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Gender of Inanimate Nouns and Concepts

Memorizing the gender of nouns referring to things is one of the most difficult parts of learning French, as assigning gender to an object or concept is unfamiliar to native English speakers. Is there any logic to this process? In many cases, it seems arbitrary, and there’s no way of guessing. Fortunately, some categories of nouns do follow logical rules. 

 

For example, it is indeed possible to identify the gender of a country based on its ending. La France is a feminine noun because it ends in e. (Note that we say la France even though it’s a proper noun. Unlike in English, all names of countries are preceded by an article in French.)

 

Le nom de la France vient du mot "Franc"

The name of France comes from the word "Franc" [Frank]

Caption 3, Le saviez-vous? D'où vient le nom de la France?

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That said, there are always exceptions. Even though it also ends in an e, le Mexique (Mexico) is masculine:

 

Maintenant avec leur aide, partons sur-le-champ conquérir le Mexique!

Now with their aid, let's leave at once to conquer Mexico!

Caption 29, Il était une fois: Les Amériques 9. Cortés et les Aztèques - Part 8

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But as for countries that don’t end in an e, it’s easy! They are automatically masculine: le Canada, le Japon, le Luxembourg (Canada, Japan, Luxembourg).

 

Pierre Trudeau, Premier Ministre du Canada, a dit que c'était une loi de fou.

Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, said it was a crazy law.

Caption 28, Le Québec parle aux Français - Part 3

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What about cities? Do they follow the same rule as countries? Not exactly. The Académie Française (the official French language watchdog, if you will) doesn’t give a definite answer, noting that people tend to prefer masculine although feminine is often used in literary contexts. 

 

In the video below, we can tell that Paris is masculine because of the masculine past participle traversé (intersected):

 

Car Paris était traversé à l'époque par un aqueduc

For Paris was intersected at the time by an aqueduct

Caption 39, Voyage dans Paris Le Treizième arrondissement de Paris - Part 2

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French speakers often get around the gender ambiguity by using the expression c’est (it’s), which always requires a masculine agreement. Instead of saying Paris est belle or Paris est beau (Paris is beautiful), Sophie uses the phrase c’est + masculine to describe Paris:

 

C'est beau Paris comme ça.

Paris is beautiful like this.

Caption 1, Sophie et Patrice Paris, c'est gris

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The gender of languages is much more clear-cut. All languages are masculine, from le français (French) to le thaï (Thai):

 

Je crois que le français est une langue géniale.

I believe that French is a great language.

Caption 11, Allons en France Pourquoi apprendre le français?

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Note, however, that if you say "the French language" or "the Thai language" instead of just "French" or "Thai," you have to use the feminine, because the word langue (language) is feminine: la langue françaisela langue thaïe.

 

Most foreign words are also masculine, in particular sports names and terms borrowed from English. It’s a simple matter of putting a masculine article like le (the) in front of the loanword:

 

Il aime le football.

He likes soccer.

Caption 33, Lionel L Les liaisons et le h aspiré

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On the other hand, native French sports terms are either masculine or feminine. For example, we have two words for “bicycle”: le vélo, which is masculine, and la bicyclette, which is feminine.

 

Tu peux faire du vélo

You can ride a bike

Caption 31, Amal et Caroline Le Parc de la Villette

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Most inanimate nouns follow no predictable pattern when it comes to gender. When we talk about feelings, for example, we say le bonheur (happiness) but la joie (joy): 

 

Y a de la joie. On est avec les petits.

There's good cheer. We are with the little ones.

Caption 45, Actu Vingtième Fête du quartier Python-Duvernois

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C'est quand le bonheur?

When is happiness?

Caption 9, Cali C'est quand le bonheur

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To complicate things further, some words take both genders, and their meaning changes depending on whether they're masculine or feminine (we discuss this at length in our lesson One Word, Two Genders). For example, un livre is "a book," but une livre is "a pound": 

 

L'extérieur d'un livre s'appelle la couverture.

The outside of a book is called the cover.

Caption 4, Manon et Clémentine Vocabulaire du livre

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Une livre équivaut à environ quatre cent cinquante-quatre grammes. 

One pound is equal to around four hundred fifty-four grams.

 

And there is a small group of noun pairs that have slightly different meanings in the masculine and feminine that aren't conveyed in English. For example, the words an and année both mean "year," but the masculine an emphasizes a point in time or a unit of time, while the feminine année stresses duration: 

 

Un manuscrit de mille deux cents ans

A one thousand two hundred year old manuscript

Caption 9, Télé Lyon Métropole Un manuscrit vieux de 1200 ans découvert à Lyon

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Ça fait des années et des années qu'ils cherchent à être logés.

For years and years they've sought housing.

Captions 35-36, Actus Quartier Devant la SNCF

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Whether you’ve been studying French pendant des années (for years) or you’ve only just begun, with practice, remembering the gender of nouns will become easier. Thank you for reading the final lesson of this series!

 
Grammar

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