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Mastering grammatical gender is probably the most difficult aspect of French for speakers of English. I’m referring of course to that complicated business of so-called masculine and feminine nouns and the attendant complex rules of gender agreement. In this post I want to have an in-depth look at a small but important detail that is a source of gender confusion for learners and native speakers of French alike.
I’m assuming that all readers are pretty much familiar with how the system of grammatical gender works in general. All nouns are either masculine or feminine. Let me say in passing that I think this terminology is totally inappropriate in today’s world. There is nothing inherently masculine or feminine about words, so why call them such? But that’s a battle for another day, and I’ll go with the traditional terms for now.
As all learners of French know, many words such as adjectives, participles, some prepositions, articles and pronouns have to agree in gender (and in number) with the noun to which they refer. Here are two simple examples:
La nouvelle voiture électrique connaît un succès fou. ‘The new electric car is a runaway hit.’
Le nouveau vélo auquel je faisais référence est très à la mode cette année. ‘The new bicycle I was referring to is very much in vogue this year.’
This stuff is relatively straightforward. Producing it fluently, accurately and consistently is another story. But there is a major complication that I want to introduce by way of a little story.
Grammatical gender in a public bus announcement
The buses of the Société des transports de Montréal are now equipped with a sliding ramp that extends from the entrance to allow wheelchairs to enter the bus. At some stops, in the more remote areas of the city, this ramp cannot be deployed because of the terrain and therefore the bus is not accessible by wheelchair.
Twice a week I take bus 191 west to attend orchestra practice. Lately I’ve noticed that a pleasant recorded female voice now announces all the stops on the route. Here is a message that recently caught my ear:
Prochain arrêt, rue Notre-Dame numéro 6000. Cet arrêt est non accessible aux personnes en fauteuil roulant. ‘Next stop, 6000 Notre-Dame street. This stop is not wheelchair accessible.’
For the distance I travel there are about 10 messages like this. The only variation is in the name or address of the stop.
Going to and from band rehearsals twice a week, I hear this recording around 40 times. By now I know the message by heart and I can do a pretty good impression. I imagine there are people who take the bus back and forth at least five days a week and hear this recording a hundred times every week. This is perfect example of what I’ve called in a series of blog posts aural repetition.
I imagine most people on the bus are totally oblivious to this message. Some people probably do not know what is being said. I’ve never actually seen a wheelchair on this bus. But everybody hears the message over and over again. In fact, I believe all the passengers, including native speakers, are unconsciously getting a small but very serious lesson in French grammar, sans s’en rendre compte.
What does this have to do with grammatical gender?
There are two points of grammar and pronunciation that we have to look at:
1. Prochain arrêt
The first thing to keep in mind here is that the word arrêt or l’arrêt is singular masculine. This is very important, as we’ll see in a minute.
The first two words of the message are pronounced with the liaison connecting the end of prochain with the initial vowel of arrêt. This means the normally nasalized sound of –ain is denasalized and the final n is pronounced as it connects to the following word. For our purposes here this could be written: prochain-n-arrêt. It goes without saying that the final –t of arrêt is not pronounced.
What you should keep in mind here is that because of this liaison, prochain here sounds exactly like prochaine, the singular feminine form of this adjective, as in la prochaine station ‘the next station’.
2. Cet arrêt
Because arrêt starts with a vowel, the demonstrative adjective ce ‘this’, normally used in front of singular masculine nouns, here becomes cet to create a liaison between ce and arrêt. Think of it as something like cet-t-arrêt.
The key thing to note here is that this cet sounds exactly like cette which is used in front of singular feminine nouns, as in cette station ‘this station’.
The mistaken grammatical gender of arrêt
The interesting thing in all this is that the pronunciation of prochain and cet in front of arrêt can naturally lead both uneducated native speakers of French and foreign learners to conclude that arrêt is actually a feminine noun. In vernacular Québécois French one will commonly hear.
*Descendez à la prochaine arrêt
Descendez au prochain arrêt ‘Get off at the next stop’
The same thing happens with a few masculine words that begin with a vowel or a silent h. Examples include autobus, ascenseur, hôpital. In vernacular French you might hear things like:
*Les nouvelles autobus sont belles.
*Votre ascenseur est vieille.
*Cette hôpital est très bonne. Je vous la recommande.
The standard forms would be:
Les nouveaux autobus sont beaux.
Votre ascenceur est vieux.
Cet hôpital est très bon. Je vous le recommande.
In the case of autobus, you might hear the bus number used instead, as in:
*Prenez la 129 ou la 80 nord. ‘Take the 129 or the 80 north.’
Some people claim the la refers to la ligne ‘the line’ but the fact of the matter is that most people think it is the gender of autobus. You should say:
Prenez le 129 ou le 80 nord
More examples of mistaken grammatical gender
I recently heard a native French-speaker say:
Un hôpital américaine. ‘An American hospital’
Here is something I found on a classified ads website from a person selling two bass guitars:
Je met en vente mes 2 basses commandés récemment de Sire.
Les 2 sont à l’état neuve avec le gig bag d’origine.
There are a number of mistakes here but I want to draw your attention to à l’état neuve ‘in mint condition’ because it would seem that the person here thinks that état is feminine. In fact état is nominally masculine and this phrase should be à l’état neuf.
In this same website there are numerous examples where products are decribed as en bonne état ‘in good condition’. This of course is a rendition of en bon état with the liaison leading the writer to think that this is really en bonne état.
The big picture : singular masculine words starting with a vowel or silent h
The cause of all this confusion is the liaison rule of singular adjectives in front of singular nouns starting with a vowel or a silent h. Here are some examples :
Le nouvel arrivant
Un bel effort
Un viel ami
Un nouvel état
Le divin enfant
Un excellent orchestre
In all these cases the masculine adjectives have the exact same pronunciation as their feminine counterparts. The only clue to the masculine gender is the article Un or Le. In the case of the demonstrative article Cet, there is no aural clue. No wonder uneducated native speakers and learners get confused
Watch out for mistaken grammatical gender
I strongly urge you to pay attention to these mistakes because they are highly stigmatized as examples of uneducated French. I’m not saying never to use them. In fact, they are quite common.
Just be aware they are considered examples of bad French by people who pay attention to these things. No professional journalist would be caught dead using this kind of French. Your French teacher will have a fit if you tell them that I say it is OK to use this kind of French.
The good part in all this is that if you really master the tricky little rules here, your French will really shine. Lets say you come out fluently with something like:
Il faut admirer ce bel effort fort honorable. ‘This very honourable and worthy effort is to be admired.’
Here you have three tricky liaisons, faut-t-admirer, bel-l-effort and the fort-t-honorable, all in one sentence. This is totally awesome French. Your French teacher will be very impressed. Go for it.
Stanley Aléong is a polyglot, author, musician, language coach in French, English and Spanish, language workshop facilitator and organizer of French-English conversation meetups in Montreal, Canada. He likes to share his passion for languages and believes that anybody can learn to speak a foreign language well with the right methods and tools. He has also invented a cool visual learning tool called the Essential French Wall Chart Calendar. Reach him at email@example.com.
Because I learned French at a university (there you know I’m American and not a Brit but why (for the first time I’m wondering) is it “a” instead of “an” in front of the vowel in “university”) I was aware of virtually every aspect of the correct French. But I’m sure I still occasionally make such mistakes although I’m usually aware of it by the end of the sentence and self correct.
The reassuring thing I got out of the article however is that many French people also struggle with this.