Foreign Language - Gendered articles when noun not specified
January 11, 2018 12:40 PM   Subscribe

If I'm talking in a language with gendered nouns about something that could be referred to with a masculine or feminine noun, does it matter which gender articles I use, and will everyone in the conversation then use the same articles?

For example if I'd like to tell my friend in French that the breakfast on the table is hers, I could refer to it as the meal (le repas), the breakfast (le petit déjeuner), the food (la nourriture), etc. So I could say "It's yours" as "C'est le tien" or "C'est la tienne". If I am thinking about the meal and say "C'est le tien", but she was about to ask whose food it was, would she then start referring to it with "le" since I did, or would she still say "la" referring to food?

Obviously if she said "thank you for the food" the article would match the noun, but how does this work in a practical sense when no one ever specifies the noun? Does it matter which one you pick, and then does everyone stick to that one?

The closest I could come up with in English is something that could be plural or singular. If I was giving (a pair of) pants to a friend I could TECHNICALLY say "this is for you" but that seems weird to me. So I would say "THESE are for you". Even though I could say "This pair of pants is for you"

Then again if it was a gift and wrapped I would say "This (gift) is for you". If I was giving a bag of hand-me-downs I think either would work. "This is for you" (bag of clothes), or "These are for you" (clothes). So is it just something you have to get a feel for in a new language? Or am I way overthinking this?
posted by sillysally to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You're not overthinking; it's interesting.

I was once in a travel agency in Paris where one agent referred to me as "la personne" (which was weird to my US ears since I'm a guy), and the other agents then carried on with "elle"-this and "elle"-that.

I have the feeling that I was "la personne" in that situation, instead of "il" or "lui", because they were discussing a travel issue that hypothetically could apply to any person, rather than talking about me personally.
posted by JimN2TAW at 12:53 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]

In Spanish you have neuter pronouns for this kind of thing - lo/esto/eso for it/this/that, instead of feminine la/esta/esa or masculine el/este/ese.
posted by gregjones at 1:43 PM on January 11

IME (speaking Spanish as a second language in Latin America) you just pick whatever article goes with your chosen noun and people will either figure it out in context or go with their own new noun/article combo and you'll have to make the leap.

It can sometimes lead to confusion (or unintentional hilarity) but it's not a huge deal. As a second-language speaker it frustrated me to no end that I had to remember if the microwave was a girl or a boy before asking my roommate about it.

Traditionally, the gender-neutral "lo" in Spanish is usually used for big conceptual things "e.g., lo infinito."
posted by pantarei70 at 2:14 PM on January 11

Of the two I know - Swedish (which technically refers to theirs as common and neuter, not gendered) and Russian, you are supposed to use the gendered article when referring to something without the noun. Of these two though, in Swedish they seem to be a lot less fussed with it (particularly in speech), and tend to default to neuter ("det"), whereas in Russian, they are particularly fastidious about it being correct.
posted by ryanbryan at 3:35 PM on January 11

This is funny because I disagree with you about your example in English. I would hand them a pair of pants and say "This (thing) is for you", I wouldn't even think about what the word itself would be if I were to insert it into the sentence. Similarly walking around looking for a pair of scissors - "there it is!".

If the word had been used already then it would probably anchor my thinking and word use, but as just an object in the abstract I'd use my abstract object words.
posted by Lady Li at 11:44 PM on January 11

(native French speaker here)

It is interesting. I've never thought formally about it, but I think I would just pick up the gender you used and keep on using it, even if I wasn't clear on what precise noun you were refering to.
posted by snakeling at 12:55 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

(Another native French speaker). I think that it's just not a problem. People will use the actual word if there's a potential confusion and if they don't it's because there's enough context to clear any confusion (the object has a usual gendered name, or was just talked about so you don't need to repeat it). And in any case there are ways to avoid using gendered pronouns altogether. In your example, a person would just point at the meal and say "c'est pour toi" without referring to the meal/food as a specific object, because the demonstrative pronoun "ce" and the context make naming the subject/object redundant.
posted by elgilito at 5:08 AM on January 12 [1 favorite]

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