3 Vote

I was wondering how spanish nouns became to be considered either masculine or feminine. Is it just random, or was their some rationale to each determination or some thoght process or criteria applied. Why is a hand female, even when its attached to a man?. Or why is the spanish day born a healthy boy, only to become a woman by evening. Any ideas?

6 Answers

4 Vote

Spanish substantives are not really "considered either masculine or feminine" as you seem to suggest. "Why is a hand female, even when its attached to a man?": a hand is not female as such, even if it is "la mano" in Spanish. There are two genders in Spanish, in French, in Italian for example; three in Latin, Greek, Russian (masculine, feminine, neuter), but these are grammatical genders only, and have generally nothing to do with sex, so that your sentence "why is the spanish day born a healthy boy, only to become a woman by evening" makes very little sense indeed. That is, there is no notion of boy versus girl, man versus woman, or male versus female in hand, day, or evening. Gender is just a grammatical feature like any other grammatical feature. As for Spanish in particular, it comes from Latin and derives its grammatical system from Latin, so that generally speaking, if any particular noun is masculine in Latin, it is generally masculine in Spanish (I insist on "generally", because this system is not 100% waterproof). For example, día comes from Latin dies, genitive diei, a masculine noun of the fifth declension. Mano comes from Latin manus, manus, a feminine noun of the fourth declension. As for evening, la tarde in Spanish, I don't remember its etymology right now, but you have to understand that it has nothing to do with day/dies/día, even if it expresses a part of the day, i.e. it's just another word according to etymology, so that it does not transform itself from "boy" to "woman" just by magic!

This being said, there is a direct relation between grammatical genders and the "idea of masculine/feminine" if we consider animals. For example el perro/la perra (dog/****), el gato/la gata (tomcat/she-cat), etc.. where the grammatical gender corresponds to the "real" gender/the sex of the animal: el perro designates a male whereas la perra designates a female.

I am aware that I haven't explained to you why dies is masculine in Latin and why manus is feminine. Obviously people were not born one day speaking Latin and only Latin - or any other language for that matter - so that Latin is also the result of an etymological process that lasted for centuries.

  • "Foolproof". "Waterproof" literally has to do with water. - Sabor Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • Nice explanation! - Sabor Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • yes I know :-) just distracted!!!! - CaroleAR Jan 21, 2011 flag
1 Vote

According to the R A E, the gender of all Spanish nouns will reverse when the Earth's magnetic poles flip, which could be any day now. wink

  • Thanks Lorenzo for clarifying this for us ... I feel soooo much better now :-)) - CaroleAR Jan 21, 2011 flag
1 Vote


From the above source:

Noun Main article: Proto-Indo-European noun Proto-Indo-European nouns were declined for eight or nine cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, instrumental, ablative, locative, vocative, and possibly a directive or allative). There were three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter.

There are two major types of declension, thematic and athematic. Thematic nominal stems are formed with a suffix *-o- (in vocative *-e) and the stem does not undergo ablaut. The athematic stems are more archaic, and they are classified further by their ablaut behaviour (acrostatic, proterokinetic, hysterokinetic and amphikinetic, after the positioning of the early PIE accent in the paradigm).

Thus you would have to go back a lot farther than Latin to determine how genders were originally assigned.

Edit to add: I think languages change slowly through mostly non-deliberate changes. Although what "sounds good" may have some logical underpinning- it is applied haphazardly. In English for instance we changed the past tense of work from wrought to worked, but left the past tense of think as thought. Why did we do that?

Additional edit: I think we are also in the process or changing the past tenses of spell from spelt to spelled and of learn from learnt to learned. I think this is more so in the USA than in the Commonwealth. If we did not have such frequent global communication now this might be a good example of how seperated languages slowly diverge over time. (I am not a linguist so I if I am wrong in this thought, I welcome correction).

  • The thing is that both French and German have P I E roots, but often assign nouns the opposite gender. - lorenzo9 Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • Yes, of course, I explained it with Latin because I assumed that people would know more about Latin than about PIE, and also because this site is about Spanish which is a Romance language, - CaroleAR Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • so that it made more sense to me to begin the conversation by referring to Latin. But you're perfectly right. - CaroleAR Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • I was not in any way trying to correct you, I was just trying to add additional information to the discussion- I thought your answer was wonderful and immediately voted for it. :-) - Stadt Jan 21, 2011 flag
  • No problem :-) Thank you. - CaroleAR Jan 21, 2011 flag
1 Vote

Well, I'm not sure about pot luck or "deliberateness". It is of course a point to be considered, but it may prove difficult to get to the bottom of it. It could be that genders are attributed to nouns according to their category. For example "tree" in Spanish = arból, masculine, arbre in French and albero in Italian are also masculine, all three derived from Latin arbor, arboris .... which is feminine! As I speak French fluently, I can tell you that most trees have got a masculine gender in that language, and my impression is that so is the case in Spanish, though in Latin trees are generally feminine. It means there has been a reassignment of genders between Latin and Romance languages at some point as far as trees are concerned. This was just an example, I'm sure we can find hundreds of them. The question remains open as to the prime reason: why is this or that gender attributed to such or such noun? After all a tree is always a tree.

1 Vote

Danish has 2 "genders" both neuter. I wonder how / why that happened.

Huset = the house

Bilen = the car

0 Vote

Slante Carole, well explained.Yes-I understand that, and was being deliberately whimsical. However it is easy for those of us whose first lanuage (I am Irish so English is not my "native" language) does not have gramatical genders to equate gramatical gender to actual gender. I promise I do not think about sex when doing so!! But the question still remains: were any particular attributes of the thing in question considered when determining its gramatical gender, or was it just pot luck. If it goes back to Latin, is it so long ago that now we don't know.

Also some words that derive from Latin are masculine in one language and feminine in others. Does this not mean that this issue was considered during the development of the languages that derive from Latin

  • I have to wonder simply - why are there genders at all? Especially for adjectives. - ian-hill Jan 21, 2011 flag
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