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Unlike English, the gender of a Latin word is necessary to apply the various grammatical rules. In Latin, parts of speech with gender include nouns, pronouns, and adjectives that may be masculine, feminine, or neuter. While the gender of some of these parts of speech is obvious, others are not. This fact has two effects. First, it gives native-English speakers a difficult time because they are not used to thinking of inanimate objects as having a gender. Second, failure to memorize the gender of words from the beginning proves disastrous later in intermediate and advanced Latin courses of study.
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Gender in English
Consciously unknown to many native English speakers, gender of words is a part of proper English grammar. Nouns, pronouns, and possessive adjectives all have a gender. However, whereas English nouns do not have a natural gender classification, they do have a gender based on biological sex. For example, the word girl has a natural feminine gender, and boy has a natural masculine gender. This is important when using pronouns to refer to other nouns. Take the following sentence:
Michael went to school. When he came home, Alice was happy to see him.
Michael is naturally a masculine noun because it almost always refers to a boy or man. The pronoun he, rather than she or it, is used in direct references to Michael. Therefore, the pronoun must be masculine. The same is true of the word him, rather than her. Luckily, all other nouns that do not indicate a biological sex are considered neuter as in:
The book was on the table. Then it was on the chair.
Since book does not imply a gender, the pronoun it is used rather than he or she.
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Gender in Latin Words
Latin nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter. Like English, some of these parts of speech have a natural gender that is based on biological sex. However, the rest have a gender associated with them artificially even where no biological sex is indicated.
The gender of Latin words based on biological sex is easy to identify. Words that naturally refer to males are masculine, such as vir (man), puer (boy), or rex (king). Words that naturally refer to females are feminine, such as femina (woman), puella (girl), or regina (queen).
The gender of all other words is more difficult because there is no biological sex associated with them. They only have grammatical gender. Nouns that are neuter in English can be masculine or feminine in Latin.
- Some examples of masculine Latin nouns include liber (book), ager (field), and animus (soul).
- Some examples of feminine Latin nouns include fama (rumor), fortuna (fortune), and ira (anger).
- Finally, some examples of neuter Latin nouns include basium (kiss), bellum (war), and exitium (ruin). Notice that all these example words have a gender even though there is no biological sex associated with them. In English, all of these words are considered to have a neuter gender.
There are, however, some guidelines for knowing a Latin word’s gender even if the student must make an educated guess. Proper words for names of mountains, rivers, and months of the year are normally masculine while names of cities, countries, and trees are normally feminine. But the Latin student should never rely on these rules for determining gender. There are too many exceptions. Memorization of every word’s gender is the only method available to properly learn and use the language.
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Appreciate the Difference
There is a stark difference between English and Latin’s treatment of gender. Only words in English that indicate a biological sex have a masculine or feminine gender. All others are considered neuter. Latin, however, applies gender to many words even when biological sex is not intimated. This fact gives beginning Latin students who are native English speakers trouble because as English speakers, they do not see the value of knowing a word’s gender. To make matters more complex, some neuter nouns in English are treated as if they had a biological sex. For example:
That ship? Yes, she is in fine condition.
Notice that the speaker of that sentence referred to a ship as if it were a living female. This kind of confusion is brought about from the influences of other languages on English. English borrows so much of its vocabulary and grammar from other languages that some of the incorrect gender specifications came along for the ride. Referring to a boat as she is grammatically incorrect but it makes perfect sense to a native Italian or Spanish speaker.