Châteaux forts: How do French children learn vocabulary?

How do you learn vocabulary in a language with gender if the gender is not marked?

The Christmas holidays took me to the Loire Valley.  That’s an area that’s famous for chateaus (châteaux,, and that meant new vocabulary–Zipf’s Law and all that…

…which brings me to a mystery: how are French kids supposed to learn new words correctly when the graphics, diagrams, and the like from which they learn them don’t include the genders of the words?  In this post I’ve included four pictures showing terminology related to châteux forts–what we call “castles” in English.  Notice that in only one of the four is the gender of the words marked, and even in that diagram the gender is marked only inconsistently–gender is given here by the form of the definite article, and for terms that are given in the plural (les douves, the moats; les créneaux, crenellations; and les remparts, ramparts), you can’t tell the gender from the definite article.



Chateau fort de coucy


Source: (great page, BTW)





This is not just an idiosyncracy of medieval vocabulary for castles–it’s a very general phenomenon in French-language educational materials.  For example, here’s a diagram of a representative insect from Le grand livre marabout de la nature, edited by Fanny Delahaye:


…a representative bird from the 2004 version of Le petit Larousse compact:

…and one from the 3rd edition of Pierre Kamina’s Petit atlas d’anatomie:

…a non-representative sample chosen by scanning my bookshelf for educational materials with diagrams in them.

How about it, native speakers?  (Phil d’Ange, I’m lookin’ at you…)  How does a French student learn vocabulary without having the gender of the terms listed on diagrams that are intended to teach them?  Concretely: you’re a kid.  You’ve got a diagram like the ones shown on this page, and you need to learn the terms thereon.  How do you do so, given that the gender is not labelled?

English vocabulary

Idiosyncracy: From Merriam-Webster: a peculiarity of constitution or temperament; an individualizing characteristic or quality .  First known use: 1604.  Other words first observed in that year: appreciation, black eye, blotch, and chinchilla.


4 thoughts on “Châteaux forts: How do French children learn vocabulary?”

  1. For a big part, specialized terms exist at least partly in the ordinary world . “Salle d’arme”(une salle), “chemise du donjon” (une chemise), “chemin de ronde” (un chemin),” tour d’angle”(une tour), “pont-levis” ( un pont), “meurtrière” (feminine form of meutrier), not forgetting the funny “corbeau” . This is useful for castles, animal parts and every field .
    Other words have an obvious gender considering their ending, words like “tourelle”, clearly feminine or “créneau”, clearly masculine . This is often used by any cjild, including myself .
    Another trick is extending what we once learnt : when we remember that “radius” is ” le radius”, we easily bet that cubitus and humérus will be “le” too .

    When these tactics fail, sometimes we shamefully have to behave like the last ignorant Anglophone, we bring ourselves to ask (but of course we do this stealthily, preferably by anonymous letter) .

    Liked by 1 person

  2. OK, so, if I can summarize:

    1) Exploit the fact that some terminology is “compound” or compositional–salle d’arme, chemise du donjon
    2) Make analogies to words with the same endings
    3) If (1) and (2) don’t help: ask

    Could I add that to the post?


      1. I forgot : there is a game I liked to play, particularly during endless trips in public buses or trains of the Third-World, finding as many as possible French words that have two genders to mean two different things, the rule being both meanings must be unrelated and the spelling be the same . Eg. un page/une page . There are a few that are immediate and well known among us, but in a journey in India I remember I reached the incredible total of 30 ! (I spent days in many train trips …)

        Liked by 2 people

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