Two hands hold Gender symbols - credit Wikimedia

A while back, there was some discussion in Pens as to whether it’s ‘an hotel’ or ‘a hotel’.

This prompted me to muse about the French language. The ‘h’ is always silent in French, even when preceded by ‘t’. Thus my wife’s name is pronounced ‘Caterine’. It also explains why the French can’t say ‘th’ in English.

French nouns are masculine or feminine and in the singular, the possessive pronoun takes its gender from the parent noun. My/your/his/her is either mon/ton/son or ma/ta/sa. The problem comes with the feminine when the noun starts with a vowel. You can’t run two vowels together, so for ‘his or her ear’, ‘sa oreille’ is a no-no. In such cases, the pronoun reverts to the masculine. Plurals of multiple masculine and feminine nouns together are treated as masculine. Of late, feminists have been pressing for nouns to retain their gender in the plural, on the grounds that current practice fosters male superiority. Quite how this would work escapes me!

I did, however, find one odd exception, where the plural changes gender from the singular. Le Pâques is Easter and masculine; les Pâques is the festival of Easter and this plural is feminine. It’s always ‘Joyeuses Pâques’ for Happy Easter. And therein lies an amusing story.

I was chairman of our village shop, but because I was working, always did my shift on a Sunday morning. On one occasion, this was Easter Sunday. The shop had an A-board, placed outside to show we were open and used to display news of bargains or a seasonal message. I wrote ‘Joyeuses Pâques’ and several non-French-speaking customers asked me its meaning.

One of our weekend regulars was a barrister with a second home in the village. He came in early on, bought croissants and departed. Around 11 o’clock, he returned clutching his wallet in one hand and a book in the other.

‘Forgot to buy the cranberry jelly.’ ‘And by the way,’ he said, waving the book, ‘I looked it up in the dictionary and you’re quite right. Pâques is feminine in the plural!’

Such is the legal mind……..


  1. Oh, yes, foreign languages are challenging. Italian works, in this regard, like French. At least German has differences between his (sein) and her (ihr), so the person to whom the object belongs is easier to keep track of. What drives me crazy in German is the genders. They have masculine, feminine and neuter, none of which follows any logical characteristics of those genders (I know, same in French and Italian!). A table and a chair are both masculine. A state is masculine, a city is feminine, and a country is neuter. There is a complicated table of articles and adjective endings to go with all of this. So get the gender of a noun wrong, and your whole sentence screams that you are a bloody, ill-educated foreigner. Which of course, we all are. 😉

  2. I so envy your skills in French. It’s my ambition to be fluent in Spanish one day but I’m very far from that point.

  3. Modern Swedish has what I suppose are the remnants of the same gender divisions as in German. There are two definite articles (‘den’ and ‘det’) and two indefinite articles (‘en’ and ‘ett’). Plus there are masculine, feminine and two flavours of neuter pronouns (‘han’, ‘hon’, ‘den’ and ‘det’). I went for a long time equating the Swedish ‘ett’ and ‘en’ pronouns with ‘la’ and ‘le’ in French. I was wrong. In fact ‘ett’ turns out to be the equivalent of the German neuter pronoun ‘das’ while ‘en’ is a compound gender.
    Compound gender as in English ‘a/an’ and ‘the’.
    But, just as in English, words with the same in/definite article can still call for gendered pronouns. What pronoun would you use for the sun, a clock, or mankind? I think, in English, you’d probably use the neuter (it) or the masculine (his) for them all. In Swedish all three are feminine.
    This is not a modern development. It goes back to Old Norse, the language Swedish developed out of.
    You ask someone now What is the time? (Vad är klockan?) And they may naturally come back with She’s soon three. (Hon är snart tre.) And if you ask What are man’s greatest achievements? (Vilka är människans största prestationer?) The answer might well be Hennes största prestation måste vara språkets utveckling. (Her greatest achievement must be the development of language.)
    Thirty plus years into learning Swedish this all still has the capacity to trip me up!

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