Grammatical Gender in French

Yu-Ting, Liu

“What if I used a masculine word when I speak in French, what would people think about me?” That was a question I asked my roommate, a francophone Quebecois. She laughed and then replied: “people are going to think you’re not good in French, that’s all.”

As a French language beginner, I have some questions about grammatical gender and pronoun in French language. In my first language, Chinese, there is no grammatical gender. Gender only needs to be specified in written form, such as 他 (he) and 她 (she), but both of them pronounce in the same way “ta”. Therefore, Chinese speakers never have to think about “gender” when they speak, and certainly there is no verb conjugation either! You will find that some Chinese speakers still have the problem when starting a sentence with “he” or “she” in conversations. (At least I do!) However, later when I started to learn English and Korean, there is no grammatical gender rules either. Thus, I was oblivious of this issue until this September I began to learn French.

Recently my French class is covering grammatical gender. I learned masculine and feminine adjectives, for instance, “Je suis gentille et ouverte.” I should use feminine adjectives “gentille” and “ouverte”, simply because I am physically a female! And that provoked me to question about what if a French speaker doesn’t feel associated with the language gender? Wouldn’t they feel a little uncomfortable when they speak? What about a transgender French speaker, does he or she have to change the speaking style?

Nevertheless, what is a pronoun? According to Oxford Dictionary, “A word that can function as a noun phrase used by itself and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g. I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g. she, it, this)”. I was surprised that there seem very few neutral words in French (or there is no!), they are mostly either black or white. It’s well-known that French is a precise language. Everything has to be addressed accurately. Unlike English has a “they” for referring to neutral things or gender (e.g. nonbinary people), what would French speakers use then? I found it interesting that grammatical gender words have very little to do with culture in French, for example, chair is feminine and park is masculine. But for the common pronouns, the society associates “il” with man, and “elle” with woman. The link between the words and society are not about grammatical gender. They carry more substantial meanings than grammatical gender words. I’m really curious about how a language associates with gender (grammatical gender or biologic gender).

Maybe my French is not good enough to give correct opinions and pose appropriate questions, feel free to tell me what you think!

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4 thoughts on “Grammatical Gender in French”

  1. Hello Yu-Ting,

    Thanks for your interesting post! I am also confused about why some languages are associtated with gender even for inanimate objects. How do people first define an inanimate object is masculine or feminine? What if they need to adjust the grammatical gender later? It seems that grammatical gender for inanimate objects is redundant, or it has some implications?

    Also, what should bisexual, transgender or queer people use these langauges? If people do not certain their social gender, would it be more appropriate to create some neutral use?

    Sorry, I do not know French. But I really want to hear the opinions from French-speakers:)

    -Kunyao

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    1. Hi Kunyao,

      I’ve been discussing the question with my French speaker friend a lot these day. As I know, there are even three genders in German, masculine, neutral and feminine. We think the objects were defined as either gender because of the sound. Maybe it doesn’t sound beautifully if we say “un chaise” instead of “une chaise” in French. However, these are all precise languages, they are good for people who are clear and 100% sure about their gender identity. But maybe they cause some confusion to people who have neutral positions. Anyway, I’m happy we are opening a discussion here!

      Yu-Ting

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  2. Cynota
    Yu-Ting, Liu,
    When my children were learning French, they too did not feel that there was any reason for having masculine and feminine words. However, one day my daughter was working on her website where she was teaching the “Elvish Language” in her forum. She had to explain why elvish languages have gendered nouns and but she did not relate it to French. She just responded (she was only 10 years old), in a way that surprised me. She just said, it matters because you get to know what is different about a female elf and a male elf, to her the elfish language was more interesting, complex in a good way, and more descriptive because she cared deeply about the story of elves. However, for grammar in French class, the idea of gender was just another grammar problem that she had to deal with. I guess if there was a way to make gender distinctions meaningful, it would be for the sake of literature. Does this qualify for a good dose of inspiration to read more in French?

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  3. Shengwen Xu (comment #3)

    Hello, Yu-ting

    As a French beginner, I also encounter the gender problems when learning French. For me, the two big problems are grammatical genders and verb conjugation, as we don’t have verb conjugation in Chinese and we don’t have grammatical genders in Chinese and English. At first, it is really hard to get used to these rules. What is even more difficult is that is the core noun in a subject is feminine, you have to pay attention to the forms of the article, the adjective and then the verb. I can hardly speak a correct sentence at the first time. Also, it takes much efforts to remember the genders for unanimated objects. I always wonder why a lake should be masculine (le lac) but a mountain should be feminine (la montagne).
    But actually I notice that many borrowed words in French are masculine. (not sure whether I am right or not) Also, for me, I tend to use the masculine form of a noun or an adjective when I don’t know the exact grammatical gender of the word. I am imagining: will the grammatical genders disappear some day?

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