Above: "Un raton-laveur" (a racoon).


Today, let's talk about animals in general and animal genders specifically. You'll need to put aside everything you learned in biology for now because, for some reason, French speakers think of some animals as "all males" and others as "all females". I can only assume our ancestors had very poor observation skills.


Jokes aside, distinguishing male and female animals is not, in many cases, really important, so having a single word for both genders makes sense. And remember, animal names are just like any other noun in French; they are either masculine or feminine according to the sound and spelling of their ending. Therefore, as mad as it sounds, grammar (not biology!) dictates the "gender" of most animals in French.


As a rule of thumb, I'd say most animal names are masculine. I've listed some examples below, but it's just a random selection; otherwise we'll be here all night. Some names look and sound like the English ones, but when necessary, I underlined the little differences in the spelling to draw you attention to it.


In English

Male (un)

Pronunciation Tips

a panda

un panda

No difference

a kangaroo

un kangourou

"ou" is pronounced like the English "oo", but shorter

a dolphin

un dauphin

There is no "L" in French!

a zebra

un zèbre

"e" without accent is pronounced "uh" or not pronounced at all

a snake

un serpent

Don't pronounce that "T"

a parrot

un perroquet

"et" sounds like "e" in the word "merry". Don't pronounce that "T".

a ferret

un furet        


a swan

un cygne

"cy" = [see]. "gne" is harder to explain: "bite" that G.

a bear

un ours

Even though you are not supposed to pronounce the letter "s" when it is at the end of a French word, this is an exception. Please say it!       

an eagle


un aigle        

"ai" sounds like "e" in the word "merry" or "jet" and the "e" at the end is pronounced "uh" or not pronounced at all

a butterfly

un papillon

[PA PEE YOn] with a short "n"

a shark

un requin


a raccoon

un raton-laveur

This is a funny name. It literally means "little washing rat". For the record, it's bigger than a rat (about the size of a cat).

a squirrel

un écureuil

[AY KU RUH YUH]. Sorry about the word "squirrel". It's like a special kind of torture, I know! From my point of view, it's funny when you say it, so, go on, one more time!


On the other hand, common animals (like pets, farmed animals and some of the most famous exotic ones) often have separate names for the male and the female. Even though those names are (often) closely related, their pronunciation is slightly different. Make sure you stress that difference when you say it.

Males may have more than one name, especially if whether the animal has been castrated or not makes a difference.


Let's see some examples.


In English                

Male (un)

Female (une)                       

a cat

un chat … say [sha]

une chatte … say [shat]

a dog

un chien

une chienne            

a rabbit

un lapin

une lapine

a duck

un canard

une canne

a turkey

un dindon

une dinde

a horse

un cheval

une jument

a pig

un porc / cochon

une truie

a cow

un bœuf / taureau*

une vache

a sheep

un mouton / bélier*

une brebis

a chicken

un coq* / poulet

une poule

a wolf

un loup

une louve

a tiger

un tigre

une tigresse

a lion

un lion

une lionne

a monkey

un singe

une guenon

* not castrated


But "what about the all-female animals?" you might ask. Well, I'm glad you brought this subject up! Let me introduce you to 50 living beings that we always referred to as "she" in French. Without further ado, ladies and gentlemen, I give you:


(Personal image)


1. une marmotte

2. une loutre

3. une belette

4. une moufette

5. une taupe

6. une souris

7. une gerbille

8. une chauve-souris

9. une girafe

10. une hyène

11. une panthère

12. une antilope / gazelle

13. une chèvre

14. une baleine

15. une grenouille

16. une tortue

17. une crevette

18. une langoustine

19. une pieuvre

20. une méduse

21. une huître

22. une plie

23. une morue

24. une raie

25. une anémone

26. une vipère

27. une mante religieuse

28. une sauterelle

29. une mouche

30. une luciole

31. une fourmi

32. une chenille

33. une puce

34. une araignée

35. une tarentule

36. une limace

37. une abeille

38. une guêpe

39. une libellule / demoiselle

40. une coccinelle

41. une mouette

42. une hirondelle

43. une pie

44. une corneille

45. une perdrix

46. une perruche

47. une cigogne

48. une oie

49. une autruche

50. une chouette




It's not an exhaustive list, so I apologize if I forgot any important ones. It may seem like a lot to learn in one go, so determine which ones are the most relevant to you and start by learning those. You can learn 10 more next week, and so on.


By the way, owls with pointy "ears" are hiboux and are grammatically all males. I grew up thinking they (Mr. Hiboux and Mrs. Chouette) were an item, but found out later they weren't actually from the same species. It's a funny story, but if you think about it, our vocabulary can tell a lot about how we perceive the world. For example, butterflies and moths are seen as completely separate beings in English. In French, butterflies are papillons and moths are papillon de nuit so the latter is perceived as nocturnal type of butterfly. (It's not accurate, though. So perhaps we, French speakers, really genuinely suck at biology!)


But I digress. Revenons à nos moutons (literally it means "let's get back to our sheep" but would be better translated as "let's get back to business").


Now, you may wonder why it is so important to know the correct grammatical gender of animals. The reasons are manifold. Ignoring genders altogether:


  • May immediately give the game away that you are an English speaker.     
  • May be perceived as slightly misogynistic. Better not assume everything is male…
  • May have a snowball effect. Making a mistake on the gender of a noun may lead to making multiple errors as nouns and adjectives need to be coordinated. For example :
    • Un chien blanc (a white dog) becomes une chienne blanche if we are talking about a female dog.
    • Ce petit lapin noir est trop mignon (this little black rabbit is too cute) becomes Cette petite lapine noire est trop mignonne. See how much impact it can have? Five mistakes in one sentence! Ouch!
  • Verbs may also need to be coordinated, especially verbs using être in passé composé.
    • Le lion s'est échappé (The lion escaped) becomes La lionne s'est échappée. Granted, in this example, the difference is only in the spelling of the verb, but sometimes, it may impact the way it's said too, like in the next example.
    • Mon chat s'est assis sur mon clavier (My cat sat on my keyboard) becomes Ma chatte s'est assise sur mon clavier. Assis is pronounced [a-see] and assise [a- see-zuh] or [a-seez-] depending if you stress the last syllable or not.


On a side note, just before we conclude this, have you ever considered that animals might also have accents? For example, French dogs don't "woof", they "ouaf". And we may not all agree on what they say, but one thing is for sure: French birds don't "tweet".


(Personal image)


If you want to know more about this, may I suggest you a video on YouTube? It's a tacky but catchy little song. Your kids will certainly love it! Check it out here.


I hope you found this article useful. Don't forget to hit the like button if you enjoyed it!


Hero Image (Raccoon and flowers) by Tambako the Jaguar (CC BY-ND 2.0)