Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The gender of nouns in Italian

We English-speaking folk realized long ago that sex was only trouble, so (being unable to eliminate it altogether), we got rid of it from our language, refusing to divvy up things on the basis of gender. Old Anglo-Saxon had masculine and feminine. But what did they know? We still have some pronouns and possessives that are hold outs, forcing us into the ungainly "his/her" or "he/she" or "him/her," or similar compromises for these politically correct times.
But some furriners still insist on dividing their words into boys and girls. Among these (wouldn't you know it?) are the Italians. Yes, every damn last noun in Italian has to be gendered. Even words taken from languages, such as ours, that are sexless, take on a gender in Italian.

Now. The very basics. Most Italian nouns end in -o, -a or -e. The first are usually masculine, the second are usually feminine, and the third can be either. For the latter, you must memorize their gender, which is why your language learning materials will usually present words with their article.

Of course there are exceptions. These are the gay words. Some just seem to be exceptions because they are abbreviations: la foto (short for fotografia), la moto (short for motocicletta). There are a number of words of Greek origin that end in -a but are masculine; some of them are quite common, such as il problema and il programma. Ancient Greek had masculine, feminine and neuter. Hmmm. Some words are bisexual, they can be masculine or feminine. Tavolo can also be tavola, with pretty much the same meaning. Morale is "moral" when it's masculine but "morale" when it's feminine. La fine is "the end" but il fine is "the end" in the sense of "goal." La radio is a radio and il radio is the element Marie and Pierre Curie discovered. Trees are masculine but the fruit they bear is feminine; the wood from the tree is also masculine. Il melo is an apple tree, la mela is an apple. Questo scaffale e' in ciliegio means "this shelf is made of cherry wood."

There are even transsexual words. They start out masculine and become feminine in the plural, just like that. Examples: l'uovo (egg), le uova (eggs); il braccio (arm), le braccia (arms); il lenzuolo (sheet), le lenzuola (sheets). Notice that these deviants don't even bother to take the proper feminine plural ending. Troublemakers.

Isn't this fun?

So how are you going to keep all this straight? There will be a lot of memorizing, that's how. Your handy dictionary will spill the beans on the sexual orientation of all words.

But there are shortcuts. If you know another Romance language, this will help you enormously, because the high number of cognates (similar words) in the languages will usually have the same genders. This helped me bodaciously when I learned French and Spanish. Of course there are some exceptions. Words ending in -ore in Italian are masculine (il fiore) but the equivalent French -eur is feminine (la fleur).

Words ending in -zione, -sione, -gione are feminine. And there are a lot of them. So are words in -ice and -ie. Words ending in -ore (as above) are masculine. And so are words ending in -one (with the exception of the above), -ale, -ile. There are some exceptions here, too, but I don't feel like writing them out.

Foreign words. Italians love to use English words. In theory, you should strive to give the foreign word the gender of its equivalent in Italian. Michael Jackson era una grande star (Michael Jackson was a great star), where star is feminine because the word stella is. In practice, masculine is the default, both because people can't often agree on the Italian equivalent or because there is no real equivalent. Lo sport, il golf, il tennis, il food, il wine, il gardening, il marketing, lo stalking, il computer, l'iPhone, il bacon (despite the fact that pancetta is feminine).

Proper nouns (the ones with caps) also have a gender. Men's names usually have an -o, but Luca, Andrea, Mattia, Tobia, and Nicola are indeed boys. Countries can be either masculine or feminine. Most are feminine. Canada ends in an -a but is masculine (must be gay). Cities are all feminine, no matter what their ending, because citta' is feminine; thus, Treviso e' bella. When you hear a city name with a masculine article in front, they're usually talking about the soccer team e.g. il Padova, Regions can be either (il Veneto, la Toscana). No, this is not consistent. When in doubt, just go ahead and be a sexist. Use the masculine default.

And that's all for now. There's actually more. I may write an additional post some time.