This is lesson 1 in Crashed Culture’s Spanish Grammar series.
Nouns in Spanish
The nouns in Spanish will generally be the first lesson you face in Spanish grammar. Gendered nouns are a completely new concept for native English speakers, but if you end up learning some of the other Romance languages, at least you’ll already be used to it.
Aside from the fact that you’re not used to assigning genders to nouns, it’s honestly not difficult. Just a little bit of training your brain to match words with their genders; that way, learning to conjugate your adjectives will be a breeze.
That being said, let’s talk about definite articles in Spanish, indefinite articles in Spanish, and how to know whether a Spanish word is masculine or feminine. Once you get a hang of it, let yourself practice a little bit until it doesn’t take a second thought. Then you’re ready for the next step: making nouns plural.
Definite articles in Spanish
Let’s jump right in, shall we? So, in Spanish, there are two genders: masculine and feminine. Every single noun in the language is either masculine or feminine, and it’s your job to remember which is which.
Usually the ending of the word itself will tell you…usually. But for right now, let’s stick to the obvious ones. There is one simple pattern I want you to be thinking about it, and it’s your basic, average, run-of-the-mill noun (we’ll get into rule-breakers later).
What does el mean in Spanish?
I’ll start with definite articles in Spanish. When you see “el” in Spanish (not él, that’s a different thing), it means your noun is masculine. So, all of the following nouns are masculine:
El chico (the boy)
El miedo (the fear)
El libro (the book)
Notice that all of those nouns not only start with el, but they also end with o. That ending is another piece of the pattern – nouns that end in o are generally masculine.
What does la mean in Spanish?
So, feminines. Feminine nouns start with la in Spanish, and follow the same kind of idea, except with the letter a. In Spanish, the letter ‘a’ will (almost) always mean your noun is feminine:
La señora (the woman)
La mesa (the table)
La bicicleta (the bicycle)
Easy, right? Totally simple, low maintenance concept. Exceeeeept there are rule-breakers. Worry not, you don’t need to think about that just yet. Let’s stick to step one, and once we’re done here, we’ll continue on to step two.
Indefinite articles in Spanish
So far, we’ve talked about definite articles in Spanish. Next, we’ll talk about indefinite articles. These are easy for us because it’s the exact same thing in English. In those examples, el and la both mean the. We’re talking about one individual bicycle or book in particular.
In English, what do we use to talk about a non-specific noun? We use a (or an, but we don’t have to worry about that in Spanish). It’s the same concept here, and, just like our definite articles (el/la), our indefinite articles (un/una) reflect the gender of our nouns. Continuing with the words we already have, we can say:
Un chico (a boy)
Un libro (a book)
Una mesa (a table)
Una bicicleta (a bicycle)
As you can see, we use that same pattern for indefinite articles – we just use a different kind of article. We acknowledge the gender of the noun in the same way and everything. Again, easy peasy.
Masculine and feminine Spanish
That’s it! That’s your first lesson in Spanish grammar: recognizing the gender of your nouns and the difference between definite and indefinite articles. To summarize:
- Indefinite articles are like ‘a/an’ in English
- Definite articles are like ‘the’ in English
- Feminine nouns use una (indefinite), la (definite), and end in a
- Masculine nouns use un (indefinite), el (definite), and end in o
Tip: while you’re learning your vocab, learn nouns with their articles. It’ll be much easier to remember their genders when you’re learning it right off the bat, I promise!
Ready to move on?
Check out the next lesson: conjugating regular verbs
Do Spanish endings promote sexism?
If you’re looking at this lesson and thinking “hey man, we live in a world where people switch genders – does that mean the entire Spanish language should be changed to reflect that? Something-something sexism?”, then you, my dear reader, are ahead of the game.
As it turns out, Spaniards are currently having conversations about that very topic. Sexism has been a public issue for decades, and some Spanish speakers are wondering if their very language is helping to keep sexist stereotypes alive.
The debate goes all the way down to the Spanish Constitution, which could be interpreted as just for males (this makes more sense when you understand how plurals work in Spanish). Basically, if you have ten women in a group, and only one man, the group is acknowledged as masculine. Check out the article linked a couple of sentences up, and you’ll see why this might be unfair for Spaniards.
And you didn’t think language had any influence on culture!