In French, people of all kinds

LFrench is a “genre” language. That is to say, she qualifies as masculine or feminine objects which have no sex. Why do we say “a sea” but “an ocean”, “the moon” but “the sun” (the Spanish say “the sea”, while the Germans say “the moon” and “the sun” …), “The motorbike” but “the scooter”, “the rum baba” but “the blueberry pie”, “an example” but “a clock”?

There is so little apparent logic in the distribution of these genres that it is one of the mistakes that betray the foreigners who master our language the best. However, it would seem incongruous to us to speak of “an automobile” or “an example”.

But our language is much more “gender fluid” than it seems. See the banal word people, masculine and always in the plural, which becomes feminine (if, if!) when it is immediately preceded by an epithet adjective. This explains why we say “these people are old” but “they are old people”, “these people are good” but “they are good people”.

Old devilry

Where does this devilry come from? From the distant past of words: people started her career in our female language. GTo us is the old plural of the feminine word gent (from Latin race, nation), the very one we use when we speak of “the male sex”, the “female sex” or the “canine sex” (for all intents and purposes, this gent-là is pronounced like people and not like people !). The name gent, Originally meaning “race” or “species”, gradually took on the meaning of “men” … and at the same time adopted the masculine. The gender whims of the word people come from this old hesitation.

And here, why are we talking about Grandmother and of great aunt and not of grandmother and of great-many ? In old French, grand was gender invariable. We used to say “a big tree”, “a big cottage”. The e in the feminine did not appear until the XVIe century, by mimicry with all those adjectives whose feminine is made by adding an e at the end of the masculine. But, without apparent logic, certain feminine words have kept this old “big” invariable. This is the case with our Grandmother, but also mainsail or the high Street.

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