Spanish as a language

Genders in transition

If Spanish is not your first language, it is not unusual for you to get confused about the gender or the use of articles corresponding to a word. As a rule, a poorly chosen article or an adjectival disagreement does not represent a big problem since the meaning of what you want to say remains intact. But what happens when the article defines the meaning of a word? Well, in that case the matter is a little more complicated.

We talk about homonymous words. They are written and pronounced the same, but their meaning is different and is determined by the article that precedes it. Examples of this type of homonym are:

  1. El cólera (Cholera) and la cólera (anger): the word cólera preceded by the masculine article (el) refers to the disease. It defines it as an acute epidemic disease of bacterial origin, characterised by repeated vomiting and intense diarrhoea. At the same time, la cólera means anger, fury, or rage.
  2. El orden (order) and la orden (command): one meaning of order is placement of things in their rightful place, and the second meaning of the masculine term is “field of subjects or activities in which someone or something is framed.” In the case of la orden, the meaning changes to “command that must be obeyed, observed and executed”.
  3. El capital (capital) and la capital (money): El capital is “the set of assets and economic goods intended to produce greater wealth”; while la capital is a city or locality where the public powers of a State, country, demarcation, province, etc.

In addition to homonyms whose meaning varies depending on the article, two cases can represent a headache for those learning Spanish: 1) nouns that are masculine in the singular and change to feminine in the plural and 2) ambiguous nouns that change the grammatical gender depending on the country.

Nouns that transition from masculine to feminine

Within the wide range of nouns in Spanish, there is a long list of nouns whose gender is masculine and changes to feminine when we pluralise the word. There is no norm nor a name to call this phenomenon. For native Spanish speakers, it probably will not be easy to list the items on the list if they have not stopped to think about it before. Natives know when to apply the grammatical gender change, even if they do not explain it. Let’s review some of these cases:

El arte (art)Las artes (arts)
El águila (eagle)Las águilas (eagles)
El agua (water)Las aguas (waters)
El alga (seaweed)Las algas (seaweeds)
El ansia (longing)Las ansias
El hada (fairy)Las hadas (fairies)
El ave (bird)Las aves (birds)
El área (area)Las áreas (areas)
El aula (classroom)Las aulas (classrooms)

Finally, another case of gender transition occurs from one country to another. Here, the alternation is due to geographical factors. For example, in much of Latin America, tanga is feminine, while in Spain, it is a masculine noun. In Chile, sartén (frying pan) is masculine, while in Spain it is feminine. Pijama is mainly masculine but feminine in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. In Argentina, it is expected to hear about la vodka, while for the rest of the Spanish speakers, it is a masculine noun, so the differences continue.

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