July 12, 2012 | Portuguese

Roaming Genders

What is feminine in one language is masculine in another.

In reading through Sheila R. Ackerlind and Rebecca Jones-Kellogg’s book Portuguese: A Reference Manual, I keep getting surprised by how things actually look on a printed page. How they sound in Pimsleur does not always lead me to a visual impression that is even close to the reality.

This Book Is No Joke: Heavy, and Tons of Information. I Respect That.

This Book Is No Joke: Heavy, and Tons of Information. I Respect That.

When I learn something orally, I tend to invent temporary placeholder spellings for words that then remain in my head until I actually see the words in writing.

The word “what” in Pimsleur has been pronounced oo-kee across numerous lessons. Even though I didn’t really think this was how it was written, my brain created a placeholder spelling that looked like this: uqui.

But it is in fact two words, and the letters I imagined were 50 percent wrong. The correct spelling: o que

Here’s a funny thing in Portuguese: “Definite articles are optional with a person’s first name; they convey a tone of familiarity and are frequently used in BP,” according to the above-mentioned and adjacently pictured reference manual. (BP means Brazilian Portuguese, which is what I am learning for the most part.)

Pimsleur consistently uses articles with first names throughout its Portuguese lessons. I have seen this grammatical construction before, in German, and it always sounds odd to me. Kind of objectifying. 

The Anna went to the store.

The Joseph bought milk.

The Ellen was mystified by the inclusion of articles before first names.

But I am learning to do it nonetheless!

You can often do pretty well guessing gender from one Romance language to the next, but Portuguese: A Reference Manual points out notable differences. A computer is masculine in Portuguese (um computador), but the comparable word in Spanish (computadora) is feminine.

A trip is feminine in Portuguese (uma viagem), but masculine in Spanish (un viaje).

Lots of Studying at Aroma These Days

Lots of Studying at Aroma These Days

The word “color” is feminine in Portuguese (uma cor), but masculine in Spanish (un color).

Milk is masculine in Portuguese (o leite) versus feminine in Spanish (la leche). Milk is also masculine in Italian and French, by the way, so Spanish is the iconoclast with respect to this dairy-product gender.

Finally, salt and nose are both masculine in Portuguese but both feminine in Spanish. Complicating matters (or confusing them anyway) is that they are the same words—sal and nariz—in both languages.

One word in Portuguese that is funny-looking and funny-sounding to me is the one for “person”: pessoa. I think it is the absence of both an r and an n from a word where I am used to seeing it. English: “person.” Spanish: persona. Italian: persona. French: personne. German: Person.

A linguistics pessoa could probably tell me why those sounds aren’t there in the Portuguese, but for now I can only make my tiny observation without a sense of larger patterns.

Comments (1)

Dominic Desribes • Posted on Mon, February 02, 2015 - 1:32 am EST

Portuguese went through changes, some have said due to interactions with the people living in the southern reconquered areas (whose language is referred to as Mozarab) so anyway. Portuguese was once part of a language called Galaico-Portuguese based in Galicia and Northern Portugal and in Galician (a sister language), pessoa is written as persoa thus leading me to think that this relates to the dropping of ‘n’ in Iberian languages (Galician, Portuguese, Gascon), lua from Latin luna is another good example.

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