From our very first steps towards learning Spanish, we are taught about the importance of gender within the language and how we assign a gender to every single noun.
Nouns are typically considered masculine or feminine. Words like: “el coche” (the car),
“el brazo” (the arm),
“el lugar” (the place),
“el mes” (the month)
are all examples of masculine words. Whereas words like “la moto” (the motocycle),
“la mano” (the hand),
“la noche” (the night),
“la luz” (the light)
are all considered feminine.
Some words describe things that are specifically either masculine or feminine: “el toro” (the bull)
/ “la vaca” (the cow),
“el hombre” (the man)
/ “la mujer” (the woman),
“el caballero” (the gentleman)
/ “la dama” (the lady).
Some nouns have gender specific spelling changes. For instance: “el profesor” / “la profesora” (the teacher),
“el abogado” / “la abogada” (the lawyer),
“el jefe” / “la jefa” (the boss).
Whereas other nouns remain gender common in their form, even if they are used to describe either sex: “el gerente” / “la gerente” (the manager),
“el supermodelo” / “la supermodelo” (the supermodel),
“el dentista” / “la dentista” (the dentist).
A noun then is assigned a specific gender, either based upon the gender of the very thing itself or when we associate it with a person of either gender, such as a job title.
However, there are few words in Spanish that can be both masculine or feminine and not simply because we are assigning these names to people as job titles. Today then, we’re going to take a fun and informal look at three such words: “El/la mar” (the sea)
We usually consider “el mar” (the sea)
to be a masculine word, and whilst it is true that it usually functions as such, when used to refer to the sea in a more nautical sense or when making more romantic, idiomatic or archaic references, then it tends take on a feminine form. The spelling does not change. However, any accompanying articles or adjectives must agree. Let’s see a few examples of this word used as both genders:
“La/el guía” (the guide)
|Spanish ||English |
|“Me gusta nadar en el mar” ||I like swimming in the sea |
|“El mar parece frío hoy” ||The sea seems cold today |
|“La alta mar” ||The high seas |
|“Echarse a la mar” ||To set sail |
|“Es la mar de guapa” ||She's ever so pretty (idiom lit.: she is the sea of beauty) |
Next up, we have an interesting one. A guide can refer to an object such as a guidebook or perhaps a modern app on a phone. In this instance we consider the word to be feminine.
We can also name people as guides. For instance: tour guides, or perhaps a guide for the blind. Of course, in these cases the gender can be either masculine or feminine dependant on the gender of the person in question.
However, the word “guía” may also be used as an alternative way to reference a steering wheel on a car or the handlebars on a bike. When used like this, then the word is considered a masculine noun, rather than feminine. In fairness, we should point out that this example is NOT common in mainland Spain, but more readily heard in other parts of the Spanish speaking world.
“La/el radio” (the radio/radius)
|Spanish ||English |
|“Pregúntale, creo que es una guía turística” ||Ask her, I think she's a tour guide |
|“Pregúntale, creo que es un guía turístico” ||Ask him, I think he's a tour guide |
|“Estamos perdidos, muéstrame la guía” ||We're lost, show me the guidebook |
|“Recuerda siempre mantener las manos en el guía” ||Remember to always keep your hands on the steering wheel |
Last but not least we come to a word that has more than one meaning. “El radio” when used in masculine form usually relates to the mathematical term radius.
When used in feminine form “la radio” this word usually takes on the same meaning as the English word, referring to a device for receiving radio transmissions. Again, it's worth noting that whilst most of mainland Spain and her islands will refer to a radio as a feminine word, many other parts of the Spanish speaking world may still use the masculine form.
Conclusion | En conclusión
|Spanish ||English |
|“Sube la radio, me encanta ésta” ||Turn up the radio, I love this one |
|“Usa el radio del círculo para encontrar su área” ||Use the radius of the circle to find its area |
Nouns that have ambiguous gender are not very common in Spanish. Almost every noun has a clear and defined gender. It is mostly over the passage of time that a few words have changed gender from their more archaic forms, or that some regional differences may affect which gender could be used.
Ambiguously gendered nouns shouldn’t cause newcomers any problems, mostly as we’re unlikely to come across them; yet, some phrases such as “la alta mar”(the high seas)
may pique interest or cause confusion. Thus, it’s certainly helpful to be aware that these words exist and that there is a possibility that we may encounter the odd gender ambiguous noun from time to time.
Remember: There are plenty of nouns that are already things in their own right, that may be assigned to both men and women. However, these are not examples of gender ambiguity. They already have a gender as things. It is just that they can be and are used as titled attributes for people as well.