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Gender of Nouns Referring to Humans

In our previous lesson we learned that all French nouns have a gender, and that it is up to the speaker to remember whether a word is masculine or feminine. In this lesson, we’ll focus on the gender of nouns referring to humans, which is usually predictable, although occasionally some situations require making difficult choices.

 

For the most part, assigning gender to nouns referring to people is straightforward, as it coincides with the gender of the person. For example, you would expect the word frère (brother) to be masculine, and sœur (sister) to be feminine. 

 

We also learned that masculine nouns are typically introduced by un/le (a/the), as in un frère (a brother):

 

Il est comme un grand frère pour moi.

He's like a big brother to me.

Caption 40, Le Jour où tout a basculé - J'ai escroqué mon assurance ! - Part 1

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Feminine nouns are preceded by une/la (a/the), as in une sœur (a sister):

 

Hé Sam! Et peut-être qu'elle a une amie ou une sœur...

Hey Sam! And maybe she has a friend or a sister...

Caption 39, Extr@ - Ep. 6 - Le jour du loto - Part 3

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It is also possible to introduce a noun with other little words or determiners, in addition to the articles un/une and le/la mentioned above. In the example below, to express her feelings toward her deceased father, the daughter uses various turns of phrase: mon père (my father), un père (a father), l’image du père idéal (the image of the ideal father):

 

C'est mon père.... J'ai eu un père. Il était loin de l'image du père idéal

He's my father.... I had a father. He was far from the image of the ideal father

Captions 11, 39-40, Le Jour où tout a basculé Mon père n'est pas mort - Part 8

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A few nouns, like enfant (child), can be preceded by either a masculine or a feminine article, as those words refer to people of any gender:

 

Elle a un enfant et c'est...

She has a child [masculine] and she's...

Caption 43, Le Jour où tout a basculé - Ma mère fait tout pour briser mon couple - Part 2

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Je suis une enfant du monde

I am a child [feminine] of the world

Caption 31, Indila - Dernière danse

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Usually, though, a given noun will have a masculine and a feminine version. Many feminine nouns end in -e (though not all nouns ending in -e are feminine, as we'll see below). So, we have two words for “friend": une amie (a female friend) and un ami (a male friend).

 

Et c'est une amie à moi canadienne

And it's a Canadian friend of mine

Caption 18, Amal et Caroline - Quartier du Louvre

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When used as nouns, nationalities are capitalized and also take an -e in the feminine form. For example, a Frenchwoman is une Française, and a Frenchman is un Français:

 

Les habitants de la France, les Françaises et les Français, sont plus de soixante-six millions.

The inhabitants of France, Frenchwomen and Frenchmen, are more than sixty-six million.

Caption 19, Le saviez-vous? - D'où vient le nom de la France?

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Here is another example with nationalities. Note that you pronounce the s in Française, which is a "z" sound, but not in Français. When a noun ends with a silent consonant in the masculine form, that letter usually becomes sounded in the feminine form:

 

Parce que c'est l'histoire toute simple d'un amour entre un Américain et une Française.

Because it's the very simple story of a love between an American boy and a French girl.

Captions 47-48, Extr@ - Ep. 5 - Une étoile est née - Part 2

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Endings in -e are especially useful for the femininization of job titles:

 

Madame George Pau-Langevin, la députée de la quinzième circonscription

Ms. George Pau-Langevin, the deputy for the fifteenth constituency

Caption 92, Actu Vingtième - Le bleu dans les yeux, recyclerie de Belleville

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Here, la député(the female deputy) is the feminine form of le député (the male deputy).

 

Some masculine nouns already end in -e and therefore are equivalent to their feminine counterparts, as in un artiste/une artiste (a male/female artist). In this case, only the article in front determines the gender. Karine Rougier, for example, refers to herself as une artiste:

 

Du coup, le processus pour devenir une artiste, je pense que... il est à l'intérieur de moi

So, the process to become an artist, I think that... it's inside me

Captions 42-43, Le saviez-vous? - Karine Rougier présente son art - Part 4

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However, there are times when people use the masculine form of the job title even when referring to women. This happens for various reasons, some of them subtle. Earlier in the video series on Karine Rougier, the curator of the gallery introduces her as un artiste, not une artiste. Why?

 

It’s because the speaker is using the term artiste in a generic sense. He is talking about the tradition of giving carte blanche to an artist (in general) every year and is not referring to Karine Rougier specifically yet:

 

Comme chaque année au mois d'octobre, nous faisons une carte blanche à un artiste. Et cette année, c'est Karine Rougier

Like every year in the month of October, we're giving carte blanche to an artist. And this year, it's Karine Rougier

Captions 3-5, Le saviez-vous? - Karine Rougier présente son art - Part 1

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In the following video, the speaker also uses the masculine because he's speaking in generic terms about un élève (a student) of unknown gender:

 

Ce sac à dos est à un élève, non?

This backpack belongs to a student, right?

Caption 25, Conversations au parc - Ep. 3: C'est à qui ce sac à dos ?

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Whenever there is no way of identifying the gender of a person, French speakers often default to the masculine. When the couple in the example below expresses a desire to avoir un enfant (have a child) one day, they're not specifically talking about a boy, but rather a child of any gender:

 

Quelle décision? Avoir un enfant.

What decision? To have a child.

Captions 6-7, Le Jour où tout a basculé - À la recherche de mon passé - Part 2

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To recap, while the masculine usually applies to males, it's also used when the gender is not known, or when it refers to people in a generic sense. The use of the feminine is more straightforward, as it applies exclusively to women and girls. The difficulty here lies in which ending you’re going to use, as not all feminine nouns end in -e. Many of them look different from their masculine counterparts, especially job titles and animals, both of which will be explored in future lessons.

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