Grammatical gender is a notoriously tricky concept for native English speakers to learn. Why should things like “table” be either masculine or feminine? What about differences across languages? Why is an apple called “der Apfel” (masculine) in German but “la manzana” (feminine) in Spanish? Kate McCann, writing for the UK’s The Daily Telegraph, makes a serious mistake about grammatical gender in her article “European nations at odds over whether Brexit is masculine or feminine.”
McCann describes how different countries use different grammatical genders for “Brexit”: standard Italian uses “la Brexit”, feminine, while standard Spanish, German, and French all use the word as masculine. The mistake that McCann makes is that she frames this as a disagreement among European nations, as if the European Union is “locked in battle” because of this difference. Because grammatical gender is often arbitrary, there is no reason that the same words should have the same grammatical gender across languages, and people in these countries do not appear to be distressed by the difference between “la Brexit” in Italian and “el Brexit” in Spanish.
What is interesting in her article is the ways the choice of grammatical gender is justified. Unlike English, many European languages have a regulating body, often a government agency, like the Real Academia Española in Spain and the Académie française in France. These groups decide what proper language use should be. The Italian version of this kind of regulating body, Academia della Crusca, argued that “Brexit” should be feminine in Italian, because the Italian word for “the exit” is “la exit.” In French, German, and Spanish, new loan words are traditionally masculine, so people argue that “Brexit” should follow this pattern. But these countries also apparently have other reasons for choosing masculine. In French, a “t” at the end of a word often signals that it is masculine. In German, the word “der Austritt,” meaning “the exit,” is also masculine.
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