If you have ever studied a Latin-based language, you know that English is strange in that it does not recognize the feminine and masculine aspects of objects. Even German with its rough reputation, uses Der, Die, and Das to recognize masculine, feminine, and neuter nouns. (Of course, this results in some oddities, such as Das Mädchen — the girl, in neuter?)
It’s unnatural for a native English speaker to keep track of the feminine and masculine nature of different words. It has forced me to wonder: do speakers of Portuguese actually think of “a janela” (the window) as feminine and “o quarto” (the room) as masculine?
Perhaps its not the objects but the words that bear the gender. Perhaps a man would be more likely to enter “o quarto grande” than “a sala” (the living room). When a lady goes to the bank does she ask for “a quantia” of her account, while a man might enquire after “o valor”?
This all reminds me of Sir Walter Scott’s comical characterization of the same dilemma in his wonderful rustic romance, Ivanhoe. The story is set just after 1066, when the Norman invasion of England forced together French, “the language of honour, of chivalry, and even justice,” and, “the far more manly and expressive” Anglo-Saxon.
The swineherd, Gurth, has similar questions:
“The swine turned Normans to my comfort!” quoth Gurth; “expound that to me, Wamba, for my brain is too dull and my mind too vexed to read riddles.”
“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.
“Swine, fool – swine,” said the herd; “every fool knows that.”
“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”
“Pork,” answered the swineherd.
“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the castle hall to feast among the nobles. What do you think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”
“It is but true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”