Saturday, April 14, 2007

Question about language and gender

Being British, my command of any other languages is pretty limited. I have a question about other languages, and I'd be interested in the insight of anybody who has a better command of something other than English.

In English, there are three genders (male, female, neuter) but male and female genders are only used for objects with a definite gender ("she" might be a girl, a woman, a ship or a female animal of some sort, but wouldn't normally be a city or an unspecified bee). "Cow" in English tends to be used to refer to any domestic bovine animal, including bulls, unless otherwise specified - which means that the word "cow" is basically a neuter gender word ("What is it? It's a cow!"). It can be a female gender word, but only usually if the cow(s) in question has been definitely identified as female.

However, in Spanish (to give an example), I was introduced to la vaca, which is a female word translated as "cow". Do they use this word in the same way as English people use the word "cow", despite it being a definitely female (and not neuter) word? Or, given the definite role that bulls play in Spanish culture, does la vaca definitely differentiate from el toro, and you have to plump for one or the other when you first see the creature?

And what about, say, cats? The Spanish for "the cat" is el gato. Again, that's not bad if you are (say) asking about a cat you just happen to have seen. But supposing you are referring to a cat you know to be female - your pet cat Phoebe, say? Are you still stuck with using male pronouns to refer to her, despite the fact that you know her to be female? Would you say Phoebe es un gato when she is actually female?

Does the same happen in other languages?