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Country gender

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I was talking with a Japanese friend today, and she mentioned that she is studying French. She asked me who it was that decided Japan should be a masculine noun in French (as it is in Spanish). Japan wasn't really part of the Spanish or French vocabulary until a few centuries ago, and someone must have made the decision at some point.

Does anyone know why we say el Japón rather than la Japón? Is there some criterion used in making the decision in naming a new country'

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updated JUL 7, 2008
posted by 00bacfba

15 Answers

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For any other trivia-addicts out there, the name La Argentina comes from La Tierra Argentina (The Silvery Land). Wikipedia explains it thus (the errors are not mine):

Quote:
The name Argentina is derived from the Latin argentum (silver), which in turn comes from the Ancient Greek '''''''? (arg'ntos), gen. of ''''''? (arg'eis), "white, shining". '''''''''? (argentinos) was an ancient Greek epithet meaning "silvery". The first use of the name Argentina can be traced back to the first voyages made by the Spanish and Portuguese conquerors to the Río de la Plata, on the first years of 16th Century.

Alejo García, one of the survivors of the shipwrecked expedition mounted by Juan Díaz de Solís at 1516, heard notices about a powerful White King in a country very rich in silver, at the mountains, called "Sierra de Plata". García then organized an expedition and reached Potosi's area, gaining several silver objects and gifts. He was killed by the payaguas, returning to Santa Catarina (Brazil), but the guarani people who where part of the exedition took the silver objects back and spread the Sierra de Plata legend, and explained that it was possible to reach that fabulous land through the wide river located to the south .

Because of this the Portuguese named the river found by Vespucio or Solis Río da Prata ("River of the Silver"). The news about the legendary Sierra del Plata (a mountain rich in silver) reached Portugal and Spain around 1524.

The first mention of the Argentina name was in Martin del Barco Centenera's poem La Argentina, published in Spain in 1602.

Ten years later (1612) Ruy Díaz de Guzmán published the book Historia del descubrimiento, población, y conquista del Río de la Plata ("History of the discovery, population, and conquest of the Río de la Plata"), naming the territory discovered by Solís as Tierra Argentina ("Land of Silver", "Silvery Land").

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Maybe the same official body who decides what letters are in the official spanish alphabet can answer this question? Can't remember of the top of my head what they are called, but will look it up if nobody else here knows.

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by Mz-Badger
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Yes, you're right. I was going from memory, but should have checked it. I remember taking a hydrofoil from Buenos Aires across the Río de la Plata to visit Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, but for some reason I confused this with my trip to Foz do Iguazu in Brazil, which is farther up to the north.

Too many years and too many miles between now and then...

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Good question. I only know that someone told me that Argentina uses an article because it was originally considered an adjective, "The Silvered" or something like that (see, for example, the Río Plato that separates Argentina from Brazil).

But I have also been told that the use of articles with country names is dying out. It is common now to hear Japón instead of el Japón, and Estados Unidos instead of los Estados Unidos.

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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I can't answer this, but I have another question: Why do some countries have a definite article and others not'

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by tad
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Ohhhhh, I have just discoverd this:

birome.

(Acrón. de L. Bíró, 1899-1985, inventor húngaro-argentino, y J. J. Meyne, industrial húngaro y socio del anterior; marca reg.).

  1. f. Arg., Par. y Ur. bolígrafo.
updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00494d19
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birome'? Never heard this.

It's a Southern Cone thing.

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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birome'? Never heard this. Sorry, I have just seen that this word was actually suggested...hmm, strange.

We use:

boli

bolígrafo

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00494d19
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Yo sé que eso no trata de la pregunta original pero, se puede usar la palabra bolígrafo en lugar de birome'

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by Eddy
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Yes, birome is the Spanish word, but biro will not be understood by most Americans. BTW, I understand that birome can mean either a ballpoint pen or a mechanical pencil, and it seems strange to me to conflate two such different devices.

Thanks for your reply to my original question. You may be right that it is just random social forces that decide the gender of a country. However, since 1990, 33 new countries have been formed (although many of those already had established names), and I would assume that someone has to decide the gender of them before the public has time to agree on anything.

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Bumping up this thread in hope that someone may have an answer...

updated JUL 8, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Eddy, you made me look up the word biro, which I had never heard (thereby undermining my assertion in another thread that UK and US residents usually are familiar with each other's terms). Over here we call it a ballpoint pen. Seems that Bíró was an Argentine, so maybe he assigned the gender himself. In any case it only makes sense for it to be masculine, since it is a noun that ends in O.

I agree that some group must decide these things, but I'm more interested to know what criteria are used for such decisions. What makes one country feminine and another masculine'

updated JUL 7, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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There must be some national language body which will decide this. What about the invention of the biro by lászló bíró. Someboby and I mean a group must have decided that it is going to be masculine.

updated JUL 7, 2008
posted by Eddy
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But there are plenty of foreign country names that are feminine in Spanish, so that doesn't apply here.

updated JUL 7, 2008
posted by 00bacfba
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Well I am no expert but I had learned that words imported from other languages are normally masculine. For example 'el map' and 'el programa' were originally greek words(I believe') and when they were added to the spanish language they were made masculine words even though it would seem more logical to be femine. So I don't know exactly why it is that way but it is a definate pattern that the new words form other languages are masculine. But don't count on me thats just what my high school treacher taught me.

updated JUL 7, 2008
posted by Nate
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