A study by the University of Arizona has reported surprising results when testing native French speakers on the gender of nouns. Across the board, the French speakers showed less agreement about gender than expected, but this was particularly true of younger subjects — this suggests that gender is becoming more flexible (the young subjects did not test lower on other aspects of language). Heidi Harley at Language Log summarizes:
Native speakers fell into two groups: 14 adult speakers and 42 teenage speakers. On most grammatical tasks, for all intents and purposes, teenagers’ native-language abilities are identical to adults’ abilities. But when [the researcher] broke down the gender-assignment task results by age, she found that teenagers showed considerably more variation than the adults. On the 50 feminine nouns, for example, the 14 adults all agreed on 21 of them, while the 42 teenagers agreed on only one: cible, ‘target’. Of the 93 masculine nouns, the adults agreed on 51 of them, while all adults and teenagers agreed on only 17 (of 93!!)
Near where I lived near Guatemala City was a deep ravine. Residents of this area called it a barranco (masculine). Only much later did I learn that barranca (feminine) is more common.
English speakers, for whom learning noun gender is difficult, can take some consolation in the results of this study.
via Language Hat