“French speakers make mistakes” shock

Here’s an edited version of the introduction to Heidi Harley’s latest LL post:

“Last week Dalila Ayoun gave a talk in which she dropped a bombshell: native French speakers don’t know the genders of French nouns! Ok, that’s not quite right. It would be more appropriate to say that native French speakers don’t agree on the genders of French nouns. They really don’t agree. Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns. Like nearly everyone in the field, and with good reason, she had assumed that native speakers behave fairly uniformly with respect to the grammar of their native language.” (my emphasis)

Language Hat is also “astonished”. Hmm. Here I am, a humble teacher of French, and I get a whiff of sensationalism. A French linguist who didn’t know that French people find gender difficult sometimes? Surely some examples are well-known, and the evidence is rather more than “anecdotal”. Indeed, here’s one recent thread that identifies and quantifies several examples: Mots dont le genre pose un problème.

If Ms Ayoun’s ignorance is genuine, maybe this ostrich effect can be put down to the prescriptivism of the French language. Gens is the only word I can think of where my dictionary allows both m and f. In German the difficulties and disagreements are more apparent. Nothing is inhibiting the fluidity of gender, case, etc. and dictionaries give many examples of words with more than one gender.

“To her great surprise, Ayoun found a great deal of disagreement among her native-speaker controls! There is always a normatively ‘correct’ answer — French dictionaries and textbooks all agree on what the genders of nouns are, and how gender agreement in sentences should turn out.  Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don’t.”

Well, Laurent Camus suggests that “Il existe toutefois des noms qui peuvent être employés au féminin comme au masculin, certains d’entre eux ne changeant alors pas de sens (par exemple : un oasis, une oasis).”

“According to Ayoun, the last study in which anyone systematically tested native speakers’ deployment of grammatical gender in French was Tucker et al. (1977).”

Another unlikely story. Although it would confirm my ostrich theory, I really don’t believe that no-one has investigated French gender usage in the last thirty years.

Here are the Google hitcounts for six of the words in Ayoun’s study:
crypte (crypt)  une 846  un 255  3.3:1
sentinelle (sentry)  une 855  un 290  2.9:1
alcove (alcove)   une 384  un 190  2.0:1
primeur (first)    une 804  un 444  1.8:1
equivoque (ambiguity)  une 874  un 515  1.7:1
oasis (oasis)  une 817  un 861  0.9:1

The numbers are raw, but even if the bad hits were weeded out the evidence would still be strong that native speakers have gender trouble. “Oasis” has switched gender despite the best efforts of the prescriptivists, so which dictionary will be brave enough to print “oasis nf ou nm“? And it’s not as if some of these difficulties can’t be predicted. First of all, a lot of gender learning comes through use in context. Therefore it’s more difficult to learn the gender of words that start with a vowel (eg. alcove, oasis) where the word for “the” is the same for both genders. Also, you’re more likely to be fuzzy about rarer nouns (eg. alcove, superbe) and (if you’re a teenager) more formal ones (eg. primeur, equivoque). 89% of French nouns ending in -r are masculine, so le primeur isn’t too surprising a mistake. In fact, nouns ending in a consonant are overwhelmingly masculine.

87% of nouns ending in -lle are feminine, but I’m sure that at least 87% of sentries are male, so saying “un sentinelle” is natural. The fact that it’s wrong was being discussed and debated 170 years ago, according to Google Books. Idole has some historical masculinity. Molière has “un idole d’époux”. Superbe is surely masculine when it means “superb”, and that has bled into the dictionary word that means brilliance or vanity.

Circulez. Il n’y a rien à voir.

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4 thoughts on ““French speakers make mistakes” shock

  1. I think what shocks really people who have not had an active interest in the issue (those most surprised are, unsurprisingly, fairly educated people who might know these shibboleths) is not so much the existence of this “problem” as much as its extent. While I’ve known for a long time that many words are annoyingly “not the right gender” (cf. “alvéole”), I was myself surprised at the numbers presented.

  2. I agree with Chris’s comment. I think critiques of Ayoun’s study are only valid when based on the actual work rather than a blogged retelling of the paper. I attended Ayoun’s talk, and it seemed rigorous and well researched to me. Heidi’s retelling is pretty accurate, but it goes without saying that it is not the original work and leaves out many details.

  3. Pingback: More on French gender trouble « Dadge

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