What Gender is Your Country?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in November 2013]

I am often asked by my students why countries receive masculine or feminine names in languages that make a grammatical gender distinction. For example, why is Portugal masculine in French but feminine in Russian? Conversely, why is China feminine in French but masculine in Russian? Is there a geographical pattern to the gender assignment? The answer is “not really”. On first glance, it does seem that Russian and French, at least, place many countries in the same categories. As can be seen on the maps posted here, countries in in central and western Asia and northern Africa tend to be coded as masculine in both Russian and French, while most European nations fall in the feminine category. The pattern, however, is deceptive.

Let’s consider how gender assignment words in different European languages. Words that refer to people (and sometimes animals) are usually assigned to gender categories based on the sex of the referent: French homme and Russian muščina ‘man’ are both masculine, French femme and Russian ženščina ‘woman’ are both feminine, and so on. Words that refer to entities without sex—whether countries or objects—tend to obtain their gender assignment simply by the phonological shape of the word. Sometimes, the gender is determined seemingly by the orthographic shape of the word, which reflects its earlier pronunciation. As a result, gender assignment (particularly, in a foreign language) “makes no sense”. For example, in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter”, as Mark Twain once put it. Moreover, semantic counterparts (translations) between languages are often not assigned to the same gender: the word for ‘letter’ is masculine in German, feminine in French, and neuter in Russian; the word for ‘book’ is masculine in French, feminine in Russian, and neuter in German. In the same vein, ‘sun’ is masculine in French, neuter in Russian, and feminine in German, whereas ‘moon’ is feminine in French and Russian, but masculine in German. Similar examples abound.

French_country_name_genders.svgAs for country names, French classifies some as masculine and others as feminine. The Wikipedia map reproduced on the left purports to show the distribution of “masculine” and “feminine” countries, shown in green and purple, respectively. Unfortunately, a number of errors mar this map: for example, La Grande-Bretagne (Great Britain) is feminine, not masculine. The general rule is that country names that end in silent “e” are feminine. Hence, the feminine country names la France (France), la Belgique (Belgium), l’Allemagne (Germany), l’Algérie (Algeria), la Chine (China), la Guyane (Guiana), la Russie (Russia), la Corée (Korea). Notable exceptions include the masculine country names that end in a silent “e”, such as le Belize (Belize), le Mexique (Mexico), le Mozambique (Republic of Mozambique), le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe), le Zaïre (Republic of Zaire), le Cambodge (Cambodia).

French_gender_country_names

This map disregards, however, the fact that some country names are grammatically plural. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the gender affects both the selection of the article and the agreement on various other elements in the sentence. A more detailed map is reproduced on the left. As can be seen, the gender assignment of country names is revealed by the choice of the article only in the case of place names that start from a consonant, are grammatically singular, and appear with an article in the first place. A few country names in French do not call for an article (this situation is much rarer in French than in English or German). Madagascar, for example, appears without an article and is feminine, possibly, because the word la republique, which constitutes part of its full name, is feminine. Oman also appears without an article but is masculine, possibly because the word le sultanat is masculine. The gender of plural country names, such as Les États-Unis (United States) and Les Philippines (the Philippines) is determined by the singular: the former is masculine and the latter is feminine. The article used with plural terms is the same in both genders, but predicative participles do show gender agreement with such terms in the form of an extra silent “e”. For example, Les États-Unis sont divisés but Les Philippines sont divisées. Like other nouns, geographical terms that start with the vowel appear with the article l’, regardless of their gender, but the gender again becomes important for agreement purposes. L’Égypte (Egypt) is feminine, whereas L’Uruguay (Uruguay) is masculine. Once again, the agreement on the participle is expressed through a silent “e”, only apparent in spelling: L’Égypte est divisée but L’Uruguay est divisé…

Russian_gender_country_names

As with other nouns, no direct correspondence exists between the gender of a given country name in French, in German, in Russian, or in any other gendered language. As most country names in German appear without an article, I will focus on the gender assignment in Russian toponyms. Articles do not exist in Russian, but the gender is reflected in various other elements: demonstratives (‘this’, ‘that’), adjectives, verbs, and so on; gender may also affect how a particular term is declined. As can be seen from the map reproduced on the left, country names in Russian can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. A few country names, such as Soedinënnye Štaty (United States) and Filippiny (the Philippines), are grammatically plural. Most of those plural names are grammatically masculine, including Soedinënnye Štaty (United States), Ob”edinënnye Arabskie Èmiraty (United Arab Emirates), Komory (Comoros), Mal’divy (Maldives), Sejčel’skie Ostrova (Seychelles), Solomonovy Ostrova (Solomon Islands), and Maršallovy Ostrova (Marshall Islands). Filippiny (the Philippines) can be construed as either feminine or neuter. Unlike in French, however, where plural nouns still trigger gender agreement on predicative participles, in Russian genders in the plural are not relevant for agreement.  The only difference that gender assignment makes for plural country names is in the form of the genitive case: compare the masculine s Maldiv-ov (from the Maldives) and s Filippin (from the Philippines). The null genitive plural ending is characteristic of some feminine and neuter, but not masculine, nouns (for a more detailed discussion of the genitive plural endings in Russian, see Bailyn and Nevins “Russian Genitive Plurals as Impostors”).

In some rare but instructive cases, a country name can have a mixed or ambiguous gender assignment. As in French, the assignment of specific country names to gender categories depends on phonological form rather than on meaning. The meaninglessness of gender assignment becomes particularly clear in the cases where the same country can be referred by a formal or informal name, which differ in their gender assignment. For example, while Soedinënnye Štaty (United States) and Niderlandy (the Netherlands) are both plural and masculine, the informal names for these countries—Amerika (America) and Gollandija (Holland) are both feminine. Similarly, Velikobritanija (Great Britain) is feminine, as is Anglija (England), a term often used informally for the whole UK. In contrast, Soedinënnoe korolevstvo (United Kingdom) is grammatically neuter. By the way, Šotlandija (Scotland) and Irlandija (Ireland) are both feminine, but Uèl’s (Wales) and Kornuol (Cornwall) are masculine. Other examples of formal and informal country names belonging to different genders include Turkmenistan and Kirgizstan (Kyrgyzstan), which are masculine by their official names, but also have feminine informal designations, Turkmenia and Kirgizija, that are more commonly used. Likewise, the formal country names Demokratičeskaja Respublika Kongo (DRC) and Respublika Kongo (Republic of Congo) are both feminine because the word respublika is feminine. But their informal designation, Kongo (Congo), is neuter.

Some other country designations are even more tricky. Peru and Čili (Chile) are typically neuter when talking about the political entity, but feminine when talking about the physical country. Somali seems to be in anarchy even in the Russian language: the country name varies between masculine, feminine, and neuter. Another problematic set of cases involves Tonga and other similar country names of Pacific Islands: despite ending in -a, which usually places nouns in the feminine category, they are typically masculine, because the Russian word ostrov for ‘island’ is masculine. Izrail’ (Israel) has been incorrectly colored on this map; the word is definitely masculine in Russian. Both Palestina (Palestine) and Iudeja (Judea) are feminine.

In general, gender assignment in Russian follows a complex algorithm that takes into account the natural sex (for people and sometimes animals), whether the noun is declinable, its phonological shape, and more. As far as country names are concerned, the ending is of the utmost importance in determining its gender. Names of large historical countries typically end in -ija, regardless of their form in English or in the language of the country itself. Following the general gender assignment rules in Russian, these names are feminine: Francija (France), Čexija (Czech Republic), Indija (India). There are a few exception to this pattern, such as the masculine names of Kitaj (China), Livan (Lebanon), and Alžir (Algeria). Newer or smaller countries typically have names that are simply transliterated. If they happen to end in -a or –ija, they will generally be feminine (e.g. Kosta Rika); otherwise, they are mostly masculine. Also in line with general gender assignment rules, country names ending in -o are neuter: Marokko (Morocco), Monako (Monaco), and San Marino.

But when it comes to foreign toponyms in Russian in general, including names of cities, towns, lakes, mountains, rivers, and so on, the most important factor in determining gender is whether a given term is declined or not (that is, whether it changes its ending based on its position in the sentence). Declinable toponyms are assigned to a gender category in accordance with their declension pattern (which is, in turn, based on the ending): nouns ending in a hard consonant are generally masculine, those ending in -o or -e are neuter, those ending in -a are feminine, as are most of those ending in a soft consonant. In contrast, indeclinable toponyms are assigned to a gender category based on their “umbrella word”: names for cities in this category are masculine because the word gorod ‘city’ is masculine; river names are feminine, as is reka ‘river’; while lakes are neuter, as is ozero ‘lake’. Foreign toponyms are almost twice as likely as their native Russian counterparts to be used in appositive construction without declension, where the actual toponym does not get the relevant case ending: a construction such as v gorode Vellington (literally ‘in city Wellington’, with no prepositional case ending on the toponym) is nearly twice as common as one such as v gorode Moskva (‘in city Moscow’). Moreover, a phrase such as v gorode Vellington (without case ending on the toponym) is more than four times as common as one such as v gorode Vellingtone (with a case ending on the toponym). (These figures are based on the statistics in Graudina et al. 1976.)

The issue of whether a given foreign toponym is declined, is much more complicated. (In what follows, we shall see the forms of the locative case, which is naturally the most common case to be used with place names.) The deciding factors here are the phonological shape of the toponym, as well as its origin. A great deal of variation is also found among speakers of Russian as to which toponyms they decline. On one end of the spectrum we have foreign toponyms that ending in a consonant; as a rule, such words are declined, as in v Vellingtone (in Wellington), v Vašingtone (in Washington), v Pariže (in Paris). Exceptions include some Latin American place names that end in -os, as in v Fuèntos (in Fuentos), not v Fuèntose. Asian foreign toponyms, including country names, also tend not to be declined: v Bangladeš (in Bangladesh) is more common than v Bangladeše. Moreover, compound toponyms tend not to be declined (although occasionally they are, particularly in colloquial speech): na Pèr-Lašez (at Père Lachaise), but rarely na Pèr-Lašeze. Finally, compound toponym whose last part is an “umbrella term”, such as strit (street), skver (square), park (park), and the like, do not decline regardless of their frequency: na Bejker-strit (on Baker Street), but never na Bejker-strite.

On the other end of the spectrum we have toponyms that never decline: these include names that end in -u (e.g. v Katmandu, in Kathmandu), as well as those that end in -i. The case of i-final toponyms is interesting because both -i and –y in Russian are plural endings: compare knigi ‘books’ vs. žurnaly ‘magazines’ (the choice depends on the hardness/softness of the stem-final consonant). Yet when it comes to foreign toponyms ending in -i and –y, they pattern differently: those ending in -i are virtually never declined (e.g. v Tbilisi, v Nagasaki, v Tripoli), while those ending in –y virtually always decline, replacing the -y by the appropriate case endings (e.g. v Afinax, in Athens; v Tatrax, in Tatra Mountains; v Kannax, in Cannes).

Also close to the “indeclinable” end of the spectrum are foreign toponyms ending in -o  or -e. Such toponyms mostly remain unchanged, as in v Oslo (in Oslo), v Bordo (in Bordeaux), v Sorrento (in Sorrento), v Kale (in Calais). Historically, however, Russian did decline such toponyms, hence the title of a short story by Turgenev (mid-19th century): Večer v Sorrente (“Evening in Sorrento”). Interestingly, toponyms in -o/ -e of Ukrainian and Belarusian origin, which decline in those languages, do not decline in Russian: v Kovno (in Kovno), v Grodno (in Grodno). Moreover, even Russian native toponyms ending in -o/ -e are apparently shifting towards being indeclinable: the older form v Birjulëve (in Biryulevo), for example is being gradually replaced by v Birjulëvo.

The final and the most complex class of foreign toponyms in Russian involves those that end in ‑a. In Russian, like in Italian or Spanish, a final “a” is a salient marker of feminine gender; for example, small children mistakenly treat exceptional masculine a-final words like deduška ‘grandpa’ and plural words like myšata ‘baby mice’ as feminine. Yet, not all foreign toponyms ending in -a are not regularly declined or assigned to the feminine gender. Here, the origin of the place name and its frequency of use in Russian play important roles. Well-known names of large cities do decline: v Buxare (in Bukhara), v Siene (in Siena), v Ankare (in Ankara). Compound Italian‑ or Spanish-derived place names generally do not decline: v Santjago-de-Kompostela (in Santiago-de-Compostella), v Pal’ma-de-Mal’orka (in Palma-de-Majorca). But compound terms with La‑ or Santa– as the first part sometimes do: both v La-Plata and v La-Plate (in La Plata), v Santa‑Klara and v Santa-Klare (in Santa Clara) are acceptable. As for French-derived place names in ‑a, those that have the (stressed) -a in French do not decline in Russian (v Spa), whereas those that end in a silent “e” in French and acquired an (unstressed) –a in Russian do decline: v Ženeve (in Geneva, in French: Genève), v Lozanne (in Lozanne), v Tuluze (in Toulouse). Japanese place names in -a do not decline in Russian, except “Hiroshima”: this toponym was so frequently used during the Cold War that it became fully Russified and therefore declinable: v Osaka (in Osaka), v Sunagava (in Sunagawa), but v Xirosime (in Hiroshima). Finnish and Estonian toponyms vary so that both declined and non-declined forms—v Kuokkale and v Kuokkala (in Kuokkala)—are found; the general tendency is for more frequently used or better known place names to decline, while lesser known toponyms do not. Abkhaz and Georgian place names in -a typically do not decline, with the exception of well-known resort town: in Adzjubža (in Adzyubzha), but in v Picunde (in Pitsunda).

 
Sources:

Bailyn, John Frederick and Andrew Nevins (2008) Russian Genitive Plurals are Impostors. In Andrew Nevins & Asaf Bachrach (eds.) Inflectional Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 237–270.

Graudina, Ljudmila Karlovna, Viktor Aleksandrovich Ickovich, and Lia Pavlovna Katlinskaja (1976) Grammatičeskaja pravil’nost’ russkoj reči. Opyt častotno-stilističeskogo slovarja variantov [Grammatical correctness of Russian speech. An experimental frequential stylistic dictionary of variants]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka.

 

 

 


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  • Ivan Derzhanski

    Isn’t _Бангладеш_ the only country name that doesn’t decline and is considered feminine (I’m not sure which way the causal relationship works) despite ending in a hard consonant?

    • I am not sure what Russian grammars and manuals of style and the like say about this (and don’t have time to research it at the moment), but the usage seems to be: undeclined and MASCULINE. You can check this page to see. I assume it reflects a fairly educated, common Russian usage:
      https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%91%D0%B0%D0%BD%D0%B3%D0%BB%D0%B0%D0%B4%D0%B5%D1%88

      • Ivan Derzhanski

        Indeed. Though I’m sure I’ve seen it stated that it doesn’t decline because it’s feminine, and it’s feminine because it’s a _страна_. I think all other country names ending in consonants do decline. (But I hadn’t noticed that about _Фуэнтос_.)

        • Fuentos is a country?

          • Ivan Derzhanski

            No, I meant I thought _Бангладеш_ was the only noun in Russian that didn’t decline despite ending in a consonant and not denoting a woman, and the only explanation I’d encountered was that it was feminine. Now I see that there are other masculine consonant-final nouns that don’t decline (_Фуэнтос_ being one), but this doesn’t make _Бангладеш_ any less strange.

          • Ah, that’s clearer. Well, language isn’t always logical and neat. I take it, you’ve read John McWhorter’s “What Language Is”? If you haven’t, it’s a great read.

          • lili

            But maybe you will teach this peson Russian?

  • Erik

    I guess the reason Great-Britain on both maps for French is masculine is not an error, but is because the name of the country is usually Royaume-Uni in French, which is masculine and translates as United Kingdom. Grande-Bretagne is just the name of the island, not of the country.
    The difference in gender between a formal and an informal name exists in French as well, compare les Pays-Bas (masculine plural) with la Hollande (feminine singular).

    In Dutch names of countries and toponyms are usually neuter, except when there’s an inherent article. This even holds in compounds where the second element has another gender when used as a word (common gender in the Dutch of the Netherlands, masculine or feminine gender in Belgian Dutch). This can be seen in sentences where the article is used (‘het’ is the neutral singular article, ‘de’ is the article for common/masculine/feminine singular and all genders plural):
    Frankrijk (France, no inherent article): Ik ga naar Frankrijk (I’m going to France) – Het Frankrijk van tegenwoordig is een heel andert land dan dat [neuter] van Lodewijk XIV (Present-day France is quite a different country from that of Louis XIV)
    De Verenigde Staten (the United States, common/masculine plural, inherent article): Ik ga naar de Verenigde Staten – De Verenigde Staten van nu zijn [plural!] een heel ander land dan die [plural] van vlak na de onafhankelijkheid (The present-day United States are quite a different country from those of just after independence)
    Amsterdam (Amsterdam, no inherent article, ‘dam’ used as a word is common/masculine like the central square of Amsterdam: de Dam): Ik ga naar Amsterdam – Het Amsterdam van nu is een heel andere stad dan dat [neuter] van de Middeleeuwen (Present-day Amsterdam is quite a different city from that of Medieval times)

    • Erik

      The same goes when one uses an indefinite article, e.g. in hypothetical alternative versions or when speaking about a national sports-team, in this case even a non-neuter inherent definite article sometimes changes to a neuter indefinite article:
      Op het Wereldkampioenschap zagen we een ander Frankrijk dan het Frankrijk dat we hadden verwacht (At the World Championships we saw a different France than the France we expected to see. We can see that ‘een ander Frankrijk’ is neuter because a common gender would result in ‘een andere Frankrijk’, which is ungrammatical)
      Op het Wereldkampioenschap zagen we een ander Verenigde Staten [neuter singular] dan de Verenigde Staten [common plural] die [plural] we hadden verwacht.
      Op Koningsdag is Amsterdam [no article] een ander Amsterdam [neuter] dan het Amsterdam [neuter] van alledag. (On King’s Day Amsterdam is a quite different Amsterdam than the Amsterdam of normal days)

      • Thanks for sharing that, Erik!

        • Erik

          In French Royaume-Uni seems to be common (alongside the unofficial Angleterre), I seldom encounter Grande-Bretagne in the French press. I don’t know why –maybe it has something to do with the other (‘Little’) Bretagne being a part of France (known in English as Brittany).

          In Dutch most people tend to prefer Engeland above Groot-Brittannië or Verenigd Koninkrijk as well.

          [but in Dutch for some people it’s a matter of principle to never use England for all of the UK, because it feels like the same mistake foreigners make when they call all of the Netherlands ‘Holland’. But there’s a lot of regional variation in that, people from western and central parts of the Netherlands do use ‘Holland’ for the whole country, and people from Limburg use ‘hollander’ for any dutchman who’s from another region]

          • Erik

            I thought I’d have a quick check to make sure my impression is no nonsense, and I must apologize: the first news-article I chose to check on Le Monde’s website counts three Royaume-Unis against two Grande-Bretagnes, so ‘seldom’ is not true… 🙂

          • Thanks for making the correction, Erik! I suspected as much and I am glad you’ve been able to confirm it. Of course, more statistical research is needed to be sure, but I think we are right in suspecting that both toponyms are used…

          • Indeed, in Russian the use of “Holland” for the entire country is extremely common. In fact, when I used to say that “Utrecht is in the Netherlands” (rather than “in Holland”) in Russian, people looked at me funny. It is certainly not the common usage.

          • lili

            Same thing in France, the old name “Hollande” is used, because it’s easier, but they teach us in school we have to say “Pays Bas”, because la Hollande is only a part. That’s a common metonymy.

          • lili

            How Angleterre is “unofficial”? First time I hear that. Royaume Uni and Angleterre are not the same thing!

          • Exactly. But “Angleterre” is used sometimes informally for the whole “Royaume Uni”.

          • lili

            Because some people don’t know the difference, it shoudn’t be used this way, even informally. When you talk about England, it’s Angleterre, when you talk about Royaume Uni, it’s United Kingdom. But some people think that Scottish are English…. It’s more a mistake of ignorance than an uninformal way to say it.

          • I can’t speak for the French, but in Russian the same usage is perfectly normal if unofficial. “English” and “British” are used quite interchangeably.

          • lili

            There’s no “British” in French. There’s only English (= anglais), (and for the UK: écossais, irlandais, etc…) . And Breton is a reference to the person who live in Bretagne (a part of France), not Grande-Bretagne (Great-Britain).

          • Yes, as a native French-speaking, I can say that THERE is “British” in French. “Britannique”, as a noun or adjective, is perfectly normal. Now, it is true that many French speakers say “Angleterre” while meaning UK. Simply because they are not aware of the different “kingdoms” that now are one (until Scotland leaves, perhaps?). And as in Russia, “Holland” is commonly used for “Netherlands”.

          • lili

            Oh yes, I forgot that one, I was thinking of Briton. For the rest, I was replying to the article, and what you said is exactly what I’ve said. Angleterre is not the unformal way to say “Royaume Uni” as they think in the article, but a mistake. Hollande is commonly used for Pays-Bas (Netherlands) in France too. The article takes an English speaking point of view, not the French one. As it is supposed to talk about languages logics, it has to try to think as French do. Saying that French use Royaume Uni for formal occasions, and the unformal equivalent Angleterre in other occasions, is not true. As you said it, it’s a mistake, not an unformal synonym. Even if many people think it’s the same thing…

          • “Angleterre is not the unformal way to say “Royaume Uni” as they think in the article, but a mistake.” — based on what? A scientific study of the usage (vs. education levels, context of use etc.) or just an opinion?

          • lili

            2 French native persons here told you that it was not the case… Angleterre is not the same thing that “Royaume Uni”. The meaning are different.

            If you want to think very hard that “Angleterre” is the same thing of “Royaume Uni”, it’s not a problem, but you will sound very ridiculous if you talk to some educated French native persons… Really… But if you think you master the language better than native persons, or teachers, it’s good for you… And how many languages in the world in total do you know better than native do. I would like to know the exact number.

            Your explanation about the gender of the countries in French show that you don’t “master” so much….

          • First of all, two is not a sufficient number of data points to draw scientific conclusions. Second, we are talking about it, but how many educated French people would use “Angleterre” for the entire UK, without thinking, informally? Like I said, I don’t know — and I doubt very much you do either — but I SUSPECT that the answer is that this far more common than you think. No need to look any further than this headline: https://www.francebleu.fr/infos/societe/equitation-les-sauts-d-obstacles-de-la-reine-d-angleterre-sont-fabriques-en-sarthe-1487244271

            Of course, you can say that the journalist/headline writer is stupid or uneducated, but I doubt that very much. It’s not a peasant or night janitor after all.

            Finally, you don’t have to be so rude and snobbish. It speaks poorly of you, not of who you are talking about. At least I speak of something I have a quarter of a century of professional experience, and you have the attitude of a snobbish amateur.

          • lili

            So YOU are the data point? You look very scientific indeed….

            Buy a dictionary, or an encyclopedia, that is an IMPORTANT data point.

            How many educated people? All the people who are aware the 2 words are not the same thing.

            We didn’t tell you that it was not COMMON. We told you that it was a MISTAKE.

            You are the rude person. Read again your comments. And the thing that speak poorly of you, is your stubborness….

            I asked you: how many languages do you pretend to master?

            Is the part where you pretend to teach French native to read the “g” sound rude or not?
            Yes, you need some lessons, that’s not rude to say it, that’s reality, because the rule to read a “g”, you ignore them. Tell me what you think they are….

            A person who make some mistakes that’s ok, but when she get stubborn, that’s the rude part. Imagine I will teach you English, is it rude or not?
            So, let’s begin, G+A makes “go”. Do you call it ridiculous, or good?

          • lili

            I suspect you don’t know how to read French. Sorry, but it’s true.

            I read the headlines you sent: “Les sauts d’obstacles de la Reine d’Angleterre sont fabriqués en Sarthe”, so, in your enlighted opinion, “Angleterre” here should be replaced by “Royaume Uni”? Les sauts d’obstacles de la Reine du Royaume Uni…

            Please, tell me you’ve just started to learn French, because it’s hilarious.

            In the meanwhile, tell me what it was supposed to show, you really thing that the proper expression is “La Reine du Royaume Uni”?

  • lili

    There is no final silent “E” in French, that’s a very common mistake. In French, you need a consonnant + a vower to make a sound, so in Grande-Bretagne, the finale “e” from the “gne” is not silent at all. The word would probably pronounced Grande-Bretag’n’ without it.
    It’s tiring to see this mistake repeated continuously everywhere. It’s so different of the way we, French people, learn to read in our language.

    • The “e” is called silent because it is not pronounced (as a vowel). It affects how the consonant before it is pronounced, but there’s no vowel there (and no extra syllable).

      • lili

        That’s a mistake. No French linguist would call it “silent”, as it is prononced as a wovel.

        I mention you this example “Cambodge”, if you remove the “e” it’s prononced as a hard “g”.

        This is the rule when you learn to read in French classes: to make a sound, you usually need a consonnant + a vowel. You surely already noticed that a consonnant alone at the end of a word is often silent in French, because it needs its other part, the vowel. Consonnant alone that are prononced at the end of a word are exceptions, not the rule. The letter is only silent for the English speaking learners, not for the French.

        When you read “alors” you don’t say “alorsss”, because it’s not ending by a vowel. But if you were to read “alorse” you would probably say that the “e” is mute, because you see things as an English speaking person, not a French speaking one.

        If more French language learners were understanding this simple rule, they would be better at prononcing the French final letters, because when the rule doesn’t apply, it’s only exceptions. When you have the word “bouc”, it’s consonnant + vowel (ou)+ consonnant, so it can be prononced, and it is. When you see “cerf”, the “f” is alone, so it is not prononced, as a consonnant “f”, follows other consonnants, it’s not a regular consonant + vowel = “regular” French sound. You would need to write “cerfe” to be sure to prononce the “f” part. Is the “e” silent here? No. But English speaking people would probably call the “e” a silent one… Because of the habits they gained in their own language. The “e” is only silent if you tend to make the French language obey the English language rules.

        The rule about feminine for countries is more about the “rie” ending. All the “ie” ending are always feminine. The “rie” (sometimes “ie”) part, means “the land”.
        Angleterre is feminine because it means the land of the Angles, exactly like Engl’-land does(and, by a weird pun it also means the land that is at the corner/angle of the known world, before America…), a “terre” is always feminine. A “royaume” is always masculine”. Angleterre/Royaume Uni.

        ” Ine ” ending is always feminine (mutine, libertine, La Chine). “On” is a nasal, usually used in French for masculine (except the “tion” ending for instance): Le Japon. Le Gabon.

        So it’s more about the etymology sometimes, or the ending, that sounds masculine or feminine, that about the so called “silent e” (event if the “e” makes sound feminine when at the end), because it is not always silent. In “rie”, it is silent, but in “Chine” it’s definitively NOT silent.

        • It’s what linguists in general call it. And no, it’s a mistake to say that “e” at the end is pronounced as a vowel. It’s not pronounced [kambodzE]. It makes the consonant before it pronounced because it ends up not at the end. “g” in “Cambodge” is pronounced exactly as it is in “gentile”, but in the latter word “e” is also a vowel (hence two syllables, and by the way, not three, so the “e” at the end is silent).

          • lili

            Your explanations are not very logical. No wonder people have such hard time prononcing French.

            In a word like “cerfe” if it was to exist, the “e” is silent or not?

    • lili, an l’ is for a masculine “le” or for a feminine “la”, so what’s your point?

      • lili

        I think you didn’t understand my comment. Read the article again.

        • lili, I don’t agree: Asya’s argument is purely linguistical, based on the written form only. As a French speaking person, the fact that you know the gender of the word even when the form is not clear – l’ instead of le or la – doesn’t matter.

      • lili

        A question Frédéric, if I remove the “e” in Cambodge, if you read the word “Cambodg” without a “e” or let’s say Nambodg” (imagine this word does exist) do you prononce it “Nambodgu” with a hard “g”, like in “guerre”, or “Nambodj” with a soft “j”, like in “jeux”?

        Because this non native claims to teach us that the final “e” in “Cambodge” is perfectly silent and useless, and the word would make the same sound written “Cambodge” or “Cambodg”.

        What are the rules for the soft “g” in French? I though that only “e” and “i” makes a “g” soft, but maybe French language has changed, and that’s nice of her to teach native people the new rules….

        • And I also tend to agree with Asya: in API, a final “-gne” is represented with a nasal palatal /ɲ/, without any final “e”. Nowadays, French linguists tend to replace the term “e muet” with “e caduc”, or sometimes “e instable”, meaning that though is it not pronounced as such, it still exists, and can still affect the pronunciation of the word. But as Asya says it well, the count of syllables proves we have a “e caduc”. In other words, the fact that the e affects the pronunciation doesn’t change its status of “silent e”, or better said, “e caduc/instable”.

          • lili

            Sorry, but “g” in a word like Kambog (let’s imagine it does exist) is not a ” /ɲ/”, whatever the mainstream linguistics fashion madness is nowadays. “g” alone is and will always be prononced the hard way. There is no “n” here. To confirm it, anyone can check these rules for hard and soft “g” in any French for beginners courses.

            If you tell me that Kambog has to be pronounced Kamboj, without a “e”, we don’t talk about the same language.

            – She claims that “Royaume Uni” is the formal version for “Anglais”, and if 2 native claims it’s not, and encyclopediae too, she claims that it doesn’t count “scientifically”. She simply confuses “Britanique” and “Royaume Uni”.

            – She sent the example “La Reine d’Angleterre” to try to prove that “Angleterre” is a synonym for “Royaume Uni”, and the good way to say that would be probably according to her, “La Reine du Royaume Uni”.