I have spent many hours since coming to this wondrous land pondering existential questions around points of grammar. For example, why is a toilet feminine? And more importantly, why do the French only refer to toilets in the plural (‘les toilettes’), when they are so often to be found only in the singular?
In a language where he and she are not just people and animals but objects and places, the concept of gender goes way beyond our traditional idea of male and female.
Learning to speak proper French, with its complex rules of grammar, is challenging for anyone. It’s especially so for we English speakers for whom the concept of gender assignment to nouns is utterly foreign.
Why should a shoe (une chaussure) be feminine? Men wear them too (although most own fewer pairs). While we’re at it, why should the most defining parts of the female anatomy be masculine? (le sein, le vagin…)
Rule number one is that there is no rule. Don’t waste time and energy looking for logical associations that help explain why it’s la chaise and le fauteil. There aren’t any. Or they’re too deeply buried in the etymology and history of the language to be helpful.
There’s only way to master gender in language. Forget it.
The day I decided to stop worrying about gender and concentrate on other aspects of the language – vocabulary, syntax, not to mention non-verbal communications – I took my first step towards fluency.
Sure you make mistakes. They are unavoidable. As soon as you say ‘le chose’ you are instantly and forever branded as a non-native speaker. It’s a dead giveaway. It’s also no big deal. Unless you’re a CIA agent trying to pass as French-born.
Fortunately there are only two genders in French – unlike German, which also has the neutral form. So you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. But even if you get the article right, you may get stuck on the respective masculine, feminine or plural version of the adjective.
There are just so many traps laying in wait. So just sail on, and damn the mistakes.
By the way, if you’re looking for les toilettes, which are always feminine and plural, you can also ask for les WC (pronounced: vay-say). Bonne chance!