This question betrays my poor beginner's Spanish, but what the heck...

Do native/fluent Spanish speakers regard masculine/feminine nouns as possessing intrinsic "male/female" qualities, if only subconsciously? For instance, is a bed somehow feminine over and above its grammatical gender?

Am I completely off track here?

  • We say la cama, and we don't say el cama. It's just the former, and no other attempt should be made because it is what it is. This is one of the annoying stuff of learning Spanish. – Alejandro Mar 29 '16 at 11:33
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    Gender can create shades of meaning, but it's incredibly context-sensitive and not superficially consistent. Words additionally regularly change gender for no real reason at all. In some cases, it's (almost) purely phonetic, especially when importing words. – guifa Mar 29 '16 at 11:51
  • @guifa. For me gender is fix. "Cama" is and always has been feminine. Could you please elaborate on nouns changing gender regularly?. I consider you as one of the knowledgeable people around here and I think you should write an answer explaining that. I'm curious and I want to understand the reason behind your comment. Thanks – DGaleano Mar 29 '16 at 13:09
  • @DGaleano for any given person, gender is pretty fixed (mostly lol), but over decades or centuries, it can change. I don't have time to write out a longer answer now but I'll try to tonight – guifa Mar 29 '16 at 13:25
  • @DGaleano Considera el caso de palabras cuyo género no depende del referente sino del contexto. Por ejemplo el/la sartén (discutido aquí ) o el/la radio, cuyo género depende del país donde se habla. En Chile tenemos el/la calor, que depende del nivel de educación del hablante. Y puede ser estilístico, como en el/la mar. Cuando te enfrentas a estos pares automáticamente "emparejas" el referente con el significado y calculas la concordancia de género gramatical sin ningún dolor, en un segundo. – Rodrigo Mar 29 '16 at 22:11

In Spanish, gender does not translate to género in the sense of sexual characterisation. Gender is translated to sexo. Género is purely grammatical, or was until English influence in the last couple of decades gave it the second meaning of sexo.

So no, the only difference between el leopardo and la pantera is their coat, not their sexual organs or traits. It is not a case of personification or animation, it's just grammar. It could be worse, ask the Zulu with their 15 genders!

As Fundéu explains in género y sexo, diferencias de significado:

Los términos género y sexo designan, en la lengua general, realidades distintas: género se refiere a la categoría gramatical de las palabras y sexo alude a la condición de los seres vivos por la que se distingue el macho de la hembra.

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    Además, muchos hombres son buenas personas, mientras que otros son malas. – Jacinto Mar 29 '16 at 14:37
  • Gender is género, and sex is sexo. The English word "gender" may be confusing for English speakers because they are mostly familiar with the sociocultural sense of the word, but "gender" is also used with the grammatical sense in English. Saying "gender" translates to "sexo" just isn't true. Sex is a biological thing and gender is a social construction (besides the grammatical definition). There's no way English "gender" could be equivalent to Spanish "sexo". – Yay Mar 29 '16 at 14:38
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    Many English speakers avoid the word sex because they are afraid of saying it. They use gender even when it is quite clear that biological sex is meant. A useful distinction is thus being lost. – mdewey Mar 29 '16 at 14:50
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    @Lioninacoma When I think of leopards or panthers I don't stop to assign them a gender. They're just a bunch of steel, right? ...Okay, let's forget that. We say Look at him /look at her, but not because the archetypical panther is a female. It's just the gramatical gender it has and we follow the rules. Like, when we're talking about people: Gente is feminine and singular, yet we all know we're talking about a bunch of individuals, male, female or any gender inbetween – 169134 Mar 29 '16 at 15:17
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    @Lioninacoma Yes, adjectives, articles, pronouns, they all have to agree to the noun. If you're talking about an individual you can add its gender in the sentence, as in Esa pantera macho está algo agitada, habrá que alimentarla. You keep using the female form, but you've stated that the panther is male. – 169134 Mar 29 '16 at 16:21

In 90% of the cases, grammatical gender has nothing to do with male/female qualities. It should be enough proof to point out the fact that there are multiple words that are almost perfect synonyms and are of different genders:

Silla (f.) y asiento (m.)
Gafas (f.) y anteojos (m.)
Cara (f.) y rostro (m.)
Computadora (f.) y ordenador (m.)

Obviously, those words don’t differ in their male/female qualities. They mean almost the same thing and are interchangeable in numerous contexts, so how could one be masculine and the other feminine? Another example would be words that change their gender after adding a suffix:

Cabeza (f.) y cabezón (m.)
Furgón (m.) y furgoneta (f.)
Tecla (f.) y teclado (m.)
Cuerno (m.) y cornamenta (f.)

Again, if someone feels “tecla” sounds feminine for some reason, I don’t think the fact the word becomes masculine after adding a suffix will change that. And what about words that have changed gender over the course of history? An example is sangre (blood), which was masculine in Latin and is still masculine in other Romance languages such as French sang, Italian sangue or Portuguese sangue. Was Spanish blood not manly enough? I don’t think so.

So grammatical gender has little to do with male/female qualities, except for a couple of cases:

  1. When a word can be inflected for both genders1, most of the time the grammatical gender it takes determines its natural gender: chico/chica, profesor/profesora, corredor/corredora, etc.
  2. With animals for which there are different names for the male and the female animal, each of them generally agrees with their natural gender: vaca/toro, carnero/oveja, caballo/yegua. The same applies to some family members (mamá/papá, madrina/padrino, yerno/suegra), and some other words. These are called heterónimos.

Now, you’re asking if grammatical gender can affect subconsciously the way we regard different words. I think there’s no way to tell, and unless someone carries out a well-thought experiment or can link one, all we can do is sheer speculation. Bur sincerely I really, really doubt grammatical gender can affect the “manliness/girlishness” of a word. If I say “Pepe es una buena persona” no one would feel Pepe is somewhat more feminine because I used the word “persona”. And if I say “Sofía es un sujeto en mi experimento” Sofia hasn’t become masculine because I said “sujeto”. So there is a link between the grammatical gender and the natural gender of a word that is patent in some cases, but that doesn't affect most words, and treating masculine words as male words and feminine words as female words would be to make a distinction that just isn't justified and that, as far as anyone can know, no native speaker does.


1: This is generally truth for animate objects. Some inanimate objects can be inflected for both grammatical genders too but that doesn't affect their perception as masculine/feminine: charco (m.) and charca (f.), farol (m.) and farola (f.), or cesto (m.) and cesta (f.) are some examples. For more on this topic, see Meseguer, Á. G. (2002). El español, una lengua no sexista. Estudios de lingüística del español, (16), 8.

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  • Thanks everyone for the explanations. I have another question that follows my original one, but I'm not sure if it needs to be a new question... I'll ask anyway. – Lioninacoma Mar 30 '16 at 7:13
  • Given that there is now no connection between grammatical gender (of nouns) and sex in Spanish, - was there once (ie in Latin)? If not, how did the genders get assigned in the first place - was there originally some logic? - is English the poorer for its lack of genders? Would Spanish be any poorer if overnight everyone started using, say, lo as a universal definite article? Thanks – Lioninacoma Mar 30 '16 at 7:37
  • Unfortunately, I can't comment on Latin because I don't know much about that. All I know is that there used to be be three genders: masc, fem and neuter, and at some point the neuter one was lost and a lot of words were reassigned according to some rules (e.g. Neuter collective nouns became fem, I think), but about the connection I have no idea. How genders were assigned is an interesting topic you could ask about either here or on Latin.SE or Linguistics.SE (+) – Yay Mar 30 '16 at 8:01
  • (+) Regarding Spanish losing genders, I think that would be detrimental because there is a connection between gram gender and sex in some cases, and those justify keeping genders for all nouns. Maybe we could benefit from having a third neuter gender for words were there is no such connection, but if there was once a neuter gender that was later lost, maybe it wasn't that beneficial? (+) – Yay Mar 30 '16 at 8:04
  • (+) Finally, I think there's an important reason for keeping gender: Spanish sentence order is much freer than other generally non-pro-drop languages such as English. Noun-adjective/determiner agreement helps keep track of what modifies what in complex sentences. I'd have to ponder this argument in a more systematic way to reach a conclusion, but I think clarity would be greatly lost were Spanish to suppress gender. – Yay Mar 30 '16 at 8:12

There have in fact been studies into the effect of grammatical gender on subconscious stereotyping of inanimate objects, and there does indeed seem to be some carryover. Here's one "pop sci" write-up based on this academic write-up¹, which reports on various other studies.

¹ Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L., & Phillips, W. (2003). Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In Language in mind: Advances in the study of language and cognition, ed. D. Gentner & S. Goldin-Meadow, pp. 61- 80. Cambridge University Press.

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    +1 That was one of the coolest papers I've ever read! Your answer would be much improved if you added a short description of some experiment where grammatical gender and gender stereotypes influence each other. Most native speakers (I, for one) just wouldn't believe one can influence the other unless proven otherwise. – Yay Apr 2 '16 at 22:06

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