https://www.duolingo.com/chirelchirel

How to determine the gender for nouns: a few rules

Ever since I started to relearn French, I've been slightly annoyed by the statement that you just need to learn the gender by heart. As a child I could accept this, but now I've studied linguistics and phonetics and I was sure there'd be a way to determine this at least partially. I googled and found that there are some lists of word endings (based on orthography) on the Internet, but to my taste those lists were still too long and I was sure phonetics was at play. Here's an example: https://frenchtogether.com/french-nouns-gender/

I wondered where they got the lists (and if I could avoid making the connection to phonemes myself) and googled some more and found this article: http://people.mcgill.ca/files/roy.lyster/Lyster2006_JFLS.pdf The article states that you can use pronunciation combined with orthography to decide gender. It goes on to list each phonetic ending and how accurately you can use to to determine the gender (anywhere from slightly over 50% to +90%) I made a nice table of all the endings and how informative they would be. But it's a bit much and not very useful as such. Today I finally distilled it to a few rules that one could actually memorize.

  1. Most words ending with a vowel (in speech) are masculine

1a except: those that end with ɛ. Pretty much all of them are feminine

1b except: words that end with i, y, e in speech and have a mute e in written form. These are feminine.

1c words that end with e or œ(nasal) can be either. No way to know.

  1. Words that end with consonant are most likely

2a feminine if they end with (b), (d), g, v, z (voiced consonants) or (p ), (n)

2b masculine if they end with (k), (f), (unvoiced consonants) or (ʒ), (m) (ŋ), j

2c no way to know if they end with t, s, l, r (alveolars, except for r, but it used to be)

Brackets mean the final phoneme determines the gender with only moderate propability. When not in brackets the likelyhood of being able to determine the gender is over 90%.

Watch out for exceptions. These rules are simplifications, but they help in guessing.

There's actually variation in gender even among native speakers. Some words have different gender in Canadian French. And apparently young speakers don't really know or care which gender to use http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/005411.html Also there's a tendency for loanwords to be masculine. All of these make predicting harder (unless you decide to hazard on masculine, which apparently most people do, anyway).

A fun tidbit of information was that pretty much half of the words ending with e in written form are masculine.

September 19, 2015

6 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/kieloo

Yeah the idea that you should learn everything by heart annoys me a lot too, that's why I wrote the article you linked to.

Your list is cool. But the problem is that many French learners struggle to know when to pronounce final letters, so this could be tough to use for some.

One of my blog readers actually suggested a simplified list that seems to work pretty well;

"I have a much simpler way to identify the vast majority of nouns as being masculine or feminine.

FEMININE: the great majority of words that end in -e or -ion. Exceptions (usually): words ending in -age, -ege, -é, or -isme

(For all other word endings: the great majority are masculine). "

September 19, 2015

https://www.duolingo.com/chirelchirel

Cool! Thanks for your article! I've been linking it to different threads here on DUolingo since i read it. And thanks for even simpler rule :)

September 19, 2015

https://www.duolingo.com/ketoacidosis

While going through a list of 5000 French words by frequency, I noticed that many words ending in "ion" are feminine. Two exceptions that come to mind are un champion and un million. I think I've heard someone that say most (or maybe even all) words ending in "tion" are feminine.

September 19, 2015

https://www.duolingo.com/chirelchirel

Yes, this is true. [iõ] is strongly feminine ending. However [õ] alone isn't.

October 9, 2015

https://www.duolingo.com/ArdeJohnson

Cool post.

Did you by any chance find/create a list of exceptions based on that McGill article?

January 27, 2016

https://www.duolingo.com/chirelchirel

No, not yet at least :) If I find I need one, I just might.

January 27, 2016
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