OK, that may be too apocalyptic a question, but I’m astonished by the results of a study conducted by Dalila Ayoun of the University of Arizona and reported on by Heidi Harley at Language Log: “Fifty-six native French speakers, asked to assign the gender of 93 masculine words, uniformly agreed on only 17 of them. Asked to assign the gender of 50 feminine words, they uniformly agreed [on] only 1 of them. Some of the words had been anecdotally identified as tricky cases, but others were plain old common nouns.”
There’s an even more interesting twist in Ayoun’s native-speaker results. Her 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 she 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!!)
Heidi reproduces one of Ayoun’s tables “illustrating significant differences in the rates at which adults and teenagers agreed on the gender of 10 feminine nouns”; it’s well worth the look. I wouldn’t have known that primeur ‘early fruits and vegetables’ (often used metaphorically: avoir la primeur d’une nouvelle ‘to be the first to hear a piece of news’) was feminine without looking it up, but that only one of the French teenagers did is amazing. Mme Ruegg (my high school French teacher) would be wielding her ruler vigorously and/or emptying the bottle of booze she kept in the bottom drawer of her file cabinet.