Like many other types of nouns, nouns referring to animals often have both male and female versions, and sometimes even separate names for each gender. Many of them, however, are exclusively masculine or feminine, as we'll see in this lesson.
Nouns referring to animals work in a comparable way to those referring to people. The most common way to feminize a noun is to add an -e at the end, and, in many cases, double the final consonant, as in un chien/une chienne (a male dog/a female dog). Note that whenever you double a final consonant, the normally silent consonant (like the -n in chien) becomes pronounced, as you can hear in the example below:
Certains noms masculins vont doubler leur consonne finale. Un chien donne... -une chienne, deux "n", "e". Et un chat donne une chatte, deux "t", "e".
Some masculine nouns will double their final consonant. "Un chien" [dog] gives... -"une chienne," two "n's," "e." And "un chat" [a cat] gives "une chatte," two "t's," "e."
Captions 25-27, Manon et Simon - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
On a side note, you may want to exercise caution when using the words chatte and chienne, as they can both be offensive terms referring to women.
Here is another example of a noun that changes spelling and pronunciation in the feminine form. The word for "lion" follows the same pattern as chien/chienne:
Tu as vu? Le papa lion et la maman lionne se suivent partout.
Did you see? The dad lion and the mom lioness follow each other everywhere.
Caption 23, Les zooriginaux - Léa jacta est - Part 1Play Caption
On the other hand, some animal nouns ending in -n don’t double their final consonant in the feminine, as in un lapin/une lapine (male/female rabbit), but the change in pronunciation still applies. Pay attention to the nasal -in sound in this fairy tale video:
Il y attrapa un beau lapin gras et le mit dans sa bourse.
He caught a nice fat rabbit there and put it in his purse.
Caption 25, Contes de fées - Le chat botté - Part 1Play Caption
Likewise, un renard (a fox), with a silent d, doesn’t have a double consonant in the feminine, but the d will be pronounced: une renarde.
Le renard femelle adulte s’appelle la renarde.
An adult female fox is called a vixen.
Sometimes, in addition to the -e ending, there are some unexpected spelling changes in the feminine, as in un loup/une louve (male/female wolf):
Par exemple, un loup donne... -une louve.
For example, "un loup" [a male wolf] gives... -"une louve" [a female wolf].
Caption 53, Manon et Simon - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
As in un prince (a prince) and une princesse (a princess), some animal nouns take the suffix -esse in the feminine:
Un âne? -Une ânesse. -Bien!
"Un âne" [a donkey]? -"Une ânesse" [a jenny]. -Good!
Caption 41, Manon et Simon - Le masculin et le fémininPlay Caption
In short, there are diverse ways to feminize an animal noun. However, many animals have separate names for male and female specimens, as in English. For example: une vache/un taureau (a cow/a bull).
Et là on voit déjà si c'est une vache ou des taureaux [sic: un taureau]? -Là, c'est une femelle.
And can we already tell here if it's a cow or a bull? -Here, it's a female.
Caption 43, Lionel à la fermePlay Caption
Male and female animal names can be quite specialized and hard to remember. If you don’t know the special name for a female animal, you can do what Automne does in the video below and refer to her as, for example, la maman cochon (the mommy pig) or le cochon femelle (the female pig) instead of the more technical term la truie (the sow). (The term cochonne actually exists, but usually it means something entirely different! It’s a way of insulting a sloppy human, or "a pig"—une cochonne for females and un cochon for males.)
Y a même le bébé de la maman cochon.
There's even the mommy pig's baby.
Caption 56, Lionel et Automne - PlaymobilPlay Caption
Fortunately, there is no need to be technical in everyday situations. If gender is not important or unknown, we tend to use the generic masculine, like the couple does in the video below:
Premièrement, le chat met des poils partout.
First, the cat sheds fur everywhere.
Caption 8, Marie & Jeremy - Le chatPlay Caption
In fact, most nouns referring to animals don’t have feminine and masculine versions—they only come in one gender, assigned arbitrarily regardless of the sex of the animal. In this case, you will need to memorize the gender of the animal along with its name as there is no logic or way of guessing.
For example, some insects, like une mouche (a fly), are always feminine. Some rodents are feminine, as in une souris (a mouse), while others are masculine, as in un écureuil (a squirrel). Some snakes are masculine, as in un serpent (a snake), or feminine, as in une vipère (a viper). Some birds are feminine, as in une hirondelle (a swallow), and some are masculine, as in un perroquet (a parrot).
In the video below, apart from le lion, all the names of the endangered species—la panthère (panther), la girafe (giraffe), l'autruche (ostrich), and l'hyène (hyena)—are feminine in gender, but don't necessarily refer to individual females:
Certaines espèces ont quasiment disparu, telles que la panthère, autruche, hyène, girafe et lion.
Some species have almost disappeared, such as the panther, ostrich, hyena, giraffe, and lion.
Captions 27-30, Nader Fakhry - À la recherche des derniers éléphants - Part 1Play Caption
As these nouns only have one grammatical gender, you will need to specify the sex of the animal with the term mâle (male) or femelle (female). In the documentary below, the speaker refers to une panthère femelle (a female panther):
Malgré la présence d'une panthère femelle juste à côté...
Despite the presence of a female panther right next door...
Caption 20, Le Journal - Espèces en voie de disparitionPlay Caption
There you have it! We’ve explored some of the grammatical quirks and intricacies of the animal kingdom. Remember that not all animal names have a masculine and feminine counterpart, but only a single grammatical gender just like nouns referring to objects, which will be the topic of our next lesson. So stay tuned!