The more that my French improves, the less well I speak the language.

It’s not just that it is hard to learn a new language when one is older, but I generally struggle with any language that believes that inanimate objects should be endowed with a sexual preference.

There are some basic rules in French on how to split objects into their sexual camps, but the exceptions to each rule are so many that the rules become fairly useless to those of us who didn’t grow up with a language that made the gender of the object an integral part of the word when first learning it as a child. A French child learns from the beginning that the word for table is “la table” and the gender is just part of the word. Not so easy for us who grew up believing that sexual differentiation tended to apply only to living things, and that most of the time this could be discerned by things such as the clothing that was worn, length of hair, first name, the shape that was formed by a tight sweater or if an animal, at least by the bits that were generally on display.

Author: Valerie McGlinchey; under CCAS license, via Wikimedia Commons

I have now spent over a decade trying to discover some magic formula that would enable me to come to grips with the fact that things that can’t actually have sex do have sex assigned to them, but with little success. I have now decided that actual gender allocation has nothing to do with logic, but is based more on these having been decided after a night of heavy wine-tasting by members of the “Commission Generale de Terminologie et de Neologie” who control these things in France.

For starters, in French, the fact that a chair is female (la chaise) does not seem to align with the fact that a sofa is masculine (le canapé). Nor does the fact that a wardrobe (l’armoire) is feminine but a cupboard (le placard) is masculine. At least a man (l’homme) is masculine and a woman (la femme) is feminine, but then a person (la personne) is always feminine, as is a victim (la victime) even when they are males. Totally illogically a man’s shirt is feminine (la chemise) and a woman’s blouse is masculine (le chemisier), which I am convinced was decided after a heavy night of Bordeaux reds.

Source:photography by NJGJ; under GNU Free Documentation License, via Wikimedia Commons

The good news for me in my language gender struggles was to find out that the word for fireplace (la cheminée) is feminine and that the fireplace implement, the poker (le tisonnier) is masculine, and supported by cave (la grotte) and flagpole (le mat), at least did make some sense to me based on their respective shapes. However, this brief moment of elation at some pattern recognition fell apart when I discovered that a tunnel (le tunnel) is masculine and a tower (la tour) is not, and completely disintegrated when I was told that the French word for vagina is masculine (le vagin) … figure that one out.

I now wondered whether the gender of these words may have had more to do with which sex is more interested in the object rather than its actual shape, function or connotation, further supported by the fact that the male sex organ is masculine in gender and that the French actually have over 100 different words to describe a phallus.

I was also surprised to find that most natural disasters are feminine like famine (la famine), flood (l’inondation), pestilence (la peste), eruption (l’eruption) and illness generally (la maladie). Even wars, which are generally started by men, are blamed on the fairer sex (la guerre). The question that one must ask is how long will the French keep blaming Eve and her kind for everything that is wrong with the world?

When it comes to food the same holds true, as some of the best things to eat in France are masculine including cake (le gateau), cheese (le fromage), soufflé (le soufflé), goose liver (le foiegras) and truffle (le truffe)and some of the nastier foods that exist(based on the French need to not waste any part of a pig) are feminine such as tail (la queue), spleen (la rate) and cheek (la joue).

Flowers tend to be more logical with the lily (le lis) and cactus being masculine (le cactus) and the tulip (la tulipe) and rose feminine (la rose), but when it comes to fruit and vegetables my plan to base it all on shape fell apart when I found out that the carrot (la carotte),zucchini (la courgette) and banana (la banane) are all feminine.

Author: Michelvoss (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Even countries and continents have a gender attached to them but while the USA and UK are both considered to be masculine (not necessarily so by the non-French speaking parts of the world), Australia and France are both allocated to the feminine side of the divide. I am sure that this will shock and bewilder my Australian male friends who have always seen themselves as one of the last bastions of “blokedom”. At least they are in good company as Russia, China and Turkey are all feminine, despite the fact that women are hardly considered to have equality in any of them. To make it even more confusing whilst Niagara Falls is feminine, the Grand Canyon is masculine.

I am aware that getting the genders mixed up will not stop me from being understood in France, but the French do consider it important and a real test as to whether you actually do speak some French or whether you are just a “Franglais” speaker in disguise.
I could just do what author David Sidaris suggests, which is to use the plural all the time (les) (See “Me talk pretty one day”), but it is hard to get through life here when you have to buy or describe everything at least as a pair. I already have enough trouble when I write my name in French as “Les Hayman” with locals believing that I am describing the two of us.
I have therefore decided to pretend that I have a speech impediment and use the word “li” for everything … in France it is always better to be seen as being physically handicapped rather than sexually ignorant.

Author: Aaron Matthews; under CCA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons



  1. Frank says:

    Les, LOL.. learnt more in your blog than I did in a year or two of French at school, where I only learned to open and close doors, window and books. Still laughing, thanks, Frank

  2. martin says:

    Hi Les, this made me chuckle. I take my hat off to you for persevering. A mutual friend has lived in France for over thirty years and still confuses his sex vocab from time to time. Mind you he’s happy because he knows his fireplace implements…So critical to get that right.

  3. Thomas Otter says:

    I raise you.
    German is worse. Far Worse. two genders would be okay, but they have three. Also without logic. Knife, Fork and spoon have different genders. A girl is neuter. Then when the case changes to the accusative what was feminine suddenly looks masculine, sometimes. I am very good at the assertive mumble, it involves saying the D very firmly and then swallowing the rest of definite article. The indefinite article is always indefinite in my books.

    As Mark Twain said.
    Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod
    and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.
    One is washed about in it, hither and thither, in the most
    helpless way; and when at last he thinks he has captured
    a rule which offers firm ground to take a rest on amid
    the general rage and turmoil of the ten parts of speech,
    he turns over the page and reads, “Let the pupil make
    careful note of the following EXCEPTIONS.” He runs his
    eye down and finds that there are more exceptions to the
    rule than instances of it. So overboard he goes again,
    to hunt for another Ararat and find another quicksand.
    Such has been, and continues to be, my experience.
    Every time I think I have got one of these four confusing
    “cases” where I am master of it, a seemingly insignificant
    preposition intrudes itself into my sentence, clothed with
    an awful and unsuspected power, and crumbles the ground
    from under me. For instance, my book inquires after
    a certain bird–(it is always inquiring after things
    which are of no sort of no consequence to anybody): “Where
    is the bird?” Now the answer to this question–according
    to the book–is that the bird is waiting in the blacksmith
    shop on account of the rain. Of course no bird would
    do that, but then you must stick to the book. Very well,
    I begin to cipher out the German for that answer. I begin
    at the wrong end, necessarily, for that is the German idea.
    I say to myself, “REGEN (rain) is masculine–or maybe it
    is feminine–or possibly neuter–it is too much trouble
    to look now. Therefore, it is either DER (the) Regen,
    or DIE (the) Regen, or DAS (the) Regen, according to which
    gender it may turn out to be when I look. In the interest
    of science, I will cipher it out on the hypothesis that it
    is masculine. Very well–then THE rain is DER Regen,
    if it is simply in the quiescent state of being MENTIONED,
    without enlargement or discussion–Nominative case;
    but if this rain is lying around, in a kind of a general
    way on the ground, it is then definitely located,
    it is DOING SOMETHING–that is, RESTING (which is one
    of the German grammar’s ideas of doing something), and
    this throws the rain into the Dative case, and makes it
    DEM Regen. However, this rain is not resting, but is
    doing something ACTIVELY,–it is falling–to interfere
    with the bird, likely–and this indicates MOVEMENT,
    which has the effect of sliding it into the Accusative case
    and changing DEM Regen into DEN Regen.” Having completed
    the grammatical horoscope of this matter, I answer up
    confidently and state in German that the bird is staying
    in the blacksmith shop “wegen (on account of) DEN Regen.”
    Then the teacher lets me softly down with the remark
    that whenever the word “wegen” drops into a sentence,
    it ALWAYS throws that subject into the GENITIVE case,
    regardless of consequences–and therefore this bird stayed in
    the blacksmith shop “wegen DES Regens.”

    N.B.–I was informed, later, by a higher authority,
    that there was an “exception” which permits one to say “wegen
    DEN Regen” in certain peculiar and complex circumstances,
    but that this exception is not extended to anything
    BUT rain.

    Also you don’t have the challenge of the Child grammar checker.

  4. leshayman says:

    Hi Thomas,
    I give you license to use “di” in German in the same way that I use “li” in French … I am sure that there are speech impediments in German, same as they are here.

  5. Nicci Whitehouse says:

    Bonjour Les …..(Tout les Haymans – cela va sans dire)

    Ici Nicci Whitehouse – a member of an outpost of the PEI “family” in Perth West Australia. As the Australian daughter of a Frenchman who did NOT make me bi-lingual in childhood, I thoroughly enjoyed and concurred with your analysis.

    Vive les differences 🙂

  6. leshayman says:

    Hi Nicci,
    Merci pour etablir le contact.
    I am sure our paths will cross in the PE world.
    vive les differences indeed.

  7. Lucia Helena Feitosa says:

    that’s why I usually say English language is simple: no genders, the noun can also be the verb and no verb declination for the persons!!

  8. robin hooppell says:

    Hi, why don’t we just call them type 1 and type 2 and move on…well yes I know, wouldn’t be so amusing.

  9. leshayman says:

    Robin, would still mean the need for a choice … I prefer “li” for both.

  10. robin hooppell says:

    Yes, silly me. Some French people have advised me to do what they do – put it in the plural.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: