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French Language Studies 16 (2006), 69–92, C Cambridge University Press doi:10.1017/S0959269506002304

Predictability in French gender attribution: A corpus analysis1
McGill University (Received October 2004; revised November 2005)

ab st rac t
This article presents a corpus analysis designed to determine the extent to which noun endings in French are reliable predictors ofgrammatical gender. A corpus of 9,961 nouns appearing in Le Robert Junior Illustr´ was analysed according to e noun endings, which were operationalised as orthographic representations of rhymes, which consist of either a vowel sound (i.e., a nucleus) in the case of vocalic endings or a vowel-plus-consonant blend (i.e., a nucleus and a coda) in the case of consonantal endings. The analysis classifiednoun endings as reliably masculine, reliably feminine, or ambiguous, by considering as reliable predictors of grammatical gender any noun ending that predicts the gender of least 90 per cent of all nouns in the corpus with that ending. Results reveal that 81 per cent of all feminine nouns and 80 per cent of all masculine nouns in the corpus are rule governed, having endings that systematicallypredict their gender. These findings, at odds with traditional grammars, are discussed in terms of their pedagogical implications.

1 i nt roduc t i on
More than thirty-five years ago, Tucker, Lambert, Rigault and Segalowitz (1968: 316) wrote that ‘French grammarians have been hasty in their conclusion that there are no regularities or only minimal ones to gender determination’. Years later, however,French grammarians continue to uphold the unsystematic nature of gender attribution. For example, B´ rard and Lavenne (1991: 18) write that ‘criteria e based on word endings (e.g., vowel vs consonant) will be of no use for knowing


This research was supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (nos. 410-98-0175 and 410-2002-0988). A version of thisstudy was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics in Portland, Oregon, on May 3, 2004. I gratefully acknowledge Susan Ballinger and Michel Gagnon for their contributions as Research Assistants, and Walcir Cardoso, Murray Munro, Hubert S´ guin and JFLS reviewers for helpful comments on earlier e versions. Correspondence concerning this article should beemailed to the author at


Roy Lyster
whether a word is masculine or feminine’.2 Similarly, Jacob and Laurin (1994: 145) report that ‘the gender of a noun referring to an inanimate object follows no strict rule’3 and Bosquart (1998: 112) advises that ‘no rule actually governs the gender of names of things or concepts’.4 Learners of French as a second or foreignlanguage (L2) are thus faced with the challenge of sorting out what is claimed to be an arbitrary subsystem of French grammar, left to their own devices to learn gender attribution of inanimate nouns on an item-by-item basis. Contrary to assertions about the arbitrary nature of grammatical gender, Tucker, Lambert and Rigault (1977) reported that grammatical gender entails a highly rulegoverned subsystem,in which ‘distinctive characteristics of a noun’s ending and its grammatical gender are systematically related’ (Tucker et al., 1977: 64). Their report and others (Tucker, 1967; Rigault, 1971) resulted from lexicographical analyses of 26,725 nouns in the Petit Larousse made possible by Quemada’s (1971) inverse dictionary listing all 31,619 nouns in the Petit Larousse congregated by written endingand separated according to gender. Motivated by questions left unanswered by analyses of Quemada’s Petit Larousse corpus, the present study analyses a smaller corpus, namely, Le Robert Junior Illustr´ e (1994, 1999), a 20,000-word dictionary designed for 8–12-year-old children and henceforth referred to as RJ. Specifically, the present study aims to determine the overall reliability of noun...
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