Gender in Latin

Having read the excellent article on Latin, I decided to ask something I’ve been wondering for a while. What is the point of gender in Latin? From what I have read about linguistic gender, the term refers to classification rather than sex. Spanish, the language I know nearest to Latin, mostly assigns gender according to the noun ending, which seems somewhat pointless from a design point of view. Does Latin gender classify nouns for reasons other than sex or word endings?

From my experience, gender in Latin is pretty much similar to gender in many of its derivative languages, such as Spanish and French. People/animal terms are often based on sex, others on a seemingly totally random basis. It is almost impossible to tell gender based on the meaning of a word. For example, a large centurion of all men is a feminine noun, oddly enough. Word endings can often give the gender, but not always. For instance, a sailor and poet have similar endings to the classic feminine endings, despite being pretty much strictly masculine(those were for all intents and purposes male only occupations at the time). Inanimate objects are often masculine or feminine. There are also some words, such as one of the words for guest, that are gender neutral; they can be either feminine or masculine. (or rarely, neuter!)For these reasons, gender in Latin is a very tricky thing. One can tell either by context(sometimes) or use of a dictionary.


This link from Google’s cache talks about the origins of gender in Indo-European, which is ultimately behind Latin (and thus Spanish) grammatical gender. Unfortunately it has a coding error midway through that converts everything to a Greek font (although it’s not in Greek), so probably not that helpful, unless you can think of a way to fix that (C&P into a wordprocessor and then changing fonts might work…)

Darn good question.

Gender is said to have developed as a way of adding more meaning to a word and to allow a speaker to give indirect references to the object’s sex. In modern German, a language that still very strongly preserves the masculine-feminine-neuter distinction, even in inanimate objects, the word Meer can mean either ‘lake’ or ‘sea’, depending on whether it’s masculine or feminine–alas, I forget which is which, but one of the reasons gender evolved to make finer differentiations in words and give an extra shade of meaning.

But then again, the word Tor can mean ‘gate’ or ‘fool’, depending on whether it’s neuter or masculine. So sometimes gender’s completely nonsensical like that.

Society and psychology can dictate gender, too. A Mädchen in German is neuter, despite it being a young girl. Many terms in that language related to young women (and very young people in general–Kind is neuter, too) were netuer, possibly due to social factors. But this is delving into the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and I’m not too well-versed on that.

Many languages lack noun gender entirely–Finnish lacks to this day seperate words for ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’, and Japanese lacked seperate words for ‘he’ and ‘she’ until about two hundred years ago, when they created a word for ‘she’ to make translating European books easier.