Sunday, February 24, 2008

You say feminine, I say masculine, let's call the whole thing off (Crosspost from LL)

Last week, Dalila Ayoun of the Department of French and Italian here at the University of Arizona, gave a talk in our linguistics colloquium series 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.

Ayoun didn't set out to test whether native French speakers can accurately identify French nominal gender. Her primary research interest is in second-language learning of French. 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.

Second language acquisition studies often have a common structure. The experimenter tests people learning the language on a particular linguistic task. Usually there are different groups of second language learners — advanced vs. beginning, etc. They all do the task, and the experimenter looks at how many mistakes they make, how long they take to do the task, etc., and draws conclusions about the course of language learning, the efficacy of the teaching technique, or whatever.

The experimenter always also gives the task to native speakers, as a kind of control group, to show that when the language has been fully, correctly acquired, speakers perform at or near ceiling — close to 100% right.

Just to give a typical example, I have student who is looking at second-language acquisition of Chinese. She is having her subject perform a task in which they form a sentence containing a relative clause from two independent sentences. (Input: John saw a man. The man was tall. Correct response: John saw the man who was tall.) In my student's pilot study, she discovered that she might have to reduce the number of sentences in her study, since even fairly advanced second language learners were taking up to an hour and a half to complete the test. In contrast, her native speaker subjects were taking ten minutes to do the same test, with of course 100 per cent accuracy. This kind of disparity between native speakers and second-language speakers is the norm, rather than the exception.

Ayoun was investigating second-language learning of grammatical gender in French -- a major difficulty for learners from non-gender languages like English. She had constructed a couple of tasks: grammaticality judgments of sentences where there was a gender agreement mismatch, and a gender-assignment task, where subjects were given a noun and had to choose among "masculine", "feminine", "both", or "I don't know".

In both tasks, to her great surprise, she found a great deal of disagreement among her native-speaker controls! In these tasks, 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—in the same way they agree on how to form relative clauses, and how to form passives, and where to put clitic pronouns, and so on. Native speakers would be expected to perform close to ceiling on this grammatical task, as on others. But, surprisingly, they don't.

There's an even more interesting twist in Ayoun's native-speaker results. Her native speakers fell into two groups: 14 adult speakers and 42 teenage speakers. On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers' native-language abilities are identical to adults' abilities. But when she broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, 'target'. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!)

Below I reproduce one of Ayoun's tables illustrating significant differences in the rates at which adults and teenagers agreed on the gender of 10 feminine nouns.

There are many questions one would like to ask about this, of course, and since Ayoun's study was not designed to answer questions about native-speaker variation in gender assignment, answers to most of them will have to await further experimentation. But the result itself seems really remarkable to me. According to Ayoun, the last study in which anyone systematically tested native speakers' deployment of grammatical gender in French was Tucker et al. (1977)—more than thirty years ago! Work to be done.

For the interested, some of the second-language speakers' results have already appeared in Ayoun (2007). And second language speakers of French, take heart! Make your grammatical gender agreement mistakes with confidence. There's a chance that your native-speaker interlocutor will agree with your version!

Ayoun, D. (2007). The acquisition of grammatical gender in L2 French. In D. Ayoun (ed.), French Applied Linguistics, pp. 130-170. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Tucker, G. R., W.E. Lambert, and A. Rigault. 1977. The French speaker's skill with grammatical gender: An example of rule-governed behavior. The Hague: Mouton


Blogger Duncan said...

This is a bit off-topic.

Is there a paper on the results of the 2nd-langauge acc. work done with Chinese?

1:09 AM  
Blogger jmdesp said...

I think that what this test reveals is that they is no easy rule of thumb to guess the gender of a word in French, and that the French themselves exclusively rely on rote learning. That mean that as soon as they don't frequently use a word and/or the forms in which the word is frequently used don't reveal it's gender, they are lost.

One case is "équivoque". Maybe it's not usually listed as an hard one, but it is as it's almost always used as "sans équivoque", or sometimes "l'équivoque" which don't reveal if it's feminine or not.
All words that are not frequent and start with a vowel become hard following to that rule.

That means also if you expect to be able to easily humiliate a french in a conversation by showing him/her he/she doesn't know the correct gender of the word he just used, it will harder than you think because either he/she won't use the word, or even more frequently he/she will use the word in a form where you can't *hear* the difference.

Another very interesting thing is to see for what kind of word french teenagers are more proficient than the adults.
The fact than the two words for it's the case are "victim" and "target" are very revealing on their psyche.

2:10 AM  
Blogger judyb said...

My theory on the astounding (given their lack of agreement on any other feminine noun) agreement of French teenagers on the gender of cible (target) is that they all know about the afternoon TV game show, La Cible.

2:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also, words can have more than one gender: primeur exists in bost masculine (early produce seller) and feminine (as in early scoop) ; oasis is changing genre (as all language feature, genre can change ; oasis is also a popular fruity drink, and in this acceptation is masculine...

2:32 AM  
Blogger Nada said...

Very interesting. I do not find the results illustrated in the table above all that surprising. The more commonly used words ("cible" and "victime") have higher scores. At the other end of the spectrum, "équivoque" and "superbe" are almost never used as nouns but rather as adjectives. "Primeur" is often used as an adjective especially for fruits, vegetables and wine and, more often than not, "le marchand de primeurs" is shortened to "le primeur". It might seem clichéd but, for the remaining words, I would put the blame on the disaffection for reading. I guess one can pick up all those words by reading Balzac.

2:54 AM  
Blogger Oskar said...

I can't be reading that table right. Are you telling me that almost 60% of adults and more than 97% (!!!) of teenagers got the gender of primeur wrong?

If that result holds across the population (and if the participants were randomly selected, there's no reason that it shouldn't at least be an indication), wouldn't that pretty much mean that the primeur simply has had its gender changed? I mean, if an overwhelming majority of the population of French-speakers say it like that, then isn't that pretty much the right way to say it?

4:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's also the case, as Alphonse Allais pointed out, that words can have different gender depending on location: in town "l'oiseau chante dans la belle cage", in the country "l'oiseau chante dans le bocage".

4:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fascinating! Thanks Heidi. Of course, it would be nice to see what happened with a larger sample size. But surely this offers some food for thought for second language instructors - maybe focusing on the grammar is not so crucial, if people can still understand you...

5:29 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Simple enough: I don't believe a word of it. Except for a handful of hard cases most people get wrong unless they mark it off, I've never (rarely?) seen disagreement on gender except for *regional variation* (And I don't know if that control group testing took that into account).

And, indeed, if it was strictly rote and there was no implicit rule followed by native speakers, how could there even _be_ "hard cases most people get wrong"? Pétale comes to mind.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is true (despite what marc said) that the gender of animated nouns (even discounting rare cases like the aforementioned superbe, équivoque and primeur, the latter's most frequent use being "en primeur"), is causing no end of issues to native speakers. This is especially notable for words starting with a vowel ("aéroport", "asphalte", "aliment", "escalier" to name but a few common ones).

In the latter case, the problem is that the article tends to get uniform across gender, removing the one major source of this grammatical information.

Many words have had confusing gender, or switched it in the History of French ("abeille", "horloge", "cantaloup"), Grévisse cites "météorite", "alvéole", "drupe", "glucose" (and most words in -ose) as 20th century switch. He notes that masculine "Oasis" is common amongst literary authors, and that dictionaries, although agreeing on the gender of "anagramme", commonly cites conflicting examples.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the time of the test, were the native speakers actually living in a French-speaking part of the world, or were they perhaps conveniently available for testing in the US ?

8:06 AM  
Blogger Oskar said...

I must say that this sounds more unbelievable the more I think of it. I don't speak enough French to be able to comment on this specifically, but I do speak a language natively that have grammatical genders (Swedish), and it is absolutely inconceivable that so many people could be so wrong. This needs confirmation.

8:11 AM  
Blogger Robert Seddon said...

Quote: 'Input: John saw a man. The man was tall. Correct response: John saw the [sic] man who was tall.'

I hope this isn't taken from an actual test.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Queer As Moi said...

Is there a breakdown of the speakers' dialects? I know for example that Quebec French, Acadian French and France's French have a number of gender differences among them. I am also aware that the effective gender of masculine words starting with a vowel has tended to shift to feminine in Quebec.

8:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, 'target'. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17."

Are we really comparing a group of 17 to a group of 42 based on consensus? Of course it would be more difficult for the larger sample to be unanimous. The correct comparison would be between the 17 adults and a randomly selected subset of 17 of the teenagers.

8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This might be my memory playing tricks on me, but, aren't there psycholinguistic studies showing that German L1 speakers agree to a very large extent on what gender should be assigned to made-up words? If that is true, I wonder whether the same should be the case in French.

9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am certain that all Québec francophones would have known the gender of "Primeur". We never use "primeur" in the fruit/vegetable sense but always in the "latest news" way, so for us "le primeur" sounds very wrong. (see NeoVolt's comment)

As for Queer As Moi's comment about gender differences within dialects, it is certainly true of Québec. For example, the word "vidéo" is officially of a feminine gender, but we use the masculine gender in everyday speech. However, in "correct" written communication, we must use the official feminine gender.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Bill Idsardi said...

Suzanne Carroll (now at UCalgary) did a fair bit on this topic wrt SLA, showing, for example, that immersion students did not acquire an understanding of French gender assignment patterns. She also published a critique of connectionist models for gender acquisition (


9:57 AM  
Blogger hh said...

Just a few quick responses to a couple of comments --

duncan -- not yet! the Chinese study is still in its infancy. the main data collection will take place this summer and fall.

oskar -- yep, that's what it means! And you're right -- it's not 'wrong', in the sense that the gender of a noun is whatever the language speakers agree that it is; that's how genders of nouns can change over time. But it's not what would have been predicted given normative ideas about French grammar!

asm -- I'm pretty sure the subjects were native speakers of French living in France, though I'm not sure where. But Dalila can answer that one -- I think she's following these comments...

robert seddon -- the task (when performed in Engish) just asks the subject to combine the two clauses. Of course the subject has to chose one of the determiners in the preceding clauses; it doesn't matter which. Either choice of determiner would count as a correct 'combining' of the two clauses. But in fact, my example is just that -- an example. My student is studying relative clause formation *in Chinese*, by people learning Chinese. The determiner issue doesn't arise, since Chinese doesn't have definite determiners.

anonymous -- yes, I wondered about that too -- maybe the amount of variation at different ages is just an artifact of the different sample sizes? but of course the study wasn't designed to look at this -- Ayoun had no reason to think that the sample sizes were going to matter.

10:04 AM  
Blogger Chris said...

Your commenter Luis might be thinking of David Zubin's work on German gender and classification. A recent publication can be found here:
“Metonymic pathways to neuter-gender human nominals in German”

2:52 PM  
Blogger Adrian said...

Calm down, ladies! My thoughts:

4:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of those aren't easy, but the difference between adults, especially if over 40, and teenagers might partially be explained by the older persons' having studied Latin; for idole Greek also would help.
Another question: would the native speakers using partitives, for example, or idioms in which the nouns were embedded, not say 'de la' or 'du' correctly without a conscious thought?
Pat L.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Rémi A. van Compernolle said...

Related to this study is the feminization of professional titles. Native speakers don't agree at all on which feminine forms to use, or if a feminine should be used at all. See this article, which should be appearing soon in March 2008

van Compernolle, R. A. (in press). "Une pompière? C'est affreux!" Etude lexicale de la féminisation des noms de métiers en France. Langage et Société. [Expected to appear in No. 123, March 2008]

7:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike some of the commentators, I'm perfectly willing to believe that these results are reliable (although asm's question of whether the native speakers lived abroad or not is an important one). But there are a lot of pretty obvious reasons for taking them with a grain of salt. First, they're all (at least the ones mentioned in Heidi's post) low frequency words - a bit like asking native speakers of English to agree on the past tense of strive. Second, some of them are known problems for native speakers, like victime and sentinelle (I remember being taught explicitly about these in a grammar class aimed at native speakers - which I'm not - nearly 50 years ago). Third, as several commentators have pointed out, some of them are normally used in contexts that don't readily reveal their gender. Fourth, we know that gender can change historically (as six-crazy-guys said), so there's got to be variation synchronically for that to be true, and this study merely documents that variation.

However, the skeptical commentators are almost certainly correct to be skeptical, in the sense that if you gave native speakers ordinary words like voiture, maison, sucre, soleil, etc., you would probably get 100% agreement (and you surely wouldn't from non-natives!). What would be interesting for a serious study of this topic would be to determine at what word frequency the agreement drops off. Is there 100% agreement on words in the top 1000? Top 10000? Top 20000? The results of such a study would certainly be relevant to testing connectionist psycholinguistic models of language acquisition (cf. Bill Idsardi's comments on Suzanne Carroll's SLA work on this topic).

10:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as a native speaker, I would have said that 'primeur' is maculine. because it is! because I would only have thought of a piece of fruit or a wine just been produced. I just don't know it with the meaning 'freshest news'. I use 'scoop/[skup]' in that sense. were the participants told the meanings of the words? some of them are really homonymic. like for 'oasis': everybody agrees that the drink is masculine! what is the amount of agreement within the participants who thought of the other sense while deciding for the gender of oasis? this would tell us more about this issue.

another already evocated related issue: many of them can be used as predicates/adjectives like in 'le problème cible' or 'il est victime'. I wonder if the feminine gender of 'primeur' comes from a such structure where the noun has been elipsed: 'la nouvelle primeur' --> 'la 0 primeur'.

I also agree with the problem of comparing a group of 17 and a group of 42 participants.

PS: I really have nothing against the idea that gender is often 'unset' even within native speakers, I just claim, like others here, that this study is not scientifically allowed to conclude it (and it was not designed to do it...).

1:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am curious about exactly how the test subjects were asked to indicate the gender of the nouns: did they check boxes marked "masculine" and "feminine," or did they have to assign articles to them, match adjectives, etc.?

I ask this because I once worked with a native Spanish speaker (who had been educated almost entirely in America, so he didn't know a lot about the grammatical terms used to describe his language) who, I found out once when asking him questions about Spanish, was unaware that his language had grammatical gender (i.e. he didn't understand that some nouns were 'masculine' and some were 'feminine'.) He did, however, know that you sometimes said 'el' and sometimes said 'la' (and I assume he was fairly adept doing so correctly), but he compared it to saying "a" and "an" in English--it just "sounds wrong" if you don't do it at the right time.

So I can see how these French speakers might be able to correctly use a noun with the proper gender without "knowing" what gender it is. But then again, maybe it is the fact that, for a lot of the words indicated, there are special cases of ambiguity or change--think about if we gave English speakers the same tests with verb past tenses and passive participles.

Probably most people (assuming the test were given in such a way that it was clear what was being asked for) would get "go, went, gone" and "have, had, had", but I imagine there would be a lot of disagreement about, e.g., "dived" vs. "dove", "lit" vs. "lighted", "dragged" vs. "drug", forms of "lie, lay, lain" supplanted by "lay, laid, laid", etc.

(And that's not even getting into the phenomenon of people switching the past and past/passive participle: "I seen that" and "I should have saw that", etc.)

4:10 AM  
Blogger Angl�s f�cil said...

My experience with Catalan, a language similar to French, is that in practice native speakers *never* make mistakes in gender. Perhaps a better test would be to ask something with a bit of context, like the following:

Which is correct?
a) La nouvelle cible
b) Le nouveaux cible

Lou Hevly

5:22 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Strange. I suspect as other posters have said it is a quirk of the particular words chosen.

A friend of mine who worked at the Complutense in Madrid in the 1990s gave his Spanish students various imaginary words in Spanish and asked them to guess the gender. There was almost 100% agreement.

1:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Anglès Fàcile: I believe this is an observer's bias: foreign speakers see native correct them on the gender they assigns, and although it is obvious that native speakers will make less mistakes on gender (where the gender cannot be 90% accurately determined, as with Spanish or Italian, that is), it is foolish to think they never make any mistakes (as others have pointed out about the variance in some English past tenses).

1:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer a few questions... all of the teenagers lived in France while most, but not all of the adults lived in the US. They were asked to indicate whether individually presented nouns on a written questionnaire were masculine, feminine, both or if they didn't know. They were also asked to indicate how often they used 5 possible processes to arrive at their decision when they were unsure. Some of the words were less common but others were very common. Again, the study was a second language study investigating English native speakers acquiring French in a foreign language setting. The native speakers acted as controls, they were not the main focus of the study that was not designed specifically for them. Three different elicitation tasks were administered, only one is reported in the blog here. I would encourage you to read the full paper (reference cited in the original posting). I also have data from native speakers of Quebecois French but I haven't had time to go over it yet.
Thank you all for taking the time to read and comment on this posting. I appreciate it. D. Ayoun

3:54 PM  
Blogger Languagehat said...

Just thought I'd let y'all know that there's a lively discussion going on at Languagehat as well.

Also, it's a little silly to claim that the results must be somehow false or irrelevant. This degree of uncertainty, even in a smallish sample, is very surprising and should be further investigated.

5:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Pat L. - Good point that knowing Greek or Latin would often help with the gender of more obscure French nouns. But it can mislead too. For example, in the case of 'idole', the Greek word eidolon, and the Latin import of the word idolum, are both neuter, so you'd expect the French word derived from them to be masculine.


(apologies if I'm 2x posting - tried to post and it didn't seem to work)

9:44 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

anecdotally, italians *suffer* the same dilemma. rather than not knowing the gender of the word, it seems that often in speech especially they afford themselves some flexibility. Why? I don't know, but it doesn't seem to be a systematic *mistake* that they make. They may choose to use the correct gender in one phrase, and to change the gender in the next, which would take these interesting results a step further, given that here subjects were only asked to assign gender to words, rather than actually observing what gender native speakers assign to nouns, and whether they are consistent errors or otherwise.
Like I said, this is only anecdotal, and something that has fascinated me for ages, becuase it seems so strange that native speakers can get away with such practices, and still be seen as conforming with conversational norms (i.e. assigning incorrect gender doesn't seem to result in conversation breakdown). I'd love to hear more about this.

3:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nearly all the words in the table are tricky/rarely used in a normal conversation/rarely used as nouns,
so i'm not surprised at all by the results.
this test may be relevant to select candidates for a phD in 19th century french litterature, i doubt it is really usefull in another context.

in a normal conversation, french native speakers very rarely do mistakes on the gender of nouns, even the less educated

3:35 AM  
Blogger pacatrue said...

To echo Craig (I think it was), it would be interesting to compare these results with a test in which the word is displayed in two phrases. Each phrase would have with an article and a clearly-gender-displaying adjective in agreement with the noun. One test phrase is set to masculine, the other feminine, and then they have to select which is better. I'm guessing the rates would go up.

Anecdotally, my wife is a heritage French speaker and I am native English. When I ask her the gender of a noun directly, she rarely knows, but she can tell me if it's wrong when I use it productively.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am French and I am very surprised by these results. Most of these words appear straight forward to me and I am pretty sure would also to my friends, colleagues and family. Yet I grew up in a very diverse socio-economic context so I don't think I am particularly good at grammar.

I would really like to have a look at the composition of that control group, because if those results are accurate these "native French speakers"' performance is appalling. Also in French culture mastering the subtleties of the language is paramount and the school system drills on it accordingly.

6:36 PM  
Blogger LW said...

I really like the comment about oasis/Oasis. It makes me think of another beverage: Gatorade. Francophones who don't know what it is often consider it to be something similar to "limonade" and since this is feminine, why wouldn't Gatorade also be feminine? Of course this is the case for those who don't know what it is or don't realize it's foreign, which might make them lean toward masculine. However, Francophones who know that Gatorade is foreign (in this case American, I think) consider it to be masculine.

I think another comment about the study is in order: A corpus-based project would be more reliable, in my opinion. Why not gather a corpus of speech or even written data (that hasn't gone through an editorial process) to see how often Francophones "incorrectly" assign gender? There are methodological issues with every study, but a corpus of real speech/writing might provide more reliable results since the words would be in context (not in isolation, as is the case for most questionnaire-type instruments).

I'm glad to see that this blog has some good exchanges and debate about many different issues.

8:57 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

This study makes me feel better about all the Cs I got in high school French.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

response to LW

Last time I checked, at least in my theoretical world, judgment tasks *were* real data and did represent real language usage. The problem with corpora, especially in French, is the heavy hand of copy-editors and the effects of spelling and grammar checkers which are likely to "correct" native speaker errors to the prescriptive norm. In this circumstance at least, I think corpora are likely to be the worst source of data fro this kind of study. (Just to be clear, corpora are often very useful, I use them all the time, but for precisely this kind of study I think they'd be useless).

8:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i want to know if a spanish word is a masculine or a feminine word but till now i have not found the right site!

11:01 AM  
Blogger David Frier said...

From pokerstars tonight (Canadiens)

Guy1: non j'ai juste 40k
Mlle: pas plus que toi pas chanceuse
Guy2: tient Guy1
Guy1: merci tu et bien gentille
Guy2: gentil
Guy1: excuse moi gentil

For what it's worth.

5:32 PM  
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6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi. I think, that as soon as they don't frequently use a word and/or the forms in which the word is frequently used don't reveal it's gender, they are lost. genus

10:29 AM  

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