Chapter 62: Lysistrata and Italian gender issues

Gender is the bane of every American student of Italian, and French, and Spanish, and Portuguese, and especially German. Nouns in these languages are either masculine or feminine. In German, add neuter to other two.

Gender makes no sense to the American language learner. What’s the need for it and why are many seemingly masculine nouns feminine?

In explaining gender to my students, I confront these issues, but my explanation doesn’t make it any better for them. Despite sharing with them some short cuts to learning which nouns are masculine and which are feminine, in the end, they have to memorize the gender marker that accompanies the meaning of each noun.

This morning I saw this post on Facebook that has something to do with the illogic of gender markers. The post states emphatically:

“If women ruled the world, there would be no wars, just a bunch of jealous countries not talking to each other.”

In Italian, most nouns associated with war are feminine! La guerra, la bomba atomica, la fanteria (infantry), la cavalleria (cavalry), la conquista, la vittoria, la sconfitta (defeat), la spada (sword). Even “aircraft carrier” (portaeri) and “battleship” (corazzata) are feminine!

I’ve always told my students how stupid this is because woman are too smart to wage war! And now the Facebook post bears it out.

So where does Lysistrata fit in?

Her name in ancient Attic Greek means “army disbander.” Aristophanes’ play is a comic account of one woman’s extraordinary mission to end the interminable Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during the fourth century BC. Lysistrata unites the women of the Greek city states involved in this cruel war to withhold sex from their warring menfolk. Spartan and Athenian warriors angrily give up glory for nookie.

It’s my “tongue-in-cheek” hypothesis that whoever created gender in Italian (probably men), designated war and other warlike acts as feminine.

Their reasoning?

Revenge: to punish the memory of Lysistrata.


About growingupcalabrese

Professor of French and Italian at San Diego State University
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One Response to Chapter 62: Lysistrata and Italian gender issues

  1. This is so educational, and funny! Thanks for another entertaining blog entry!

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