Monday, April 12, 2010

The Schwa: My Secret Weapon in the War Against Gramatical Gender

Like many languages, Spanish has grammatical gender.  Words are either masculine or feminine, with no real relation to their function in a sentence.  It's not nearly as bad as other languages.  There are only two genders and words tend to follow certain patterns based on how they end.  Among others, -o words tend to be masculine, while -a, -ad, -ión, and -umbre tend to be feminine.  These rules aren't set in stone, though, and there are a bunch of exceptions.  For instance, it's el monarquista and la monarquista (depending on the monarchist's gender), el problema, el agua (but las aguas), etc.  Even worse, if you forget whether a word ends in a -o or -a, you don't have any hints available, and sometimes this can change the meaning (e.g. política is a policy, while político is a politician).

I get genders wrong pretty regularly.  By and large no one really cares and won't correct you unless there was some sort of semantic issue, but it's pretty embarrassing and worth avoiding when possible.  Anyway, the issue reminded me of a David Sedaris story about learning French.  Having moved to France with his boyfriend Hugh, he was having a difficult time getting genders down.  French genders are much harder than Spanish, at least from what I've heard, as there aren't really many hints.  He soon realized, though, that he could avoid the issue by dealing only in the plurals, since the French plural article is the same for both.  He begins to buy things only in multiples, but Hugh starts to get angry when he realizes the house is filled with unreasonable quantities of everything.  The story ends:
Hugh tells me that the market is off-limits until my French improves. He's pretty steamed, but I think he'll get over it when he sees the CD players I got him for his birthday.
Thinking about how nice it would be to have my own anti-gender cheat, I started to pay more attention my daily conversation.  I realized that when I talk fast or if I'm unsure, I begin to add schwas to words, like in English.  I always thought of it as just a fault in my accent, but I'm beginning to realize that this could be deeply useful.  For instance, if I forget if "tripe" is callos or callas (this is actually a tricky one for me - somehow tripe comes up a lot in my life), there's an easy solution.  Suddenly, I just have to say "Me gustan ləs calləs" and people may think of me as accented (not to mention gastronomically sophisticated), but won't have nearly as much of a reason to question my capacity in Spanish!  Or, they'll think that I am just proclaiming my affection for the streets, or calles, which would not be that out of character for me.


Speaking of genders.  I was once again amazed last week by the continuing strength of traditional gender roles in Spanish society.  With the start of my internship rapidly approaching (I've been there three days - I'll write about it soon), I went to the dry cleaner to get my clothes cleaned.  I was shocked when I was charged only €8.50 for my suit (not cheap, but not that bad) and €3.50 ($4.75) for each shirt.  When I got home, I told Pilar, who agreed that the price was unreasonable:  "If you want, in the future, I can wash your shirts and you can pay Lili (the cleaner) to iron them for you when she comes.  I have an iron and you would just need to pay her my rate for whatever extra time it takes her."
"If you have an iron," I said, "I can iron them myself just as easily, and then I don't have to wait for her."
"You know how to iron?" she asked, as if I had just revealed that I could carve elaborate ice sculptures. "How did you learn how to iron."
"That's how I get my shirts ready for work when I have internships at home," I said, a little indignantly.  "My mother hasn't washed my clothes since I was 14."

For the next 24 hours, every other conversation concerned my immanent plans to iron a single shirt.  You would think I had told her I was planning to launch fireworks in the house or perform minor surgery on myself.  First, I was introduced to the iron and all it's relating items, complete with a lecture on iron safety.  I was then regaled with stories of Pilar ironing her ex-husband's clothes and her friends ironing their husbands' clothes (note: ironing-based stories are as boring as the sound).  I was told about all the starch sprays she could buy to help me, the friends she would ask for helpful tips, and how lucky I was that she had a particularly good iron.  "Evan, when are you planning to iron? Tonight?" she asked me as I came back from an errand.  "I'm just so worried about it."

Finally, the night before my internship, after she went to sleep, I quietly took out the ironing board and iron and made my (unclean) shirt look presentable.  The next morning, I went to my internship and came home.  That evening, after asking how my internship was, she asked, "and did you iron your shirt last night?"  I nodded.  "Oh good," she said.  "Just make sure you let it cool before you put the iron back in the cabinet.  The cabinet is plastic, so I'm afraid it could melt if you put it back right after using it."

I must say I'm a bit confused by the importance of gender roles.  Spanish society has advanced rapidly.  The socialist government has, among other things, created an Orwellian-sounding of Ministry of Equality, put civics classes in schools where children learn about how equal men and women are, and established gender equality as one of its goals as rotating president of the Council of the European Union.  Pilar is a strong, single working woman who raised a son.  She's sufficiently progressive that from her lack of reaction, I wasn't sure for the first few months if she even that she had realized I was gay despite occasional references to a boyfriend (which, in all fairness, differs from the word for "girlfriend" only in that it ends in -o instead of -a, and, as mentioned above, I don't use genders well).  Yet, as soon as I try and do something domestic or even mention that I can do so, like clean dishes, do laundry, or cook food, she either appears amazed or acts as though I am taking away one of her greatest pleasures.  I'm not sure who exactly she thinks does these things for me at college (actually, she asked if my friend were going to hire a cleaner for our next year), or who will do them in my adulthood.  I'm not sure what it says about Spanish society, or if it only has to do with a mother who misses having her son to take care of.  Either way, though, I'm certainly not going to object to my lack of domestic responsibility too much.


  1. I think your mother stopped doing your laundry long before you were 14. Perhaps there were a couple of years when you just wore dirty clothing?

  2. evan! i am procrastinating and decided to read your blog. i had to comment on this post because it includes shwas, david sedaris, and tripe. you win!