But I’m a Girl! … and Other Spanish Language Mishaps

I really enjoy the discussions that arise from posts like last week’s about my Rookie Mistakes (written in all caps because it’s a BFD).

As you know, I like to think about all the important, totally unimportant things in life.  Although Spanish is important—being the second-most spoken language in the US—the stuff I contemplate is really not. Except to me, thus making it, like, oh my God, super-mega important. Got it?

As you may well know, Spanish has something called grammatical gender, which actually doesn’t have to do with gender; it’s just a name we use. (Confusing? Yeah.) If you don’t know what this is, just think of the terms fiancé and fiancée. One means a man engaged to be married (fiancé), while the other means a woman engaged to be married (fiancée). So if I called a man my fiancée—oopsy, that would be wrong.

For the most part in English, we don’t deal with this, especially since we pronounce fiancé and fiancée exactly the same way (or at least I do). Hence, when we native English speakers learn a language that does employ grammatical gender, we usually have slip-ups. If you don’t, I officially hate you. Don’t call me again; I’ve blocked your number.

Right now, I’m what I’d call an advanced speaker of Spanish. (I’m even better at writing!) But I like to talk fast in English, so I try to speed up my Spanish as well. I hate being the person everyone listens to like, Come on! Cough it up! Right? Don’t you hate that? Naturally, though, this leads to missteps. I often autocorrect myself, because I’m very self-aware in this area, but sometimes I don’t catch it.

The most common way to tell if something in Spanish is masculine/feminine is to say how the word ends. If it ends in –o, it’s likely masculine; if it ends in –a, it’s likely feminine. Ya with me? However, this is not always the case. (See: la mano.) Easy peasy, lemon squeezy?

In my rush to speak, I sometimes call Mario a girl. No, I don’t say, “Eres una chica,” no. I just refer to him with a feminine adjective. I’m sure this sounds rather odd to him, as this whole grammatical gender thing is ingrained in his speech, and has been since he was a wee little tot with glasses. (Cutest kid ever.) So it has to be jarring when I do this. I like to compare it to when my students would refer to males as “she” or females as “he.” Yes, it happened, and it always seemed so weird to me. Don’t they get it? Well, of course they do; they just mix it up—just like yours truly.

Gender is a tricky thing in Spanish. Here are some examples:

  • It’s el agua/águila/arte, but las aguas/águilas/artes.
  • La mano vs. el mapa
  • Words sometimes change meanings, depending on whether they’re preceded by el or la:
    • El cura (the priest); la cura(the cure)
    • El herido (the wounded man); la herida (the wounded woman/the wound)
    • El frente (the front); la frente(the forehead)
    • El capital (the capital [money]); la capital (the capital [of a country])
    • El mañana (the future/tomorrow [but tomorrow is really an adverb]); la mañana(the morning)
    • Sometimes words are both—la/el mar (both are still used) el/la calor (la calor is seen as archaic). Apparently, la mar is more poetic. That’s because females are more poetic, did you know that? (Okay, I lie.)

Okay, I’m going to stop here. I tend to start writing and just keep going and going, because there’s always more I want to say. But I shan’t. Please, tell me about your grammatical-gender-based mishaps in the comments!

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26 comments

  1. I am el receptionista but you would be la receptionista. Or as Notes in Spanish taught me, Los problemas son masculinos y las soluciones son femininas

    And yes Gramatical gender angers me to no end. Ok it more of just an anoyance, but still its hard to remember while figuring out if your should be using the preterite or imperfect or past perfect or what ever.

      1. another Notes in Spanish learner here. I was sad when they shut down the forum :( but I still get their emails and watch the videos when they’re available. (I was going to bed wasn’t I? ha ha)

  2. graahhhh Gender and Subjunctive will be the death of me! They are shibboleths that always give me away as a foreigner in Portuguese.

    I know you read my post about gender and we’re already on the same page and preaching to the choir and all that (i.e., we’re both awesome).

    At least we learned phrasal verbs on our mothers’ knees…?

  3. When I speak quickly (as I, like you, usually try to do), I often have gender disagreement issues, particularly if the noun isn’t followed directly by the adjective. Or, every so often, I’ll say something awful like, “Estoy cansado.” The annoying thing is that I always catch myself (duh, gender agreement is about as basic as it gets), and then it keeps bugging me, even if I stop to correct myself. It’s just not instinctive for us! I know native speakers aren’t really judging us for our mistakes, but it’s still frustrating to say things wrong when you know perfectly well how to say them!

  4. I must admit to being awfully curious to know if, but “autocorrect”, you meant “self-correct” or “automatically correct”. The former would be very Spanish (although originally Greek), and the latter would be much more American. Personally, I find myself (auto-discovery?) doing the former a LOT.

    Gender mishaps are my most common mistake in Spanish as well. I find that if I use an “uh” sound, somewhere between “ah” and “oh”, that I can fake it, although I’m sure I sound silly to Spaniards.

    Excellent post. Here’s a slightly longer list of similar nouns.

    ¡Eres el mejor! (sic)

    1. Oooh some of those I had learned but consequently forgotten. Thank you!

      I use a lot of phrases like “ehhhh,” “quiero decir,” “es que.” I’m a total pro at those things. For once. ;)

      Oh yes, and I think I was thinking of the Spanish “autocorregirse” when I said that.

  5. Oh mannn this and reflexive verbs are my current battle in Spanish – it feels like I’ll never get them!

    It was worse a few months ago though. I was dating a guy here who’s really into the indignados (Spain’s Occupy movement) and they suddenly decided they were going to revolutionize the Spanish language by throwing out gender norms. You know, stuff like like when you have some guys and girls, you use the masculine form nosotros, even if it’s 1 guy and 100 girls – which is kind of sexist.

    So all of a sudden this guy and I were ‘nosotras’ and he felt ‘contenta’ about using random genders for words and I felt…well, mostly really, REALLY confused.

    Maybe we should ALL just throw out gender. It’ll make it easier for us and less sexist for everyone!

  6. I didn’t think of how some of these were weird until I learned it was “la radio” (I think some people use el too?).

    I don’t envy people learning knew languages as adults.

    1. Do people use el? I’ve not heard that.

      Yes, learning languages as an adult kinda sucks. But it’s also very rewarding and it feels great to have come so far (in my case). You *are* lucky, though. :)

  7. my conversations in French wiht my boyfriend are funny because I sometimes don’t know the gender and he makes fun of me! but of cours, I make fun of him when he does the same in Spanish :P

    1. Do you find it really weird when it’s feminine in Spanish and masculine in French or vice versa? I think I heard this podcast about how societies with languages where certain nouns are masculine or feminine see those objects as more inherently masculine/feminine. So, in Spanish, a table is feminine, whereas in German it’s masculine, so that seems wrong. What do you think?

      1. I find it specially weird when the same word, I mean, a word that has the same root in Latin has different genders in Spanish or French. I can’t think of an example right now, but there are. I studied Latin in high school and the gender was completely random… I guess it was linked to the vision they had about those objects or concepts (particularly if they were represented by a deity of any specific sex). But then I don’t know why French would choose masculine and Spanish feminine…

  8. Ahhhh completamente de acuerdo. There are still so many ways I get confused. Por ejemplo, the other day I said “Soy miembra de…” instead of “miembro”, and I got a laugh out of my friends. Apparently that’s something you don’t change (at least in PR), but it sounds like you should, right? I too have used the wrong gender when referring to people! When you do it to kids they get all defensive, it’s funny.

    In one of the classes I’m taking now, we just studied gender/ noun classification systems in different languages. Many languages, like Russian and German, have 3 genders (masc., fem., and neuter, PLUS different plural endings for each gender, at least in the case of Russian!) And other languages have completely random systems for classifying nouns (animate vs. inanimate) or even worse! In one Ugandan language we looked at, nouns classifiers include: people, long objects, animals, miscellaneous objects, large objects and liquids, small objects, languages, pejoratives, infinitives, mass nouns. In Swahili there are 18 ways to classify nouns!! BAH!!

    And about the words like agua, águila, alma, etc. that all have a stressed “a” in the first syllable, it’s actually due to a thing called “synalepha” and has to do with their derivation from Latin, and to avoid “cacofonía”. While the masculine article is used, the word is actually feminine. Anything that’s not a definite or indefinite singular article is feminine, and if there is a word in between the article and the word it modifies, the article becomes feminine too. And adding to that is the fact that not even native speakers follow these “rules” 100%. So confusing!! For example:
    El águila blanca, las águilas blancas, un águila blanca, unas águilas blancas, el águila mía BUT la/una majestuosa águila, esta águila, etc.
    I only got this straightened out completely a few weeks ago!

    Another confusing thing is that there’s even dialectal variation… For example, azúcar in Espain is masculine (at least that I remember). So it would be “el azúcar blanco”. But in Latin America, it’s feminine, “la azúcar blanca”. Even more confusing, is that some people use “el azúcar blanca” instead of “la” too, but the “why” is long so I won’t get into it. Oh, and then there’s the confusing thing about loan words and what gender they carry, which can also vary from country to country. For example, here in PR, they use “soda” (feminine) to refer to the group of bubbly beverages, from the English word. Therefore, ANY soda here is automatically feminine: “La Sprite”, “La 7-Up”, “La Dr. Pepper”, and then logically,”La Coca-Cola” and “La Fanta”. Even historically, that’s the reason why words like “problema”, “sistema”, “crisis”, “tesis” have confusing genders because they are actually loan words from Greek, where they are masculine/neuter and feminine, respectively. Centuries ago, (in some cases even in Roman times), people assigned them their gender in Greek instead of following traditional rules for Latin/Spanish to show that they were “educated”, and it stuck!

    I’ve come to the consensus that English rocks because it got rid of all that. Heck, we’re even trying to eliminate gender in words like “policeman” by making it “police officer”! When we get stressed though, we just have to remember that, if you listen carefully, even native Spanish speakers have occasional slips of the tongues just like we do in English!

    Many apologies for going all linguist on you, I tend to ramble when it comes to these topics!

    1. Girl, you better go write your own blog entry about this.

      I did actually know the thing about agua/arte/guila. It’s interesting nonetheless, though. Thanks for the new vocab word, synalepha. I like it!

  9. The whole “frente” thing took me years to get straight but what bugs me now is the female doctor! It´s not “la médica” but is it “la médico”? I thought last time I was there they just referred to the doctor (female) as “el médico.” Maybe I heard it wrong but i still find it confusing. For years I just said “la doctora” but that´s not quite right. Also, la ginecólogo … doesn´t seem right to me. Must ask hubby the linguist, though even he to this day occasionally refers to a man as she and vice versa! It only struck me quite recently how different English and Spanish are, one is a romance language and the other is a germanic one. Never the twain shall meet, perhaps?

  10. omg, you’re rockin’ my world!! there’s an El mañana??? the things one learns on the intertubes. I’m gonna have to come back to read the rest of the comments porque los ojos se cierran(ok, maybe I can do reflexive after all, heh)…..buenas noches. another great post! and I have so much more to learn ;)

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