On Gender in Nouns

By djmeyers, in 'Grammar Tips And Examples', Jul 16, 2006.

  1. djmeyers New Member

    So quick question: do nouns themselves have fem, masc, or neuter properties, or is it always decided by how it's being used? (i.e. if your describing a guy you use masculine form, a girl, feminime form? The source I am using to learn latin assumes the reader knows these things.)
  2. Iynx Consularis

    • Consularis
    Each Latin noun does indeed have a particular intrinsic gender, which needs to be learnt when the noun is learnt (although with a very little experience it can usually be guessed correctly).

    A Latin adjective, in contrast, as a rule alters its gender to agree with that of the noun or pronoun modified by the adjective. So a masculine noun takes a masculine adjective.

    In Latin grammatical gender is less closely tied to biological gender than it is in English. It is true that for the most part Latin nouns denoting male persons and animals are masculine, while those denoting female persons and animals are usually feminine. But nouns denoting things with no biologic gender may in Latin be masculine, feminine or neuter. Femina (woman), for example, is feminine, while vir (man) is masculine, but ager (field) is also masculine, urbs (city) is feminine, and mare (sea) is neuter.

    A few Latin nouns may be masculine or feminine, depending on the biological gender of the person or animal denoted. Examples are accola (neighbor) and pavo (peafowl). Such nouns may be listed in dictionaries as m or f, or as c (for common). I prefer to use the former for words for which there is uncertainty about the proper gender (see further a little below), and "c" for words like pavo and accola. These latter may be called epicene, or in Latin [verba] utriqui generi communia, that is , words common to the two genders. I usually just say communis (with whatever ending is called for) or common. In Latin as in English we may if we wish specify biological gender by adjectivally modifying a noun of common gender. Pavo mas or pavo masculinus means male peafowl, that is peacock, while pavo feminina means female peafowl, that is peahen.

    Some Latin nouns exist in two closely related forms, one masculine and one feminine. Equus, for example, means horse, either a stallion or a horse of unspecified sex while equa means mare. Magister is a male master or teacher, while magistra is the feminine equivalent. Textor is a weaver if male or of unspecified sex, while textrix is a female weaver. Such pairs are sometimes called substantiva mobilia-- a term which I dislike.

    A great many nouns denoting persons which are traditionally masculine, and a few which are traditionally feminine, are perhaps better today regarded as common. Nauta, sailor, for instance, is traditionally masculine; but if the sailor in question were female, one might well treat the word as feminine” in other words, I think that nauta has become common with the changing times.

    A fair number of Latin nouns may be said to be of uncertain gender. They have historically been regarded as of two different genders, by different respected authors, or even by the same author at different times. Such words are said to be heterogeneous. They constitute one example of redundant nouns, in that they possess one (or even two) genders more than necessary.

    It is also common for a Latin word to exist in two forms, of differing gender (even where biological gender is not a factor). The usual word for turnip (for example) is rapa, -ae (f), but rapum, -i (n) is also attested from antiquity. These are examples of what I call "collateral forms".

    And a few words have different genders depending on the sense. Malus, -i (f), for example, means fruit tree, but malus, -i (m) means beam or mast.

    There are still other areas of uncertainty about gender in Latin. To cite just one example: my signum computatorium is a feminine noun, but I am in fact biologically male. If I use an adjective to refer to me it should be masculine, but if I am referring to Iynx it should in form be feminine. Where does the boundary lie?

    The Latin word for gender is genus. The ususal word for masculine (as a grammatical term) is masculinus, for feminine femininus, and for neuter neuter. (All these Latin words have other, non-grammatical senses as well, as does communis, used a little above).

    I am trying, djmeyers, to pull this all together, and explain it more clearly, more tersely, and more thoroughly than it was ever explained to me. But I don't really know my audience. Am I making myself clear?
    Last edited by Cinefactus, Dec 15, 2016
    Abbatiſſæ Scriptor and ajp120 like this.
  3. djmeyers New Member

    Very clear, and extremely helpful. That filled in a large gap my source neglected to mention. Still sounds like its gonna be a handful to learn, but at least now I know how to start.
  4. Alphege New Member

    Very interesting. I would say more at this forum, but I am new to Latin.
  5. Cinefactus Censor

    • Censor
    litore aureo
    My personal feeling is that gender is a mistranslation of genus. It would save a lot of confusion, if we used another translation such as kind, or class.
  6. The Kenosha Kid Active Member

    The Zone
    This doesn't exactly address your question, but it's generally agreed that the whole principle of grammatical gender within Indo-European language is a later development of what was originally a distinction between animate and inanimate words. This is the reason why, for example, Latin masculine/neuter o-stems (e.g. equus/templum) look so similar; the idea is that neuter words, originally belonging to the 'inanimate' class, are merely extensions of the accusative morphology of the masculine (originally 'animate') ones. That is, it makes sense for us to write: 'The horse runs/jumps/swims/sees, etc.' but not 'The temple runs/jumps/swims/sees, etc.' And so, the neuter nominative ending '-um' is, historically speaking, really just the accusative singular ending of masculine (< 'animate') nouns.

    Sorry if that was confusing/not helpful; I just think it helps one to understand that there isn't anything 'inherently masculine' about a 'snake', for example, whether or not it be grammatically masculine in the daughter languages (and it very often is).
    Callaina likes this.
  7. The Kenosha Kid Active Member

    The Zone
    Good grief. May old Bog have mercy on thee, brother.
  8. Abbatiſſæ Scriptor Senex

    • Civis Illustris
    [quote="Iynx, post: 3457, member: 260"
    A Latin adjective, in contrast, as a rule alters its gender to agree with that of the noun or pronoun modified by the adjective.

    Gender only comes into play when adjectives or pronouns are uſed, which might help us diſcern ſomething about the original purpoſe of gender, but it remains a myſtery. :confused:
  9. lepus Member

    English is no better. "The horse escaped from its stall" - is this to say that that particular horse was neither male nor female? Surely some animals happen to be hermaphrodite, and many species are sexless, but there's nothing like a "common" or "unspecified" gender in biology. I dare to say that there are no ties between the grammatical and biological concepts of gender. That is, nothing that would make the biological category useful in grammatical or syntactical analysis, and vice versa.

    English is a genderless language. In your post, for example, there are no sentences or phrases to which the category applies. In Latin, you would have to take a decision at every noun phrase, beginning with "Nomen omne Latinum..." - not "omnis", "Latinus" or "Latina". In fact, even within the context of grammar we define gender for nouns and adjectives differently - as an immutable property for the former, as a "dimension" of the declension pattern for the latter. Perhaps it is not easily noticeable in the Latin language, but in my native Polish adjectives are masculine, feminine or neuter only in singular, matching the gender of the corresponding noun. In plural, they decline for two genders only, none of them matching masculine nouns as such. They are called, respectively, "masculine personal" (applying only to male persons), and "not masculine personal" that corresponds to feminine, neuter, inanimate and impersonal animate nouns. Can we still consider that a "gender agreement"? To complicate things further, the declension paradigms for masculine nouns make a slight difference in the adjective case whether a noun is animate - denoting a human or animal being, doesn't matter - or inanimate. Therefore, in order to distribute all possible forms of the Polish adjective into as few unequivocal declension paradigms as possible, some modern grammars list five genders: masculine personal, masculine animate, masculine inanimate, feminine, and neuter.

    The question why certain languages assign gender to genderless objects (in biological terms), and why they do it so differently, is fascinating, but it goes far beyond grammar.
    The Kenosha Kid likes this.

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