Noun Genders

Latin initially classified nouns into three genders - masculine, feminine and neuter. As the language developed, masculine and neuter nouns mostly collapsed into a single masculine gender, while the feminine gender remained separate. In most modern Romance languages, nouns are either masculine or feminine. The issue of remaining "neuter" or "mixed gender" nouns is also worth attention.

Masculine Nouns

The languages show some correlation between the form of a noun and its gender. Classical Latin accusative case nouns ending in -um turned into Vulgar Latin nouns with the ending -u: Vulgar Latin *lacu lake. Although "-u nouns" included both masculine and neuter nouns in Vulgar Latin, later speakers began to treat most every noun ending in -u as masculine.

The normal outcome of this masculine -u is the noun ending -o, which still shows up today throughout Iberia and Italy, including in Spanish, Portuguese, Galician and Italian. Sardinian speakers still have a masculine -u, as do speakers of a number of South Italian languages and dialects.

In France, Switzerland, Eastern Spain, Romania and parts of Northern Italy, the masculine ending has worn away entirely, typically leaving a final consonant as its signature. Masculine nouns in Catalan, Occitan, French, Rhaeto-Romansh and Romanian often end in a consonant. One exception is the Aromanian language, closely related to Romanian, which retains the final -u in places where Romanian has lost it.

Romanian semn sign
Aromanian semnu sign

The history of the development of masculine -o in Spanish demonstrates how Latin -um transformed into masculine -o in many languages.

Latin murum wall > *muru > Iberian Romance *muro > Spanish muro

The development of masculine nouns ending in a consonant in Catalan shows how Latin -um disappeared entirely in languages like Catalan, French and Romanian.

Latin murum wall > *muru > Iberian Romance *muro > Catalan mur

Latin nouns with an accusative ending -em or, rarely, in a consonant are typically classified as masculine in the modern languages. In languages that preserve final vowels, like Italian and Sardinian, these nouns end in the vowel -e. In other languages, including French and Catalan, such nouns typically end in a consonant.

Vulgar Latin *lacte(m) milk > Italian latte but French lait

This final example compares a single masculine noun, the word for fact/deed, across the Romance-speaking world. Notice which nouns have an equivalent of the masculine suffix -u or -o, and which have dropped the masculine ending.

Vulgar Latin *factu
Portuguese feito
Galician feito
Old Spanish fecho
Catalan fet
Occitan fach
French fait
Franco-Provençal (Arpitan) fét
Rhaeto-Romansh fatg
Sardinian fatu
Italian fatto
Sicilian fattu
Aromanian faptu*
Romanian fapt*

* Latin factum and its Romanian cognate fapt(u) are actually neuter in gender, though they resemble an accusative singular masculine noun.

Feminine Nouns

As with masculine nouns, the form of a noun sometimes gives away its gender. The accusative case of Classical Latin nouns ending in -am stands at the source of Vulgar Latin nouns with the ending -a. As Latin developed and split, most Romance feminine nouns retained this final -a, weakened the vowel to a neutral ə (as in Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian, and formal French) or deleted the vowel altogether (as in French).

In Iberian languages, Occitan, Franco-Provençal, Romansh, Italian languages and Romanian, the feminine ending is -a (Romanian ). Portuguese casa, Romanian casă, Romansh chasa, Italian casa for house all have a root cas-/chas- followed by the feminine ending.

The typical French feminine ending is "silent -e". Masculine nouns may end in a silent consonant, while nouns with the characteristically feminine "silent -e" retain their final consonant in pronunciation. This pattern leaves clear cases where the gender distinction is still explicit, although in a different way than most of Romance.

têt small bowl (pronounced /tɛ/ - final t silent)
tête head (pronounced /tɛt/ - final e silent, last t pronounced)

The modern languages also draw feminine nouns from Latin nouns with an accusative ending -em. In languages like Italian that retain final vowels, these feminines often end in -e. In other languages, such as French and Catalan, these nouns may end in a consonant. Case in point, Latin nouns ending in -itatem -ity, -tionem -tion and -sionem -sion are feminine in Latin and in the modern languages.

Latin *veritate truth > Sardinian veridade, Portuguese verdade, Italian verità
Latin *solutione > Italian soluzione, Spanish solución, Catalan solució, Old Portuguese soluçõ

Some nouns in -a (French -e) are masculine, including those inherited from Greek neuter nouns in -ma: Spanish problema, French problème problem. This exception does not apply to Romanian, where nouns like problemă have shifted to feminine.

Few ostensibly masculine nouns in -o/-u are feminine in gender. A notable exception in is the word for hand, which is feminine in nearly every Romance language: Vulgar Latin *manu, Asturian manu, French main, Sardinian manu, Italian mano. Romansh resolves this discrepancy by making maun masculine.

The table of examples below compares one feminine noun, the word for stone, throughout the Romance-speaking world.

Vulgar Latin *petra
Portuguese pedra
Galician pedra
Spanish piedra
Catalan pedra
Occitan pèira
French pierre
Franco-Provençal (Arpitan) piérra
Sardinian pedra
Italian pietra
Neapolitan preta
Sicilian petra
Romanian piatră

Neuter Nouns

Latin neuter nouns were generally absorbed into the masculine gender as the modern languages developed.

Latin centrum > *centru center > Italian centro, Spanish centro, French centre (all masculine)

A few languages continue to distinguish a third gender. Most Vulgar Latin neuters resemble masculine nouns in the singular but feminine nouns in the plural: *centru center, *centra centers. A small set of nouns continues to abide by this pattern in Central Romance, including Standard Italian and Rhaeto-Romansh. These nouns are usually masculine in the singular and plural, but have a "neuter" or "feminine" plural when they refer to a familiar pair or a collection. This usage, with apparently masculine forms in the singular and feminine in the plural, has been called the indeterminate or collective neuter.

Italian braccio arm, bracci arms, braccia pair of arms
Romansh bratsch arm, bratschs arms, bratscha pair of arms

Colosseum in Rome

The Latin noun Colosseum (later Coliseum) is neuter, but modern forms like Italian Colosseo and French Colisée are masculine.

Iberian languages like Asturian and Southern Italian languages like Neapolitan use a third neuter gender for abstract nouns, collective nouns and other nouns. Such nouns are used in the singular, resemble masculine nouns and do not necessarily come from Latin neuters. In Neapolitan, the "neuters" differ from ordinary masculine nouns when the definite article is used. In Asturian, some of these nouns end in -o instead of the expected masculine -u.

Neapolitan 'o latino the Latin man (masculine), 'o llatino the Latin language (neuter)
Asturian pelu [an individual] hair (countable masculine noun), pelo hair (non-countable neuter noun)

Romanian displays the most systematic use of a third gender, usually treated as neuter. Like Vulgar Latin, Romansh and Italian neuters just introduced, the Romanian neuter resembles the masculine in the singular and feminine in the plural.

Romanian timp time, centru center (both neuter)

Some questions about the Romance neuter deserve attention: Do third-gender nouns in these languages truly inherit a productive Latin neuter? How much does the modern neuter gender represent subsequent developments in the respective languages?

Determining the Gender of a Noun

Determining the gender of a specific noun in a Romance language is not always a straightforward affair. In Catalan, Romansh, Occitan, Romanian and French, endings have worn away or disappeared entirely. Still, certain patterns and common endings provide clues to noun gender beyond the typical masculine *-u and feminine *-a of singular nouns.

The gender of cognates tends to remain reliably stable across all languages. For instance, given that Italian cane dog and Romanian câine dog are both masculine, the gender of French chien dog and Portuguese cão dog is, predictably, masculine. This kind of correspondence occurs between cognates derived from the same word in Latin, not words that fail to connect etymologically but share the same meaning: French maison house is not predictably feminine based on a comparison with Italian casa and Romanian casă house. Crucially, maison doesn’t share a genetic relationship with those words. French maison comes from Vulgar Latin *mansione, while Romanian casă comes from a different word - the word *casa. French nouns in -eur serve as a major exception: Spanish valor and Italian valore are masculine, but French valeur is feminine.

Languages also have ways to form and modify nouns. Latin formed new words by adding derivational endings. The Vulgar Latin endings *–tione, *–sione and *-tate are feminine in Latin and in all daughter languages: French maison comes from *mansione, a word with the characteristic feminine ending *-sione. Alternatively, Latin words in *-tore, *-ismu and *-ma are masculine in the modern languages. Word endings drive gender alignment. Adding material (like prefixes) fails to sway a word’s gender: Spanish selección, Romanian selecție selection and Spanish preselección, Romanian preselecție preselection are all feminine.

Productive derivational endings include diminutives (small or cherished nouns) and augmentatives (large, old or risible nouns): Spanish casa house versus casita little house and casona old house, Italian ragazzo boy versus ragazzino little boy and ragazzaccio bad boy. Languages often apply diminutives to other word classes, too: Catalan bona good but bonica pretty (an adjective), Portuguese adeus farewell versus adeusinho bye-bye (an interjection).

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