Gender issues

August 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm 3 comments

How to sort out your masculine and feminine issues

Jack Scholes tells this story:

“I will never forget my very first attempt to speak Portuguese. I walked into the British Council, took a deep breath, and instead omy usual greeting, “Good morning”, I confidently ventured to say, “Bom dia… Eu tenho uma problema”. At this point Circe [the secretary] went straight into English and told me that I didn’t have “uma problema”, I had “um problema”. I felt so frustrated!”

His frustration is understandable, as anyone who’s been speaking Portuguese for a while will know. Nouns are masculine and feminine and their articles and corresponding adjectives have to agree with them. Words ending in -a are usually feminine (think of people’s names: Renata, Maria, Gloria) and words ending in -o or something else are usually masculine (Paulo, Marcelo, Ronaldo). So, for example – uma mesa branca (a white table – f) and um bolo gostoso (a delicious cake – m). But, as ever, there are exceptions.

Jack Scholes goes onto explain:

Words ending in -ema are of greek origin and are masculine (as are most words imported from languages other than latin). This results in something which sounds a bit out of place… Um problema complicado (a complicated problem), o sistema nervoso (the nervous system), os esquemas fraudulentos (those fraudulent schemes).

Ron Martinez also helps with some tips on getting gender right:

Nouns are usually feminine if they end in -ade. For example: a liberdade (the freedom), a cidade (the city), a realidade (the reality)… and if they end in -ção. For example: a informação (the information), a cotaçâo (the rate), a tentaçâo (the temptation)… and if they end in -são. For example: a colisão (the collision), a mansão (the mansion), a tensão (the tension).

Nouns are usually masculine if they end in a consanant. For example, o jornal (the newspaper), o professor (the teacher), o som (the sound)… and if they end in -ão (but not -ção or -são). For example: o irmão (the brother), o campeão (the champion), o pão (the bread).

For info on the books I took those tips from, click the Links & Resources tab above.

Even more irregular gender with Brazilian Portuguese nouns

OK, but in spite of all of the above, there are still irregularities that just have to be learned. For example, times of the day are all back to front. People say “Bom dia” (Good morning), but “Boa tarde” (Good afternoon) and “Boa noite” (Good evening/night). In other words, the adjective “good” changes according to the gender of the time of day. The only thing is, based on the rules it’s the wrong way around. This only struck me as odd recently when I realised that dia is masculine (it ends in -a so why not feminine?) and both tarde and noite are feminine words when you could easily be mistaken for thinking they were masculine.

The number 2

This is also important when you need to say two days or two nights. Annoyingly, the number 2 has to match the things it’s describing (other numbers don’t). Two for masculine things is “dois” and for feminine things “duas”. Many, many times I have immediately given myself away to be a gringo learning Portuguese by getting it wrong. (Frustratingly, my 2 year old son is learning Portuguese and his supple young mind gets it right every time!). So, two days = dois dias NOT duas dias (as I frequently say) and two nights = duas noites NOT dois noites.

Words with 2 genders

And, finally, some words such as “cara” (face) and even “laranja” (orange) have different meanings depending on if they are used in a masculine or feminine way. The main meaning of both comes from the feminine – a cara (the face) and a laranja (the orange). But, switch the gender and you get a new meaning: o cara (the guy/the bloke/the man) and o laranja (a stooge/an intermediary).  In both cases though, the main and obvious meaning is feminine and the idiomatic, informal meaning to describe a type of person is masculinised. Anyone know any more examples?

You can see an example of this in the poster for the film above “Ela é o cara” which is a translation of “She’s the man” not, as you might think, “She’s the face”.


Entry filed under: Gender, Grammar. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , .

Reading the Olympics 2

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gabriel  |  September 6, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    This happens also with the word “cabeça” (which means “head”). Formally, it is a feminine noun (a cabeça), and it simply means “head’, as a part of the human body. Although, if you say “o cabeça”, like a masculine noun, it is a slang for someone who is a mind behind a project or a team. For example: “ele é o cabeça da equipe”, it means “he is the leader or the mentor”.
    There are other cases in which you change the gender, it changes the meaning, but I cant remember much now, since they just pop up in your head when you need (I’m saying that because I’m native brazilian portuguese speaker, so those kind of words just come up when you need).
    There are other ways to change the meaning of words. For example, in some cases (not all cases), if you put adjective first, and noun after, it changes the meaning. A classic example is with the word “cachorro ” (dog): If you say “um cachorro amigo”, you’re saying “a friendly dog”. If you say “um amigo cachorro”, you’re telling about a friend of yours which is not a good person, someone who jeopardizes others, someone who is selfiish etc.

  • 2. maclure  |  September 15, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    Gabriel – thanks for your comments here! They’re really helpful. If you have any more examples and you remember them, please write them here. Thanks.

  • 3. Gender issues 2 « Brazilian Portuguese  |  October 9, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    […] 9, 2008 This post follows on from what I wrote about getting the gender right in […]


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