If you have ever studied French, Spanish, or German, you’ve learned about a tricky linguistic nuance that makes learning these languages difficult: noun gendering. In these languages, each noun has an assigned grammatical gender.
In Spanish, for example, a mug is feminine. But the coffee you would pour into the mug is masculine, while the milk and sugar you’d mix into your coffee are feminine. To show the gender of these words, you must use the article that corresponds with the gender of the noun, el (masculine) or la (feminine). In French, the articles are le (masculine) and la (feminine).
As new nouns are added into a language, governing organizations of the language review linguistic precedent to determine which grammatical gender to assign to each noun. These linguistic academies do not exist for the English language, but many other languages attempt linguistic regulation through these organizations.
Coronavirus vs. COVID-19
The Academie Francaise, or the French Academy, is the official governing body of the French language. They rule on French usage, vocabulary, and grammar. Their members call themselves ‘the immortals,’ and once elected, their appointments are for life. This collection of French intellectuals, clergymen, and politicians come together to keep the French language pure. Recently, they ruled on language surrounding the coronavirus. They determined that the term COVID-19 is feminine. The academy posted the following explanation on their website:
“COVID is the acronym for coronavirus disease and acronyms have the genus of the name that forms the core of the phrase of which they are an abbreviation.”
In layman’s terms: COVID is an acronym, where ‘CO’ stands for ‘corona,’ ‘VI’ for ‘virus,’ and ‘D’ stands for disease. In French, the core word of the acronym is the word used to determine grammatical gender. The core word in COVID is disease. The word disease translates into the French feminine noun maladie. Since maladie, the core word, is feminine, the entire acronym is designated grammatically feminine, hence la COVID-19.
The Royal Spanish Academy is the official governing body for the Spanish Language. Their mission is to promote linguistic unity amongst Spanish speaking countries and territories. When determining the grammatical gender of COVID-19 in Spanish, the Royal Spanish Academy used the same rationale. The Spanish word for disease, enfermedad, is feminine, and therefore makes COVID-19 grammatically feminine.
However, there is a confusing caveat. The Royal Spanish Academy and the French Academy say that when ruling on the grammatical gender of the word Coronavirus, they relied on grammatical precedents from other viral illnesses like SARS, Ebola, and Zika. Those viral illnesses were determined masculine because the word virus is grammatically masculine in both languages. Therefore, the term ‘Coronavirus’ should be grammatically masculine in Spanish and French.
Imperfect in practice
It is unclear if this attempt to regulate grammatical gender has worked. The World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control are the two of the leading world health authorities on information and resources related to COVID 19. Both organizations gender COVID-19 incorrectly on the many of their Spanish resources. In French, resources mostly refer to ‘la COVID 19’ using the correct gender, but some resources refer to the virus as masculine.
In other words, linguists have prescribed the intended best practices for grammar surrounding COVID-19, but like many forms of grammar, the descriptive – or real-life usage – doesn’t always match. This is all part of a bigger argument about linguistic purism and the practice of gendering in language. But as we’ve stated in the past, grammars, like government systems, are complex, evolutionary beings whose laws are always in flux. As the world changes – as it has done significantly through this pandemic – we re-define the ways that we speak to express ever more complex concepts and ideas.
Nicole Tavarez writes about the relationship between language and healthcare. She works at ALTA as a Language Access Advisor, collaborating with healthcare organizations to improve language access for patients that are Limited English Proficient.