Nouns and their genders


Benjamin Hall Kennedy in his Public School Latin Grammar for the use of schools, colleges and private students, says that ‘the lively imagination of the East ascribed sex to inanimate objects, the sun, moon, stars, trees, etc. Hence the distinctions of gender in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin: which are found not only in the Romanic languages but also in German and other Teutonic dialects, English alone excepted.’

It seems that the gender of nouns in Latin and Greek is the result of two processes in prehistoric times:

  • the assignment of gender on semantic grounds—for example, fire is masculine, but a valley is feminine;
  • the assignment of gender simply for morphological reasons, whereby (for example) a harbour is masculine because the word belongs to a morphologically masculine group.

The resulting discrepancies of gender in Latin become apparent even if one looks at Kennedy’s much shorter Revised Latin Primer. The incongruities are bewildering: see especially §51 to §54, entitled Gender in Third Declension (apart from meaning).

At the end of the book, in §503, Kennedy has tried to help students by composing Memorial lines on the gender of Latin substantives. Presumably some children learned these by heart in prep schools early in the 20th century. They contain words that one does not often see:

talpa, perdix, grus, colus, pampinus, ligo, curculio, cos, siler, compes, teges, glis, forfex, obex, rumex, gryps, acinaces, furfur, incus, mugil, attagen, sindon.

meaning, in order,

mole, partridge, crane, distaff, vine-leaf, spade, weevil, whetstone, withy, fetter, mat, dormouse, shears, bolt, sorrel, griffin, scimitar, bran, anvil, mullet, grouse, muslin.

Meanwhile the thoughtful student will be interested in how myth and language intertwine: how masculinity is assigned to winds, rivers and mountains—and femininity to islands, countries, cities and trees, and to abstract qualities.

Interesting also are the differences in gender myths between cultures: Richard Cohen in Chasing the Sun mentions a Bedouin myth that the moon is a handsome young man, and the sun a fierce and destructive hag who shrivels him up once a month.

Of interest:

  1. gender
  2. See the Morphology menu for a downloadable sheet on Third Declension genders.

Next post: Remembering unexpected words.


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