How to tell the gender of a french word

I was in my early 30s when I had to spend two weeks on a technical visit to France. Like most Brits, I was so scared of sounding stupid that I could barely hold my own in any conversation and the social events, like when we were eating together, were the worst. Then after the first week, I flew over to the UK to visit my sister and mother, neither of whom I had seen for years. I spent the weekend there and during that time I decided “What the heck? I’m just going to speak terrible French and hopefully will be understood and not laughed at too much”. It worked. The second week was a breeze.

Then I read a book called “The loom of language”. Not only did I learn that there are only two main European languages, Teutonic (of which German is one) and Romance (of which French is one), but that English comprises about equal numbers of Teutonic and Romance words and very little else. I started to get interested in linguistics and also found that some of my schoolboy French was still in my head.

I ended up going to Alliance Francais and winning the Prix d’excellance (prize for excellence, get it?). Whilst there, I asked my teacher who, by the way, was herself French, how do the French people find out the gender of a new word that they’ve just heard? Do they have to grab a dictionary every time? She said “No, we just kind of know”.

Now I had a clue. It must be something to do with the sound of the word. I got out my Loom of Language and listed a few hundred French words, masculine in one column and feminine in the other. What was it about the words that fitted them into a particular column?

It turned out to be the sound of the ending. If the last syllable of two words was the same there was a fair chance they were of the same gender. If the last two syllables were the same, the likelihood shot up to just short of 100%.

Of course, if we’d had Google in those days, I could have just looked it up. I’ve done that now and yes, I’m not the first one to figure out “Springett’s Rule of Gender”. But what is interesting is that the articles in Google still fall short, because they then say you must learn which endings are masculine and which are feminine, but that’s not what the French do, is it? No, they just develop a sense of what “feels right” and that is based on all the other words whose gender they already know.

So now, when I am speaking French, I don’t even think about the gender of a word, I just say what feels right and 99% of the time, it is right.



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