The Gender of Water: El Agua y Las Aguas


Every Spanish learner has been told over and over to always pay attention to the gender of nouns. Normally Spanish courses make things easier and list the definite article (el for masculine, la for feminine) with new nouns. For example you might see:

la mesa (table)
el plato (plate)

But how do I know gender if the article isn’t listed?

Remember that the gender of inanimate nouns has nothing to do with biological gender. Instead, it’s a strictly grammatical category, often related to the ending of a noun. The ending –o is usually masculine (el plato), and the ending –a is usually feminine (la mesa). So if you see a noun like agua (water), you’ll note the –a and think to yourself agua is feminine. And you’d be right. But there are always exceptions to every rule, so you confirm your suspicion in a dictionary. You see the entry «f. agua». Perfect, agua is feminine.

Hold on a minute…

But then you go home and hear your Spanish roommate say:

El agua está fría.
The water is cold.

For crying out loud, why is he using el instead of la if agua is feminine?

Here comes phonology

All languages have rules related to how sounds come out of a speaker’s mouth. Speakers probably aren’t even aware of them. Say it’s raining cats and dogs and pay careful attention to how the plural /s/ comes out. In cats it’s [s] and in dogs it’s [z]. We won’t get into the linguistic details here, but it’s phonology. You’ve probably never stopped to think about how /s/ is pronounced in English plurals, but you’ve got Phonology in your head determining what’s going to happen in your mouth.

It’s exactly the same thing with el agua.  Spanish Phonology hears la agua and says “hang on, I don’t like the sound of la right before a stressed a. I’m going to change something.” That’s why your Spanish roommate (and the phonological rules in his head) changed la to el. El agua sounds smoother and less choppy than la agua.

Does that mean that agua suddenly became masculine? Nope. Remember el agua está fría? Fría (and not frío) shows it’s still feminine. It’s just that la is being pronounced as el.

It’s not just the water

Whenever you have a stressed a- at the beginning of a feminine noun, la changes to el, even though the noun itself is still feminine. (This goes for ha- as well, since h is silent!)

El acta está escrita.
The act is written.

El águila es blanca. 
The eagle is white.

El ala es pequeña.
The wind is also white.

El alma es eterna.
The soul is eternal. 

El arma está lista.
The weapon is ready.

El área está limpia.
The area is clean.

El aula está llena.
The classroom is full.

El hacha es filosa.
The ax is sharp.

El hada es buena.
The fairy is good.

El hambre es mala.
The hunger is bad.

The More the Merrier

No need to panic. When it comes to plurals, everything goes back to normal with these feminine nouns. Las ends in -s, so the trigger of -a before stressed a- is gone, and Phonology lets it pass.

Las actas están escritas.
The acts are written.

Las águilas son blancas. 
The eagles are white.

Las alas son pequeñas.
The winds are small.

Las almas son eternas.
The souls are eternal. 

Las armas están listas.
The weapons are ready.

Las áreas están limpias.
The areas are clean.

Las aulas están llenas.
The classrooms are full.

Las hachas son filosas.
The axes are sharp.

Las hadas son buenas.
The fairies are good.

Try it yourself

Here are a few more feminine nouns with a stressed a- sound at the beginning. Since practice makes perfect, try to make sentences with them. First singular, then plural: alga (seaweed), ancla (anchor), ansia (craving), arpa (harp), asma (asthma), asta (flagpole), haba (bean or broad bean), habla (speech). And here’s one you might not even know in English: ágora (agora, a public open space as in Ancient Greece). See, learning a new language really does make your smarter!
Image: Pixabay

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