Grammatical gender vs. "real" gender

I didn’t want to hijack this thread where I got the idea, but I have a question regarding languages where inanimate objects have been assigned grammatical genders. I did study French in school years ago, but I don’t remember this ever coming up.

Let’s say I’m speaking a language where the word “cat” is feminine. I have both a male cat and a female cat. When describing an interaction between them, is it incorrect to refer to the male as “he” (or its equivalent) and the female as “she”? Would “she” always be used even when the physical gender of the animals is known?

It’s been a while, but I seem to recall that if the word is a specific gender, the animal’s actual gender is irrelevant.

Kinda like ladybugs.

In Spanish and in Catalan when something can have both actual genders, you get two different words or at least gendered versions of the same word. Examples from Spanish.

A cat is male until you know otherwise: el gato. Once you know it’s female, it becomes la gata. I’ve seen factory workers take it as personal offence that someone would refer to the resident feral she-cat as “el gato” when that someone knew perfectly well that it was a lady. Strictly speaking you can always say “el gato,” but socially speaking it may be a bad idea.

A big, horned, hairless (unless you’re in Scotland) mammal in a prairie is una vaca… until someone tells you it’s not a vaca, it’s a toro or a buey (or any other of a handful of synonims and of similar words) - but that happens in English too, it’s a cow until you discover it’s a bull.


Where do you live that has hairless cattle? I’ve never seen one.

Nava is from Navarre, in northern Spain, where the pelt, it’s felt, 's found mainly with the Celts.

It’s been a long time since HS German but I always thought it funny that Mädchen which is German for girl is neuter in gender. All German words ending in chen are neuter. Also Mädchen literally translates into “maid - little” so that could be part of it

However, if you are saying “Das Mädchen heisst Anna, sie liest gerne.” (The girl’s name is Anna, she likes to read), you are using the female pronoun, because you are referring to a female person.

With cats: it’s Die (female) Katze until you know it’s a male Der Kater (the tom-cat). I’m offhand failing to think of an animal where there aren’t two words for boy and girl animals. Similar to Spanish, a cow is Die (female) Kuh when talking either generally or referring to the female; the male is either Der (male) Bulle or when castrated Der (male) Ochse.

Oh, things like frogs come only in one gender - Der (male) Frosch, no Fröschin usually, instead it would “Bei der Paarung besteigt der weibliche Frosch den männlichen, sie hält sich dabei mit ihren Füßen fest” (During copulation, the female frog mounts the male frog, she holds tight with her feet). Because you are referring back to the female just mentioned, you use the female pronoun.

Hairless compared with, say, buffalo, sheep,dogs or Scottish cows.

By the time you can see the hairs on the hide of a Spanish cow, you’ve definitely gotten too close.

The same is mostly true in French as well. We don’t have to bother with nonsense like he-cats and she-cats : every common species of animal has at least two words, one for the male of the species, one for the female*. One of those two becomes the generic term for any member of the species whose sex is non identified or irrelevant - in most cases, the noun for the male, but not always. For example, whales are female until proven otherwise.

However, where the problem comes into play is when you don’t know the specific word for the female (or male, as the case may be) of a species, or in the case of more exotic animals, when there simply are no separate words.
In that case, it’s possible to say : a (male pronoun) species (male noun) female. Ex : un requin femelle. Or “la femelle du requin” (the shark’s female). In that particular case, the noun group “un requin femelle” remains grammatically male for the purpose of according adjectives and the like, yet refers to an unambiguously female thing.
Since it’s kind of awkward, what happens most often is that at the beginning of your speech you’ll identify what kind of animal you’re talking about, and from then on only say “the male” and “the female”, without further specifying their species.

  • careful about them cats, though. Many women will still refer to female cats they own as the masculine word “mon chat” - that is because the word for a female cat doubles as a slang word for vagina. Yes, just like in English :wink:

Oh, yes, I forgot : as in constanze’s German example, were you to refer back to that masculine noun group “un requin femelle” further down the sentence, you’d use the feminine pronoun “elle”, since it refers to a feminine object. Ain’t French fun ?

Short haired. Afraid the English usage really doesn’t map to the Spanish.

Yes. If the animal is hairless, you can see the skin from a distance.

You’re not being entirely clear here. You say you’re asking about genders being assigned to inanimate objects, but then you use the example of a cat:confused: Anyway, I think that in many cases where you have animals, you often have a male and a female noun in addition to the generic term, so that might be helpful when sorting out differences. My experience with cats, though, is that people tend to assume they’re female, for some reason.

Not quite the same thing, but in Latin, adjectives must agree with the gender of the noun, not necessarily with the declension. Thus, for instance, a “good poet” would be “bonus poeta”, not “bona poeta”, since despite almost all first-declension nouns being feminine, “poeta” is masculine.

“El agua ya llego; ya la puedo ver.” And yet, “agua” is feminine. (I know this isn’t Latin.)

No, it’s Spanish and done to avoiding a cacophony. Agua is female, aguas is female, but female nouns which start by the letter “a” take masculine articles in the singular because otherwise, in order to differentiate the article from the noun, a speaker would have to pause at an extremely awkward point.

“The… water is cold” sounds real bad in any language with articles, as that is an unnatural spot for a pause.

Hebrew is very similar – almost all animals, e.g., have both a Masculine and Feminine form.

Russian will do this for some nouns that are job-descriptions. Rather than adding -ka or -nica or some such to make it feminine (akin to going from actor to actress) they’ll stick with the masculine form of the noun, but show that they are speaking about a female by inflecting the adjective or the past participle of the verb.

Actually, so far as I know, “poeta” (along with “agricola” and “naviga”, the other two masculine first-declension nouns) is always masculine. I’m not sure what an ancient Roman would have called Sappho.

rereading your initial post, I see you say that in Latin, adjectives agree with gender, not with declension. This is not at all surprising though; I am unaware of any language in which this is different, in which adjectives do follow declension regardless of gender. Most of the time, gender and declension overlap, but in the cases in which they don’t, noun-adjective agreement always follows gender and never declension.