Monthly Archives: July 2016

He or She? Gender in the Spanish Language

gender

It is human nature to categorize objects, be it by size, shape or color. We also do this in the languages we speak, classifying nouns by their gender. Languages can have masculine, feminine or neuter genders. While not all languages have gendered nouns, the Spanish Language has masculine and feminine nouns and Spanish language speakers need to know the gender of each of those nouns in order to speak the language comfortably. In this article we will discuss both why the Spanish language has gendered nouns and how to use those gendered nouns correctly.

Are English Nouns Gendered?

To a native English speaker it may seem strange to be told that every noun, from a table (la mesa) to the sky (el cielo), has a masculine or feminine gender in the Spanish language. But the English language does have some gendered nouns for people or animals, but just not for objects. These gendered nouns describe the physical sex of the person or animal, such as woman and man, or tiger and tigress.

For example:

Feminine Masculine Neutral
Woman Man Person 
Mother Father Parent
Waitress Waiter Server
Cow Bull  
Lioness Lion  

In the Spanish language all nouns have either a masculine or feminine gender, and there is no neutral gender. Like in English, nouns for people and animals are gendered based on biological sex, such as la mujer (the woman) and el hombre (the man) or el león (the lion) or la leona (the lioness). The gender of other nouns is often unrelated to the function of the object itself. If you were to guess the gender of the noun “a dress”, you would likely guess that it is feminine based on the almost exclusive use of dresses by women, however, in Spanish it is the masculine noun, “el vestido”. Similarly, the Spanish word for “a tie” is the feminine noun, “la corbata”.

Why are Nouns Gendered?

For the frustrated language learner, classifying nouns by gender may seem puzzling, but gendered nouns exist in many languages. The question of why they exist in any language is a bit more complicated and may not relate to biological sex at all. Many languages have multiple classification systems for nouns. These noun classes may have been created to denote important meaning in the past, but as languages (and cultures) change much of that initial meaning is lost while the language holds on to its history through grammar. Bantu languages used by people in Sub-Saharan Africa are an example of this. These languages can have as many as 16 different classifications for their nouns, some are easy to understand such as the noun class that is based on size, but other classes are arbitrary and nouns within them have no obvious connections.

In the Spanish language, the gender of nouns for people, such as la mujer and el hombre, are obviously connected to the gender (or biological sex) of the person but the gender of other nouns, such as la mesa, is not so obvious.  Some people theorize that this is because in the past nouns were associated with a gender, they were either seen as having a feminine or masculine essence. Others theorize that all nouns were part of a larger classification system and biological sex fit within that. No matter what the historical reason, knowing the gender of each noun in the Spanish language, or any target language, is important for fluent use of the language.

How to Tell the Gender of a Noun

As mentioned above, there are some rules in the Spanish language that make it easier to know which gender a noun is. In general a noun ending with the letter –a will be feminine and a noun ending in the letter –o will be masculine. However, there are always exceptions such as the masculine noun “el mapaand the feminine noun “la mano”. Other endings that generally denote feminine words are – sión, –ción, –dad, –tad, –tud, and –umbre.

For example:

-sión – ción – dad – tad -tud -umbre
la televisión la educación la ciudad la libertad la certitud la certidumbre
la conversasión la visualización la Universidad la lealtad la gratitud la costumbre
la diversión la navegación la imparcialidad la mitad la actitud la legumbre

Using Correct Articles

Because the gender of many nouns is arbitrary, language learners are often encouraged to learn the article with the noun to help them remember the gender of the noun. If the noun uses the article la or una, it is feminine; if it uses the article el or un it is masculine. There are many rules that help you remember the gender of the noun, and therefore which article to use, but there are also many exceptions. It is easier to memorize “la ventana” (the window) than to memorize the word “ventana” and then try to remember if it is masculine or feminine each time you use it.

Many Spanish language words for occupations end with –ista for either men or women, for example un dentist (a male dentist) or una dentist (a female dentist). In these cases the article is important for denoting the gender of the person. For other nouns, however, the same word with a different article changes the meaning of the word altogether. For example, el corte is the blade or the cut but la corte is the court of law. These examples show the importance of knowing the gender of a noun and using the correct article to maintain the correct meaning of the word.

Adjective Agreement

Another very important reason that Spanish language speakers must know all the genders for nouns is that adjectives must “agree” with their noun. That means that the adjective will change, like the article did, depending on if the noun is masculine or feminine. If the noun is feminine the language speaker must also use the feminine form of the adjective; if the noun is masculine they must use the masculine form of the noun. Feminine adjectives generally end in –a and masculine adjectives generally end in –o.

For example:

Feminine Masculine
La mujer es alta. (The woman is tall) El hombre es alto. (The man is tall.)
La manzana roja está aquí. (The apple is red.) El lápiz rojo está aquí. (The pen is red.)
La noche es fría. (The night is cold.) El sol es caliente. (The sun is hot.)
La profesora está contenta. (The female teacher is happy) El profesor está contento. (The male teacher is happy.)
Es una falda blanca. (It’s a white skirt.) Es un vestido blanco. (It’s a white dress.)

The Importance of Knowing the Gender of Spanish Language Nouns

For Spanish language speakers the gender of a noun is inherent and obvious. Native Spanish speakers learned the gender agreement of nouns as young children, so hearing a noun used with the incorrect article or adjective is an obvious mark of a non-native speaker. If Spanish language speakers read Spanish language materials that are not using the correct gender of nouns they will feel that the text is difficult and awkward to read. To prevent this discomfort, businesses and individuals should use Spanish translation and copy editing for all Spanish language materials. The Spanish language experts at Spanish with Style will ensure the proper agreement of all articles, adjectives and nouns throughout the text so that it reads like it was written by a native speaker.

Un Gato, El Gato: Indefinite and Definite Articles

Indefinite and Definite Articles

Like in the English language, the Spanish language has both indefinite and definite articles that communicate if we are referring to something specific or to something general. We use definite articles when we are discussing a specific noun and indefinite articles when discussing a general noun. For example, if we are talking about a specific cat we say “el gato”. Using a definite article communicates that there is a specific cat in mind; this is equivalent to saying “the cat” in the English language. On the other hand, we use indefinite articles when discussing something in general or one of many things. Using the previous example, if we say “un gato” or “a cat” we could be referring to any cat, or one cat in a group of many.

Indefinite Articles

The Spanish language indefinite articles are: un, unos, una, unas. These indefinite articles are equivalent to the English language “a”, “an”, or “some”. However, unlike English language articles, Spanish language articles change based on the gender of the noun as well as the number (singular or plural). For example, a table in Spanish is the feminine noun, “mesa” so we say “una mesa”. If we are talking about “some tables” we need to use a plural and feminine indefinite article so we would say “unas mesas”.

  Singular Plural
Masculine un unos
Feminine una unas

For example:

Hay un libro en el suelo – There is a book on the floor. (un libro is masculine and singular)

Dame una manzana – Give me an apple. (una manzana is feminine and singular)

Compré unos zapatos ayer  – I bought some shoes yesterday.  (unos zapatos are masculine and plural)

Quiero unas galletas – I want some cookies. (unas galletas are feminine and plural)

Definite Articles

The Spanish language definite articles are: el, los, la, las

  Singular Plural
Masculine El los
Feminine La Las

These definite articles are equivalent to the English language article “the”. In the English language the definite article does not need to match gender or number of its noun like it does in the Spanish language. For example, in English we can say “the bicycle” or “the bicycles” but in Spanish we must change articles based on the number gender so we say either “la bicicleta” or “las bicicletas” using the plural and feminine definite article “la”.

Here are some examples of definite articles in a sentence:

Tengo el libro en mi mano – I have the book in my hand. (el libro is masculine and singular)

La manzana es rojo – The apple is red. (la manzana is feminine and singular)

Me gusta los zapatos de Maria – I like Maria’s shoes. (los zapatos are masculine and plural)

Dame las galletas chocolates – Give me the chocolate cookies. (las galletas are feminine and plural)

The Importance of Using Correct Articles

When using definite or indefinite articles in the Spanish language you must be certain that you are using the article of the correct gender and number. This is why it is important that any documents or texts for your business or personal use are translated or edited by Spanish language experts, so they are free of errors. Spanish translation and copy editing services such as Spanish with Style will ensure your documents and texts are translated by Spanish language experts.

Essential Spanish: Ser or Estar?

Essential Spanish Ser or Estar

One of the most confusing parts in the experience of learning the Spanish language can be the verbs ser and estar. Both these verbs have the same meaning as English language verb to be but are used in different ways. The simplest way to think about the difference is that ser is used when speaking of the essence of something or something that is permanent, while estar is used when speaking of the state of something, or something that is impermanent. In this article we will discuss how to properly translate the verb to be to either ser or estar while considering the following:

  • Using ser for the essence of something and estar for the state of something
  • Using mnemonic devices to remember when to use ser and estar
  • The importance of using ser and estar correctly to maintain nuance and meaning

Essence versus State

We use ser to describe the essence of something, and estar to describe its state. In fact, ser comes from the latin word esse, meaning essence in English, and estar comes from the latin word stare meaning state. In contrast, in the English language we use the verb to be to denote both state and essence.

The state of a subject is usually impermanent, so most grammar guides encourage Spanish language learners to remember to use estar in impermanent cases and ser for permanent cases. For example, if I say “yo estoy feliz” (I am happy), it means that my current mood is happy but that can change at any moment, I am in an impermanent state of happiness. We can also say “el lapiz está en el suelo” (the pen is on the floor), the pen is currently on the floor, but it can be moved, its current location (or state) is impermanent.

Ser, on the other hand, is used for more permanent cases such as one’s nationality. You say “Vanessa es colombiana” to mean Vanessa is Colombian; her Colombian nationality is permanent and a part of her essence as a person. We also use ser for physical descriptions. For example, “las montañas son grandes” (the mountains are big) describes the permanent characteristics, or essence, of the mountains. Another example is when telling time. We say “son las diez y media de la noche” (it is ten thirty pm) we are describing the time in one specific moment. Similarly, we also use ser for describing where an event is taking place “Ia fiesta es en su casa” (the party is in her house), the specific event is happening in one place in one moment.Using Mnemonic Devices

As previously mentioned, in the English language the verb to be is equivalent to both Spanish language verbs ser and estar. These are also copular verbs, meaning they are verbs that link an adjective or noun to a subject. To help remember how to use ser and estar Spanish language learners can remember the mnemonic devices D.O.T. (description, origin, time) for ser and Lo.Co. (location and condition) for estar.  Here are some examples of use for each of these cases:

Uses of Ser

D: Description

Ella es alta (she is tall). We use ser because an essential physical characteristic of the girl is that she is tall.

Yo soy un professor (I am a teacher). Here we use ser because someone’s profession is seen as part of who they are, their essence, even if one’s profession may change throughout their life.

Él es amable (he is a friendly person).  Again, we use ser because one of the characteristics of this man’s personality is that he is friendly.

O: Origin

Yo soy Maria (I am Maria). We use ser to state names because they are part of a person’s essence.

La cartera es de cuero (the wallet is made of leather). We use ser because the essence of the wallet is leather, if it is made of leather it cannot be changed.

T: Time

Son las tres de la tarde (It is three pm). We use ser for telling what time it is at any specific moment.

Hoy es lunes el primero de agosto (today is Monday, the first of August). Today can never be another date so we use ser.

Uses of Estar

Lo: Location

La tienda está en la calle Independencia (The shop is on Independencia Street). We always use estar for location, where something is currently, including the address.

Yo estoy en la escuela ahora (I am in the school now).  We use estar for locations of people and things (but not events).

Las llaves están en la mesa (the keys are on the table).  This sentence describes the current location of the keys so we use estar.

Co: Condition

Él está feliz (he is happy). The current condition of the man is that he is happy. He is feeling happy in this moment, but that feeling can change.

Siempre estoy cansado por la mañana (I am always tired in the morning).  We use estar here even though I am always tired in the morning, being tired is a state that will change; it is not an essential part of who I am.

Catalina está enferma (Catalina is sick). This sentence means that Catalina is currently, but not permanently, sick so we use estar.

The Importance of Proper Usage of Ser and Estar

As you can see, when translating from the English language verb to be it is important to use the correct Spanish language translation or the nuances of the text may be changed. If one chooses the incorrect verb, a native Spanish language speaker will immediately notice the error, and the translated document will seem unprofessional. Furthermore, if one chooses the incorrect verb, the meaning of the sentence will change. Imagine the offense that could be taken if someone wanted to express that Jaime is feeling bored but they wrote “Jaime es aburrido”, meaning Jaime is boring, when they should have written “Jaime está aburrido”.

Unless one is a Spanish language expert, it is easy to make mistakes using ser and estar. That is why it is important to always use Spanish translation and copy editing services from professionals at Spanish with Style. The Spanish language experts at Spanish with Style will ensure that the quality of the translated text is excellent with all the nuances of the original text maintained.