Does Tagalog Have Gender?

If you've studied a European language, then you've probably spent many an hour trying to separate your le and la or you der, die, and das.

And looking elsewhere in the world, languages have and handle gender in countless ways. Some disregard it altogether whereas others have elaborate systems of gender that even differ between people, animals, and objects!

But where does the Tagalog language fall on that spectrum? Does Tagalog have gender? The Tagalog language doesn't natively have grammatical gender, but it does have words for biological gender/sex. That means all nouns and pronouns are gender-neutral, but there are different words to describe (for example) men, women, and people in general. However, Spanish influence brought some gendered words that have become part of modern Filipino--including the word "Filipino" itself.

There are some subtle distinctions here that might not be intuitive if you speak only English or other Indo-European languages. But don't worry; we'll take a much closer look below.

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Grammatical gender isn't (always) biological gender

The word "gender" itself is related to "genre" and "genus," both of which we use to describe a type or category. These types/categories may describe natural things, such as biological sex, or totally arbitrary things.

In other words, gender doesn't necessarily match or even relate to sex. That's critical to understanding the rest of this article.

For instance, a house in French is grammatically female (la maison). But is a house actually biologically female? No, obviously not, and it doesn't even make sense to ask! That's a great example of totally arbitrary grammatical gender. 

At the same time, a mother in French is grammatically female (la mère) and, obviously, biologically female. That's an example of grammatical gender that directly matches biological gender.

Gender in Tagalog versus English

As you know, English nouns are gender-neutral, but English pronouns are gendered. My house is "it" but my mother is "she."

But in Tagalog, they're all gender-neutral. I use siya, the equivalent of "it," to refer to my house (bahay) as well as to my mother (ina). That's not a matter of political correctness or anything of the sort; the distinction simply doesn't exist.

By the way, you might hear native speakers of Tagalog (or the many other languages without gender) who learned English later occasionally swap "he" and "she" in English. That's because even though they're aware of the difference, it's just not hard-wired in the way that a native language is.

That said, Tagalog does have words for natural/biological gender for people. While my mother is ina, my father is ama. 

But even those are more limited: my wife is my asawa, but I--her husband--am her asawa, too. Likewise, my sisters are my mga kapatid and I--their brother--and their kapatid, as well. If I needed to clarify that my siblings are women, I'd say literally that: mga kapatid na babae (literally, my woman-siblings).

There are also different words for animals' genders. Just a chicken can be a rooster or a hen, so a manok can be a tandang or an inahin. But both take the same Tagalog pronoun whereas we'd use "he" for the rooster and "she" for the hen.

What about Spanish Filipino words?

Tagalog as spoken today uses scores of Spanish words, as well as English ones more recently. (Strictly speaking, pure Tagalog hasn't been widely spoken for ages.)

That raises an interesting question. Since Spanish has grammatical gender, how does that manifest in Spanish loanwords in Tagalog?

The simple answer is: no. Spanish Filipino words still don't have grammatical gender. 

A great example is lamesa, meaning table. As you probably guessed, it comes from the Spanish la mesa ("the table"), but for some reason merged the article la and noun mesa into a single word. The Spanish feminine article is right inside the word itself, yet it's still neutral like every other Tagalog noun. 

(Lamesa and simply mesa are actually interchangeable in Tagalog, so you'll hear both. And both, of course, are non-gendered.)

But the more nuanced (and accurate) answer is: kind of. Lamesa or silya ("chair," from the Spanish la silla) don't have gender, but the word Filipino itself is another Spanish loanword, meaning "from/of/related to (King) Philip." I'd be Filipino if I were from that country, but my wife is Filipina, exactly like in Spanish--gender and all. It's similar with the slang words Pinoy/Pinay, meaning (originally) Filipinos born/living in the USA.

You'll see a little bit of this with Spanish loanwords for professions like doktor/doktora ("doctor"). Still, and to the best of my knowledge, doktor is perfectly usable for everyone. The doctor's sex is natural to their person but not to their profession--if that makes sense--so the gendered professional name is not necessary. If I wanted to insist on a male doctor, I wouldn't rely on doktor to imply it; I'd ask for a lalaking doktor ("man-doctor").

Why always gender for nationality but rarely or never for anything else? That's hard to say, but I suspect it's because the Philippines as a country--i.e., a place that would need a single word for all its people--only came after centuries of Spanish and much later American rule. 

There is no exact Tagalog equivalent of filipino simply because the Philippines as a colony and then country is fairly recent. When indigenous Tagalog vocabulary was still developing, people of the Islas Filipinas didn't yet need a single demonym since the archipelago wasn't yet a single entity. 

And if they did, it might have been formed like the (non-gendered) word tagalog itself: a combination of taga- ("from/native to") and ilog ("river").

Now, I hope, it's a little clearer exactly what grammatical gender is in the first place, and what we mean when we say "Tagalog doesn't have gender."

It's a difficult language for most English speakers to learn from scratch, so the lack of gender is a pleasant surprise! 

Verbs, as it turns out, are another story...

And speaking of learning, I find that Glossika is a great way to approach all the more difficult aspects without drowning in grammar. I wrote a detailed review here, or you can simply head over to their own website.