Why does Spanish have Masculine and Feminine nouns?

Markekdevon

Member
English
I teach Spanish to beginner kids in the UK. One of the most common Qs they ask is why there are masc / fem nouns for inanimate objects, and why adjectives have to agree.

I say a mix of 1) that's how it is, like so many languages including old English, just go with it and don't overthink it; 2) in pre-history a bigger % of nouns were actually animate - people and animals - and the gender distinction took root and spread to other things, with no logical system; 3) adjectives agree for greater clarity.

I'd like to improve on my shpiel on this. What's yours? Thx
 
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  • Penyafort

    Senior Member
    Catalan (Catalonia), Spanish (Spain)
    We have two genders and we had to name them somehow. Since many ending in -o are for male people and many ending with -a are for female people, we call them 'masculine' and 'feminine'. (That, and a historical tradition, but that's the long story)

    Adjective agreement (in most adjectives, some are common) certainly makes thing clearer. Just like verbal conjugation does, freeing us from having to always use a pronoun. Languages, like people, find different efficient solutions for the same problem.

    Eventually, Spanish -or the other Romance languages- are not to blame for it. It's all father Latin's fault, which in turn can blame it on his forefathers, and so on.
     

    S.V.

    Senior Member
    Español, México
    Hello. As there is no Women, Fire and Dangerous Things for kids learning Spanish, you could place some posters with English quotes:
    The sun was shining on the sea / Shining with all his might; Lady Justice does not hold her sword in vain; Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?; he will have no one near him but Nature herself; We clear the harbor and the wind catches her sails;
    That timber gun, she splits the log open (163). Next to an image, and the Spanish word.

    Then at the center, una banana, un plátano, as a 'random' reminder. :p We may also want Animistic images, and others like Pachamama, next to the Greek ones (Gaia, Eros, for la tierra, el amor). Then for its 'practical' value, an exercise on /o/ ~ /a/ quickly identifying the image, across different functions. ¿Cuál quieres?, with two paletas on your hands, and "la rosa" or "la roja" gets the prize.
     

    gnommero

    Senior Member
    Italian - Italy
    Actually, Latin used the neuter for inanimate objects, but in Romance languages it has been lost. The real issue is not the gender of the words, but the need to match articles and, eventually, adjectives. This is usually difficult for English speakers to learn.
     

    Markekdevon

    Member
    English
    We have two genders and we had to name them somehow. Since many ending in -o are for male people and many ending with -a are for female people, we call them 'masculine' and 'feminine'. (That, and a historical tradition, but that's the long story)

    Adjective agreement (in most adjectives, some are common) certainly makes thing clearer. Just like verbal conjugation does, freeing us from having to always use a pronoun. Languages, like people, find different efficient solutions for the same problem.

    Eventually, Spanish -or the other Romance languages- are not to blame for it. It's all father Latin's fault, which in turn can blame it on his forefathers, and so on.
    Thank you :)

    Hello. As there is no Women, Fire and Dangerous Things for kids learning Spanish, you could place some posters with English quotes:
    The sun was shining on the sea / Shining with all his might; Lady Justice does not hold her sword in vain; Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?; he will have no one near him but Nature herself; We clear the harbor and the wind catches her sails;
    That timber gun, she splits the log open (163). Next to an image, and the Spanish word.

    Then at the center, una banana, un plátano, as a 'random' reminder. :p We may also want Animistic images, and others like Pachamama, next to the Greek ones (Gaia, Eros, for la tierra, el amor). Then for its 'practical' value, an exercise on /o/ ~ /a/ quickly identifying the image, across different functions. ¿Cuál quieres?, with two paletas on your hands, and "la rosa" or "la roja" gets the prize.
    Good thinking, thank you :)

    Actually, Latin used the neuter for inanimate objects, but in Romance languages it has been lost. The real issue is not the gender of the words, but the need to match articles and, eventually, adjectives. This is usually difficult for English speakers to learn.
    Just curious: is the gender of most Italian nouns clear from the spelling, as in Spanish?
     

    Raposu

    Senior Member
    English USA
    Markledevon, there is indeed a Romance language that has neuter nouns, Asturian (in castellano it is called asturiano, and in the language itself asturianu).
     

    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    Just curious: is the gender of most Italian nouns clear from the spelling, as in Spanish?
    With the exception of nouns ending in -e in singular. Those are reflexes of Latin 3rd declension nouns (from the accusative ending -em), where m. and f. nouns where declined the same way.
     

    Hulalessar

    Senior Member
    English - England
    I suggest an explanation like this:

    Most European languages descend from a language spoken thousands of years ago. There is no record of what the language was like, but we have a good idea of what it was like by working backwards and looking at ancient languages we do have a record of. The reconstructed language is called Proto-Indo-European. "Indo" is part of the name as some of the modern languages are spoken in Asia. It is believed (by some see post 11) that the early form of this language had two genders, one for animate (something having life) and one for inanimate (something without life). The later form of the language developed a separate gender for things female resulting in three genders: Masculine, feminine and inanimate or neuter. Latin had these three genders and Spanish is one of the many languages derived from Latin. In most of those languages the neuter gender has disappeared and the nouns which were once neuter have been reassigned to masculine or feminine. You should think of "masculine" and "feminine" as just labels even if it is the case that things male are masculine and things female are feminine. Just because "plato" is masculine and "taza" feminine does not mean that there is something male about a plate and something female about a cup.
     
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    berndf

    Moderator
    German (Germany)
    One of the most common Qs they ask is why there are masc / fem nouns for inanimate objects
    There are two separate questions:
    1. How did the modern Romance 2 gender system evolve out of the Indo-European 3 gender system, which Latin still had and
    2. How did the Indo-European 3 gender system develop in the first place.

    Ad 1.: By and large, the Romance masculine developed out of a merger of the Latin masculine and neuter (there are a few gender changes, like Latin mare yielding, as expected, il mare in Italian but la mer in French). The reason for this merger is simply morphological: With the loss of the case system in Proto-Romance, only one form survived and this was mainly the accusative form. For the most typical declension paradigm of masculine and neuter nouns, the 2nd declension, the accusative singular ending was -um, which developed into the predominant -o ending for masculine nouns in Proto-Romance.

    Ad 2.: One theory is that the 3 gender system developed out of an earlier 2 gender system based on an animate-inanimate distinction rather than out of a masculine-feminine distinction. There is no general consensus on this theory and it has fierce critics but by and large, it is the most popular one.
    In this theory, the animate-inanimate distinction worked a bit differently than we naively understand it today: It had more to do with semantic roles in a sentence. An animate noun would be one, which could be used in an agent role in a sentences while inanimate nouns were (mainly or exclusively?) used in a patient role. The early case system was very simple and essentially consisted only of a subject/agent marker, the -s ending, which later became the masculine nominative ending (in Latin -us in the second and -s in the third declension). In this theory, the inanimate gender had two separate plural forms, an individual and a collective one. The latter was later re-interpreted as a singular and developed into the third gender, the feminine. The morphological similarity of the 2nd declension plural neuter and the 1st declension feminine singular would then be a reflex of this development.
    See also this early discussion: Evolution of word gender in languages.

    and why adjectives have to agree
    I am not aware of any elaborate theory how agreement evolved, so I can only present my own theory/understanding. Case agreement was probably originally the more important one and gender and number agreement was more of a by product but in modern Romance, only those survived. Early languages probably did not systematically distinguish between nouns and adjectives. In fact, even older English grammar terminology, influenced by Geek and Latin grammar systems, spoke of substantive nouns and adjective nouns. My theory is that attributes originated as a kind of apposition: the red ball < the ball, the red [one], where the apposition repeats the first noun with a different aspect and where one would naturally assume the apposition to agree with the original noun in declension. But this just my idea. As I said, I am not aware of any learned theory of how agreement evolved.
     
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    As for Italian, there are also masculine nouns ending in -a: problema, tema, pilota, aroma and so forth. Most of them are of Greek origin, but not all of them, such as boia (executioner) cobra, sosia (looklike, double) and so on.
    Many compound words ending in - a are masculine too: apripista forerunner, aldilà (afterlife, afterworld) bagnasciuga (water's edge, foreshore), battistrada (tread), etc.
     

    merquiades

    Senior Member
    English (USA Northeast)
    @Markekdevon English speaking people ask this question all the time one way or another. Why is there gender for things? Another common way they ask it is this way: how can a door (puerta, porte, porta...) be a woman, feminine.... How can a bath be a man, masculine (baño, bain, bagno, banho...)? 90% of the people are not prepared for a deep conversation on the topic even if you want to go there. Many of them will probably never be ready. This is doubly or triply so if they are children.
    So, I'd simplify it as much as possible, but without making something up or lying.

    My shpiel.
    Spanish comes from Latin. Most words for women (chica, muchacha, hermana, tía, cuñada) end in -a and that extends to most all of the other words ending in -a in the language. Most words referring to men end in -o (chico, muchacho, hermano, tío, cuñado) and that extends to almost all the other -o words in the language. Spanish inherited this from Latin, so it goes back a long time. Then... there are a few exceptions to be dealt with. Stay tuned and be prepared to be surprised, la mano, el problema, for example. Then add, you have to be careful with words with other endings, like -e or consonants as they can be either gender. Words referring to people normally have the obvious gender (el hombre, la mujer) otherwise it's random and you have to memorize the word and its gender: la leche, el coche (this is from the perspective of an English kid learning his first foreign language). Finally, if they are ready add that ---nouns ending -dad, -ción, -tud, -triz, -ez, -umbre etc. are normally feminine, and those ending in -or, -aje, -an, -um tend to be masculine..... Adjectives match the gender and number of the noun for clarity and usually have four forms.
    I'd leave it at that. That's enough. They'll understand and accept it. You can move on.
     
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