Those of you for whom English is a first language will know the challenges of wrestling with your maiden second language, because the chances are it embraces the whole new world of gender. We speakers of English only really come across gender in words like waiter/waitress, actor/actress and master/mistress.

To my mind this is just a vocab thing, since our pronouns – ‘the’, ‘a’ and so on – and adjectives – big, small, you know the deal – don’t have to ‘agree’ with the noun – tree, house, stop me if I’m going too slowly here. Besides, our US friends have largely abandoned the female forms of these words anyway.

Your romance languages introduce the notion of gender as reflected in the noun, like le fils, la fille, and in any adjectives or verb parts related to those nouns, as in Il a sauvé la petite fille blessée – he saved the little injured girl. Sorry, a bit macabre, but all I think of on the hoof. Then there’s German, not content with 2 genders, which introduces the 3rd gender of neuter, not to be confused with a recent German initiative to introduce a 3rd gender for humans – and don’t ask me how your adjectives and verbal adjectives are going to deal with that conundrum.

Remembering and using the right genders with the tens of thousands of words in the language is a tall order even for those schooled in it from birth, never mind us folks shambling through a sentence or two in the hope we get served the right drink, meal or hotel room. As a case in point, I offer you the German for knife, fork and spoon.

Now knife, fork and spoon for me fall into a natural notional group – eating implements.  So in the interests of facilitating the speaking of the language they should all have the same gender signifier in my view. Is that the case in practice? No. Far too easy.

Knife is Das Messer, neuter. Fork is Die Gabel, feminine. Spoon is Der Löffel, masculine. Go figure. You see, it appears that German doesn’t follow a natural ‘genderising’ process for its words. For example, ‘Wo ist das Mädchen? Es ist sehr klein’. ‘Where is the girl? She is very little.’ The word for girl is neuter, hence the words Das, Es – which also means it – and the neuter adjective klein. As a poor speaker of German, I’m indebted to this book for putting me right on this vexing topic.

Tricky one, huh? It almost militates against the natural growth of the language. At least we don’t have to worry too much in a world governed – for now – by business Americanish.

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