The Christmas holidays took me to the Loire Valley. That’s an area that’s famous for chateaus (châteaux, n.m.pl), 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.
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?
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. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/idiosyncrasy