I'll take spanish for my example, but it's also true for French an Italian.

In order to remember the gender of nouns, they are almost always found with an article. It's often a definite article. I've even heard things like this :

"la rata" is a rat, but "el ratón" is a mouse

It gets in the head of the learner with the article. Why are indefinite articles rarely used? It feels much more natural to say "a cat" than "the cat" if you need too add an article.

My guess is because "la/el" and "le/la" are easier to tell apart than "un/una" and "un/une", but that wouldn't be a good enough reason if I were to teach such a language.

It doesn't even work in every case. For example in French, "l'image" is feminine and "l'étalon" is masculine. You have to say "une image" and "un étalon" to know the gender, it doesn't help at all to add a definite article.

  • Normally to learn Scandinavian languages we usually learn the nouns together with the indefinite one. – OmarL May 2 '17 at 6:38

It's all simple: you cannot put an indefinite article before every noun, but definite articles have no limitations, every noun can have a definite article.

The point is, in most European languages with articles (including English) the indefinite articles developed from the word "one" and in most of those languages it is still identical to the word "one". But "one" being a numeral can combine only with the nouns that name countable things, it cannot be combined with most of the abstract nouns like "friendship" or "eternity" or with names of substances like "sugar" or "blood". Since you need to learn the gender of every noun, the indefinite articles cannot fulfill this task completely, but the definite articles being able to combine with every noun do this job perfectly.

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  • That's a good reason, I didn't think about that. That's only valid Spanish though (and possibly Italian) though, in French, all the words you gave can have an indefinite article, but you wouldn't have one in the English translation. "Du sang" is "blood" (as in "some blood"), "du sucre" is "sugar", "de la farine" is "flour". There shouldn't be any problem and it still feels more natural. (I've also edited my question to add a reason not to use this system, in French at least) Oh and you can very well say "a friendship" and "an eternity", even in English. – Teleporting Goat Apr 28 '17 at 12:57
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    @TeleportingGoat - You're wrong, du and de la in your examples are not indefinite articles, those are partitive articles. And before nouns beginning with a vowel or silent h those articles are the same for both genders: de l'argent (m) and de l'eau (f). – Yellow Sky Apr 28 '17 at 14:34
  • You're right, I didn't know how to call those kind of articles, thank you! I looked it up and it's actually a determiner, technically. That being said, in French you can almost always use indefinite articles for nouns that are uncountable in English : "un sucre", "un sang", "une farine", even "un argent" (there might be counter-examples but the vast majority is covered). They often don't sound as natural as with partitive articles though. – Teleporting Goat Apr 28 '17 at 15:18
  • @YellowSky: definite articles are also the same with elision before vowels or non-aspirated h – ewawe Apr 30 '17 at 23:00

It's an arbitrary convention, pretty well limited to Romance and Germanic languages, and a few in the Balkans, because most of those have definite articles which distinguish gender. Most other languages I can think of, both within and without Indo-European, either do not have definite articles, or the articles do not reliable distinguish gender, so other ways have to be used to learn the gender of nouns.

In most Slavonic languages there are no articles, but the gender of most nouns is apparent from their ending (also true to a lesser degree in Latin). But in many languages (eg Welsh, Hebrew, Amharic) neither the form of the word nor the definite article gives you much help in determining the gender.

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  • I don't think you understood the question. It's about why definite (el/la) and not indefinite (un/una). – Teleporting Goat May 2 '17 at 10:28
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    My point is that it is an arbitrary convention of pedagogy. Given that, I don't think there is much point in speculating as to why this arbitrary convention was chosen rather than that arbitrary convention. – Colin Fine May 2 '17 at 18:26

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