What do mis-gendered nouns sound like?
July 19, 2019 7:52 AM   Subscribe

For people who are fluently bilingual in both American English and a language with gendered nouns (specifically interested in French, but others please chip in): What's the closest English equivalent (if one exists) to what it it feels like when someone misgenders a noun?

Let's say that I (as a non-native speaker) mis-gender a noun in a language with gendered nouns. Is there any way to explain what that sounds like / feels like to you as it relates to the violation of a language rule in American English?

Some examples of what I mean would be explaining it as "it's like using I instead of me - e.g. They gave the fish to I", or "it's like dropping `the` when referring to something - e.g. I found it at library", or "it's like mis-gendering a person - e.g. I saw my father and she was well." I'm sure there's no direct equivalent of the feeling, but is there anything close?
posted by true to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think the last example is closest to what it feels like for me in Greek, the other two sound wrong but not absurd - also because if you make this kind of mistake you'll often try to match the noun ending to the mistaken gender and end up with something that is not a word, or another word altogether.
posted by each day we work at 8:11 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


Honestly, for me it’s more like a mispronouncing a word. So like someone saying, “Brie is my favorite kind of creese!” and then it takes a split-second to realize they mean “cheese.”
posted by whitewall at 8:13 AM on July 19 [9 favorites]


Here's the thing: In gendered languages, the gendered article and the noun always go together as a pair. The two together are almost their own word. As a French speaker you always hear "ma" in front of "voiture" and never "mon" - as an example. If someone says "mon voiture" it is jarring and makes you stop listening to wonder if you misheard.

So maybe it is like someone saying "I have an book." or something like that, or, on preview like whitewall says a mispronunciation.

(Native Spanish speaker. Fluent in French and other Romance languages)
posted by vacapinta at 8:16 AM on July 19 [19 favorites]


My native language is Serbo-Croatian (which has three genders like German but does not have articles) and I grew up in Canada so I'm a near-native English speaker. I would say that your last example "I saw my father and she was well" is the closest to the feeling of a non-native speaker mis-gendering a noun.

Just as an aside, I am also an intermediate French speaker and have noticed that often when speaking, which I find most difficult, I mis-gender even very common nouns of which I definitely know the correct gender. It seems that in moments when I don't have a lot of time to think before I speak, I automatically gender nouns as they are in my native language. When I do this and realize that I've made a mistake, or when I hear another non-native French speaker do it, I can point out the error but I don't "feel" it in the same way I would if a non-native Serbo-Croatian speaker made the same kind of error. This has got me wondering whether, even if I become a very advanced French speaker (my number one goal at the moment), I will ever have that feeling that a native French speaker has for such things. I'm curious to hear from people who have reached French fluency in adulthood what this type of error feels/sounds like to them.
posted by piamater at 8:19 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]


In many cases it's confusing. For example, in Italian, "tavolo" means a table, while "tavola" means "the place where you eat." These might in some cases be the same, but in many cases are not. Using the wrong article will have people scratching their heads as to what you were trying to say. In some cases gender is all that separates two words, like "ragazzo" and "ragazza" for "boy" and "girl." If you say "la ragazzo" your audience won't know which part you got wrong.

In some exceptional cases, a word's different meanings are ONLY distinguished by the article's gender (I can't think of an example at the moment, but I know they exist). In that case misgendering will simply mean you used the wrong word, which may have no similarity to what you intended.

In the common case where there's only one word, it will just sound uneducated.
posted by ubiquity at 8:27 AM on July 19 [5 favorites]


I feel like this is such a "German" answer, but my first reaction is to wonder if the speaker isn't done with their sentence or changed their mind about the verb partway through (when the mis-gendering could plausibly be a matter of them intending to use a different case), and then I start speculating that they might have inadvertently left off an ending of the noun that would make their chosen gender correct. There are a bunch of branching possibilities from there, since those "endings" might well be words in their own right that totally change the meaning of the sentence. Sometime after that it occurs to me that maybe they were just wrong. This is even though I guess noun genders incorrectly embarrassingly often myself, compared to native speakers!

I'm reminded of a short conversation with a native speaker with whom I shared a desk who perceived that the teacher had just used the wrong gender for "circle." This had clearly derailed the whole point of the sentence for her, much like "my father, she" might. Since I was actively learning the language and dealing with this sort of thing all the time myself, I was actually better-equipped to point out that if he was being really pedantically correct in his speech, it actually was the correct gender (as turned out to have been the case).
posted by teremala at 8:52 AM on July 19 [5 favorites]


If you said "I saw my father and it was well" it's confusing because it and father don't agree so you're left to wonder if it is erroneously referring to the father, or the act of seeing the father, but then wouldn't you say good instead of well, but clearly something's wrong in that sentence so who's to say it's the pronoun instead of something else? Could be anything!
posted by aubilenon at 9:18 AM on July 19 [7 favorites]


Maybe how it feels when someone says mouses instead of mice... It is jarring for a minute but you move on.
posted by k8t at 9:20 AM on July 19 [3 favorites]


Native English speaker with near-native fluency in French here. The best example I can come up with in terms of how that makes me feel is when someone uses gendered pronouns for it-nouns. It doesn't get in the way of comprehension, but it makes me twitch. "I started reading the book and he is very well-written." "Have you tried that new ice cream flavor? She is delicious."
posted by pendrift at 11:31 AM on July 19 [12 favorites]


Native Urdu speaker, a language with gendered nouns but no articles - gender is conveyed through adjectives and verbs. Generally, misgendering just sounds a bit awkward and sometimes childish or affected, like a child's lisp or someone trying to sound cute. A special case is when Urdu is spoken with an English accent - an accent plus misgendering (and a few other things, like using first person plural forms) is basically how the comedy Anglo villain speaks in Indian and Pakistani films. This can sound funny.
posted by tavegyl at 12:23 PM on July 19 [16 favorites]


I'm a native Italian speaker and misgendering nouns just sounds awkward in the same way that saying "I ate a apple" or "We went to an BBQ" might sound. Most of the time it won't stop you from understanding exactly what the speaker wanted to say, but will throw you for a bit of a loop.
posted by lydhre at 12:31 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]


For me it's irregular verbs conjugated wrong, such as "I runned over there" (ran)- it's close enough but just doesn't feel right.
posted by freethefeet at 9:58 PM on July 19


A special case is when Urdu is spoken with an English accent - an accent plus misgendering (and a few other things, like using first person plural forms) is basically how the comedy Anglo villain speaks in Indian and Pakistani films. This can sound funny.

This is essentially how Agatha Christie wrote Poirot, who routinely genders nouns in English. I suspect that if you wanted to get a sense of what it is like to hear these gendering errors in your native language, you could watch any episode of ITV's Poirot with David Suchet.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:57 AM on July 20 [1 favorite]


In some exceptional cases, a word's different meanings are ONLY distinguished by the article's gender (I can't think of an example at the moment, but I know they exist). In that case misgendering will simply mean you used the wrong word, which may have no similarity to what you intended.

French foie (m), fois (f), foi (f) would be one example in that language.
posted by gimonca at 1:28 PM on July 23


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