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.Play Caption
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 3Play Caption
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 8Play Caption
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...Play Caption
Je suis une enfant du monde
I am a child [feminine] of the world
Caption 31, Indila - Dernière dansePlay Caption
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 LouvrePlay Caption
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.Play Caption
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 2Play Caption
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 constituencyPlay Caption
Here, la députée (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 4Play Caption
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 RougierPlay Caption
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?Play Caption
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.Play Caption
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.