizing the gender

For us humans, our gender is just a part of us. We identify ourselves as either a man or a woman. In most physical, social and biological contexts, I cannot separate myself from my gender. This simple idea can also be applied to a noun.



Most people look up foreign words in the dictionary by ignoring the gender. Let’s say your mother tongue is English and you want to know the Spanish word for tunnel, then the dictionary would give you el túnel as a translation. However, since your native language does not classify nouns according to their gender, you would omit the article el in front of the Spanish word túnel which indicates the gender. Big mistake!


With the Spanish word túnel it is like going to restrooms: There are two doors labeled as Gentlemen and Ladies. So, which one are you going to choose? And you will have to make a choice. The article and the noun belong together in the same way “you and your name” stick together: So, don’t you ever dare to use a word without its respective article! Just memorize the two words, the article plus the noun, as if they were just one.


So, if we say, it is just one word, then how many letters does the Spanish translation of the English word tunnel have? The answer is 8: e + l + space + t + ú + n + e + l.


It takes a while to get used to it, especially when your mother tongue does not have a noun-class system. In any case, it is worth the effort of memorizing the two words as one. It will come in handy, and probably a lot sooner than you might expect.




Hero image by Alex Iby on Unsplash