Unlike in English, all nouns are either masculine or feminine in French, without exception, whether they refer to a person, an animal, or an inanimate object. So, every time you learn a new word, you will also need to memorize its gender, which is one of the difficulties of the French language.
As Lionel remarks in his lesson, English speakers don’t have to worry about the gender of nouns:
Voilà. Vous êtes chanceux en anglais: vous avez pas tous ces problèmes de sexe et de langue...
There you have it. You are lucky in English: you don't have all these gender and language problems...
Caption 24, Lionel L - Les genresPlay Caption
Perhaps we can blame the Romans for this predicament, as most Romance languages (derived from Latin) assign a gender to nouns. For example, in Spanish, masculine nouns end in o, as in chico (boy), and feminine nouns end in a, as in chica (girl). In French, you can’t always guess the gender of a noun by its ending. Instead, it’s better to check the article that comes before it.
Masculine nouns are preceded by the masculine indefinite article un (a) or the definite article le (the). For example, we say un garçon (a boy) or le garçon (the boy), and therefore garçon is masculine:
Le masculin s'utilise par exemple pour le mot "garçon". C'est masculin: "Le garçon".
The masculine is used, for example, for the word "garçon." It's masculine: "Le garçon" [the boy].
Caption 5, Yabla à Nancy - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
Feminine nouns are introduced by the indefinite article une (a) or the definite article la (the). The noun fille (girl) is feminine, so we say une fille (a girl) or la fille (the girl):
Le féminin s'utilise pour le mot "fille", par exemple, "la fille."
The feminine is used for the word "fille," for example, "la fille" [the girl].
Caption 7, Yabla à Nancy - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
So far so good. It seems quite logical to ascribe a feminine gender to une fille (a girl) and a masculine gender to un garçon (a boy).
However, when it comes to inanimate objects, you'd think it would make more sense to assign them a neuter gender, or “it”. Unfortunately, there is no such thing in French. So, an object or concept is arbitrarily either masculine or feminine. There is often no rhyme or reason for this, as Lionel jokingly points out:
Pourquoi est-ce que la chaise est une femme? Je sais pas.
Why is the chair a woman? I don't know.
Caption 6, Lionel L - Les genresPlay Caption
Since there’s little logic in the gender-assigning process, it’s up to you to memorize the gender of each noun and match it with the correct article: le (the) or un (a) for masculine and la (the) or une (a) for feminine. Or you could talk about everything in multiples, as the plural has its definite advantages. Why? Because you don’t need to worry about feminine and masculine articles! Les ("the," plural) and des (some) work for both masculine and feminine plural nouns:
Au pluriel, on utilise le mot "les". Ça marche pour le masculin et pour le féminin.
In the plural, we use the word "les." That works for the masculine and for the feminine.
Caption 16, Yabla à Nancy - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
Une maison (a house) becomes des maisons (houses).
La maison (the house) becomes les maisons (the houses).
Un garçon (a boy) becomes des garçons (boys).
Le garçon (the boy) becomes les garçons (the boys).
In addition to les (the) and des (some) pairing with both masculine and feminine plural nouns, the definite singular article l’ (another form of “the”) can also go with either gender, as in l’arbre ("the tree," masculine) or l’idée ("the idea," feminine).
Note that l' is only used with a noun starting with a vowel or silent h. In other words, le and la turn into l’ in front of a vowel or silent h. This phenomenon is called euphony, which is when a word is modified for a purely phonetic purpose, without changing its meaning.
Thus, we can’t say le arbre in French. As Patricia explains, we have to say l’arbre:
Je ne dis pas: "Voici le arbre". Je dis: "Voici l'arbre".
I don't say: "Voici le arbre" [here's the tree]. I say: "Voici l'arbre" [here's the tree].
Captions 34-37, Le saviez-vous? - L'élision - Part 1Play Caption
And the same rule applies to feminine nouns. Instead of la oreille (the ear), we say:
"L'oreille" [the ear].
Caption 20, Le saviez-vous? - L'élision - Part 1Play Caption
To summarize, here's a table outlining the gender of nouns and articles in French:
|Masculine singular||Masculine plural||Feminine singular||Feminine plural|
|un chapeau (a hat)||des chapeaux (hats)||une maison (a house)||des maisons (houses)|
|le chapeau (the hat)||les chapeaux (the hats)||la maison (the house)||les maisons (the houses)|
|l'arbre (the tree)||les arbres (the trees)||l'amitié (the friendship)||les amitiés (the friendships)|
Once you’ve memorized the gender of a noun, it’s a matter of using the correct article mentioned in the table.
Fortunately, if you forget the gender of a word, you can always consult a dictionary. However, you should know that nouns usually aren't listed with un/une or le/la in front. Instead, gender will often appear in the form of an abbreviation: nm (nom masculin, masculine noun) and nf (nom féminin, feminine noun). You'll also see npl (nom pluriel, plural noun).
So far, we’ve covered the basics of the gender of nouns and articles, but there is a lot more to explore. Dans une prochaine leçon (in a future lesson), we’ll discuss nouns referring to people and animals.
Until then, happy reading!