"Le Covid 19" ou "La Covid 19" ? English acronyms in French.
Guess who's back, back again? L'Académie française bien sûr ! "Les sages" have recently settled a debate that didn't exist to begin with. From now on, we shall say "La covid 19", while everybody have been using "Le covid 19". The explanation? In a nutshell, the most important part of COVID is the D that means disease. "Disease" is maladie in French. Maladie is feminine. Therefore covid should be feminine. CQFD (Ce Qu'il Fallait Démontrer, another acronym meaning "QED", "seems logic"). Is it logic though? Well, let's dive into the world of English acronyms in French.
An acronym perceived as a word
I'm sure you all have been a little confused stumbling upon "Wifi" through your Duolingo journey. Its pronunciation let aside, you can notice that the word is written in lowercases without any hyphen. It's not considered an acronym but a full word instead, just like "covid". From there, the actual meaning of the original acronym (Wireless fidelity - fidélité sans fil) becomes less relevant. "Fidélité" being a feminine word, we should say la wifi according to l'Académie.
In reality, there is an actual debate around the gender of "wifi", both le and la are widely used by French people.
Note that Hi-fi (pronounced similarly) is spelled just as in English, and is always feminine la Hi-fi. The reason for that may be that it's still in its acronym form. It could also be by metonymy, "Hi-Fi" being often used in the expression "Une chaîne Hi-Fi".
Anyhow, we can see that the reasons that make a loan word masculine or feminine are way more complex than one would like them to be.
The gender of the leading word
So, where does the argument about the gender of the leading word comes from? Well the Académie takes for examples "le FBI" and "la CIA". (You can click on each one to hear how they are pronounced in French. It's interesting to hear that one is pronounced à la française while the other is pronounced à l'américaine, for no apparent reason.)
The FBI being the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it takes the gender of the French word bureau. The CIA being an agency, it takes the gender of the word agence. Same goes for la NASA, la NBA or la WWF. We should note though that "bureau", "agency", "association", "foundation"... share the same roots as their French translations, if not directly inspired by them. Which is not the case for "disease" and "maladie".
Metonymy and acronyms
We mentioned earlier that the gender of an acronym can be determined by metonymy. (If you didn't quite get what a metonymy is, hang in there, it will clear up). That aspect seems to be, in practice, more relevant than the "leading word" argument. We can notice that through the acronyms LASER, RADAR or SONAR, which are all masculine although their leading word would be feminine. "LASER" -> L for light (la lumière), "RADAR" -> D for detection (la détection), "SONAR" -> N for navigation (la navigation). We usually couple them with a masculine word : un rayon laser, un signal radar, un appareil sonar. That is why those words are masculine in French, that is what we call a metonymy.
It's the case for a lot of acronyms related to technology. For instance, every one of the file-format names are masculine in French : un JPEG, un MP4, un GIF... That is most likely because we say "un fichierJPEG/MP4/ZIP...".
More generally, technology-related acronyms are usually masculine. Some examples : un MMORPG (Normal pronunciation vs boomer pronunciation), un URL, un FPS, un DVD...
In the end, acronyms are like any other loan word. Their gender and their pronunciation depend on many factors, and only the usage can tell us which way is "right". Decreeing a right gender, or a right pronunciation would be negating the complexity and richness of the language.
This post is a summary of this video from the awesome Linguisticae.
Hope it wasn't too technical and that you've learned some stuff! ;)
haha. The all-important raging debate has been settled, then. A similar very important debate raged in Spain, but the Real Academia Española settled it using a similar reasoning. Although the overwhelming majority of news commentators had been saying "el covid" the RAE says it should be "la covid" precisely due to the fact that "si se sobrentiende el sustantivo tácito 'enfermedad', lo más adecuado sería el uso en femenino: la COVID-19."
It's good to have that very important matter resolved.
Really? RAE has been twitting this nonstop:
El acrónimo «COVID-19» que da nombre a la enfermedad se usa normalmente en masculino («el COVID-19») por influjo del género de «coronavirus» y de otras enfermedades víricas («el zika», «el ébola»), que toman el nombre del virus que las causa. Pero el uso en femenino («la COVID-19»), tal como hace la OMS en sus páginas en español, está justificado por ser «enfermedad» («disease» en inglés) el núcleo del acrónimo («COronaVIrus Disease»). Ambos se consideran válidos.
TL;DR: Both are fine.
I just watched this video a few hours ago :)
Linguisticae also mentioned that Québec chose to use la soon when the pandemic started, the media must have used la and the rest of the population follow.. In France, L'Académie Française talked about this too late, we heard about le covid-19 so many times on tv and radios that we couldn't change what we were used to say .
That's one of the criticism from linguisticae, l'Académie Française is often too slow to react and it can not force the media to use a term or an other.
You have to love L'Académie française!
However, I'm not so sure whether to love or loathe that English is a free-for-all.
When other people make stupid mistakes in their grammar or spelling, it really annoys me.
However, when I do - well, you are allowed to in English so no-one should berate me!
and listen austen, cummings and faulkner: Not breaking the Non rules is Not wrong [these authors' wrongdoings were a noticeable part of their genius]
Yes, there are rules and no, flouting the rules should not be considered as wrong usage, particularly in a modern language. Linguistic diversity - e.g. flouting rules, creating new words or using existing words in new contexts - is an important drive for cultural innovation. If everyone had scrupulously respected the first linguistic rule - whatever it was - we might be grunting by a fire instead of having this discussion.
Yes, there is an academic usage, but no it is not particularly right, except perhaps when sitting for a French exam.
I read an article in french and it was "le covid-19". I'm GLAD now I know which gender is correct. :) I will use la covid-19 from here on out. This post has helped me see how they come up with these words and the genders of them! I appreciate the fact that you took the time to tell us this and to show us the video of it as well. A well deserved couple of lingots for a very worthy post! Merci beaucoup Zarrouguil et Bonne Chance!
It hasn't always been very clear whether it was feminine or masculine, i've been hearing people saying la covid even before the Académie said it was feminine. Though a french youtuber made a video on this (he's kinda hating the Académie but anyway) It might be interesting : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L78FkTtwKw4
Just found this. The whole article is worth reading https://theconversation.com/le-la-covid-reouvrir-ou-rouvrir-les-lecons-de-grammaire-du-coronavirus-138633
I am 100% baffled by the idea that because maladie is feminine then disease is too. Since when has it been the case in any language that just because one word is a certain gender then a non-cognate synonym is too.
For me a more convincing argument would be that the word disease itself is French in origin and feminine.
Another argument would be if most diseases themselves were one gender. The trouble is that they aren't in French. However, the vast majority of infectious diseases, including in particular virus diseases, are feminine. Many of these are things that had an -a in Latin (making them feminine) which became an -e in French: see https://www.passeportsante.net/problemes-et-maladies-p69/maladies-infectieuses-92. Le rhume and le SIDA seem to be the only common exceptions. So these are arguments that I might accept.
Mais Covid n'est pas un virus. C'est une maladie. Comme il y a une difference entre la varicelle (une maladie) et le virus varicelle-zona (qui la provoque).
Peut-étre on a pensé que Covid veut dire 'Coronavirus' le premier fois que l'on l'a vu/entendu ?
Peut-être le son est important aussi. Il n'y a beaucoup de noms communs très utilisés qui se terminent en -id, sauf le froid et le nid.
Considering that CD ROM became un cédérom (which IMNSHO is already wrong as it should be une cédéromme), the french for COVID-19 shoud be cauvideninnetinne. Cédérom is masculine because it ends with a consonant - even though it is une mémoire - and cauvideninetinne should obviously be feminine because it ends with an "e" - even thought it is "la maladie" also known as "le syndrome" caused by SARS-COV-2.
These Academicians are so wrong! :-)
In their defense, l'Académie Française isn't necessarily the place that knows best about gender, and particularly the feminine. The Academy accepted the first woman only 40 years ago. That's the year where the academician Gaxote said "Si on élisait une femme à l’Académie, on finirait par élire un nègre. " and I believe he didn't mean a ghost writer. Lovely bunch!
So why did French people instinctively think it was le covid? I suspect it is the consonant at the end. The vast majority of French words that end with a consonant (other than -ion and -on) are masculine, like all (?) adjectives.
It is quite normal for the ending of a word to affect its gender. We say la Bible only because it ended with an a (biblia) in Greek (hence bible in French), so people thought it was feminine. It wasn't. It was the plural of a neuter diminutive of a masculine word.
So, given that most people had no idea what gender it "should be" when they first heard it, the rules in their brain would have told them it was masculine. Are these not valid rules? Certainly it looks and sounds very odd to me to have a feminine noun ending in d. I don't know any others, whereas I do know le froid and le nid.
As a native speaker, I never think of the last letter of a word to know its gender. We just know the gender of words because we learn them the first time we encounter a new word. If we don't know it, I suspect we have a tendency of using le more often, why ? hum ... maybe the same reason why we use the masculine about plurals ( ex : 200 girls and 1 boy = ils sont nombreux) .
About the covid, my only reason would be that we heard all the time "le coronavirus blabla ... le virus blabla... le coronavirus ...blabla le virus ....." So when the media finally decided to use the proper name which is covid they just used le again. We don't know what the word means, we don't know what the letters mean. It's translated by la maladie but we always talk about le virus, so we keep the same gender.
I understand the point of view of the Académie française but it's a bit too late. We should have used the right gender at the very begining, I hear la covid from time to time on tv anyway ...
Are you sure? If it happened by chance that the new word were one of these would you automatically assume it was masculine?
covition, covité, covidenne, corvisson, corvale, corcé, corvibe, corvife, corvace, corvence, corvance, corvibe, corvide, corvidée, corviderie, corvidère, corvique, corvine, corvise, corvure, corvidrice
Euhhh what are all those words ?? haha !! I don't know any of them , are they french ?? I search a few of them but didn't have a lot of responses from Google ..
By the way they look (or sound) I could assume that some are feminine because of the last syllable not only the last letter : -tion, -enne, -ée, -erie, -ère, -ine, -ise, -ice. I'm not so sure about the others, I would say probably masculine .. They are strange words, are they about birds ?
But there are always exceptions : un lycée un musée, un magazine, une part, une jument, une soeur .. I haven't found a feminin word ending by d ... I'm not a living dictionnary but I've found this site it gives a list of the exceptions (gender of words <> last letter(s) ).
No you don't know them. That is because I made them up. I went to a website similar to the one you cite (but not as good as it did not list exceptions) and just added the endings they listed for feminine nouns to a cov- or covid-. Note they are not all single letters or whole syllables.
Although words that end in a consonant are more likely to be masculine, and those that end in a vowel more likely to be feminine, I am not claiming it is as simple as that. Our brains do a lot of complex pattern matching. I note that your site does not list any exceptions to -d being masculine.
There is of course a problem, in that the only common nouns that end in -id (le froid and le nid, unless you can think of any others) do not rhyme with covid. To find a word that ends not just with -id but with -vid, there is a name that clearly masculine, ends with -vid and rhymes with covid and I am sure this will have a subconscious effect. https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_(Michel-Ange)
Yes. Of course anything that is a title can be a noun grammatically:
J'ai un À la Recherche du temps perdu relié
I think they are always treated as masculine when not a noun phrase to start with. When they are a noun or a noun phrase to start with, the gender of that noun or noun phrase is used