Gender in French


I am very grateful to JJM who has answered my plea for information about what the French do with feminine nouns referring to masculine creatures (e.g. sentinelle, recrue) (see his note to “(s)he vs they”), and says that the French have less difficulty separating gender from sex than English speakers do.

Now comes the worrying part: Language Log reported last week that the French no longer agree on the genders of nouns: “Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them”.

Does this mean that we foreigners can now ignore the problem, as we are likely to be “wrong” only as often as the native speakers?


  1. We are of course still likely to be wrong much more often than native speakers.

    We’ve always been able to ignore the gender problem, if we so wished. French speakers wince at our mistakes but they don’t have much trouble understanding.

  2. Yes, the point is that the nouns in the survey were hardly a random sample! It wouldn’t be hard to find 100 nouns on which native speakers all agree 100%.

  3. Interesting.

    The reality of course is that native speakers (unlike language scientists and dedicated grammarians) generally don’t think about their language, they just use it. That means they tend to judge what is spoken by whether it “sounds right” or not. French gender is a good example and Adrian makes a good point about native speakers wincing.

    Something like “ce maison” will be understood but it will clang in the ears of a native French speaker.

    Although English does not have this gender accord feature, it is possible to approximate the effect using “this/these” (which, along with “that/those,” is one of the few examples where any kind of accord is demanded in English).

    Say to any native English speaker “this children” and it will be understood but will induce some wincing because it just does not sound right. The effect is similar to my hearing “mon tante” in French!

    While I’m at it, a fairly common French tendency (i.e., amongst native speakers) is to create accord where it is not actually necessary. For example, the number “quatre” is invariable, but you do hear things like “quatre-z-enfants” (vice “quatr’enfants”).

    Sorry, I rambled on a bit there.

  4. Why modern-day humans would rather stick to irrational gender assignations of words in any language instead of consciously evolving a saner language structure is beyond me, and many other people.
    I do not wish to contort my mind around what were, at one time or other, the personal imaginative whimsies of a handful of individuals with nothing better to do with their time than to determine the “feel” of a gender-neutral object and assign a gender to it that all within that language must adhere to because someone told them that they had to do so.
    A chair is a chair. I am not the least bit interested in someone else’s opinion, collective or otherwise, as to whether a chair, sight unseen, should be thought of as masculine or feminine, particularly when neutral would be the most practical, realistic choice when referring to a category of object.
    A foo foo pink “girly” chair might be feminine to someone, and a dark oak, heavy-set armchair might be considered masculine, but I hardly think that it should be the role of modern language police to not allow such personal interpretations to be made by the observer, not set in some rediculous rules by language purists. Just because someone, in fact many people, were idiots in the past does not mean that we should pride ourselves on fitting into an ongoing national psychosis.
    If people begin to be more aware of the unnecessary and often irrational use of gender assignation to obviously neutral objects, then by all means, let’s allow the language to change, instead of patting ourselves on the back for being capable of the mental gymnastics some languages demand of us if we are to be grammatically correct. Perhaps we should stop being smug, and start consciously fixing the rediculous gender assignations.

  5. As a native French speaker (a linguist and a French teacher), I can assure you that most of the time francophones do not hesitate with the noun gender assignment. Admittedly, there are a few possible hesitations. For example, this is the case with some words that begin with a vowel, with which we use the elided article (e.g. ‘l’horloge’ (the clock) = feminine and ‘l’ordinateur’ (the computer) = masculine). Or also, words we don’t often use, i.e. that are not in our internal lexicon (e.g. one of the words used by Ayoun in her reseach : ‘superbe’, as a noun, is very rare). Apart from that, I would say that the gender is not an issue for the native French speaker’s mind. It would be very interesting to review all of Ayoun’s research to see her methodology, her whole corpus and the people she worked with, in order to know how she arrived at such results…

    Furthermore, I can admit with Pat Franczyk that the French gender assignment system is illogical. But if there is a change to be made with the French norm, gender is not it. Rather, let’s start with the verb morphology and/or the spelling system! Anyway, one must not forget that a language is a social product governed by non-linguistic factors in which logic doesn’t have the biggest part.

    (By the way, in English, don’t you use ‘she’ when you want to refer to a ship? That’s something a francophone doesn’t understand…)

  6. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, I can suggest an inexpensive app
    that I’ve recently made; it helps you ‘internalize’ the ‘rules’ of identifying the gender of 95% of french nouns.


  7. If you have an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, there is an
    app that teaches you many patterns for determining
    the gender of French Nouns.

    It’s called ‘French Gender’ and there is both a demo and
    a full version.




  8. (Just wanted to correct the obsolete urls given above)

    If you have an iPod Touch, iPhone or iPad, there’s an app for that:; also available as a limited, demo version:

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