Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A mini-guide to the gender of nouns in Italian

One of the challenges of learning Italian and speaking it properly is to know and use the right gender for each noun. All nouns have a gender and are divvied up into male and female, just like Noah's ark. Even words borrowed from English (and there are many) have a gender. You may be disappointed to know that gender is usually arbitrary, and does not correspond to one's idea (stereotypical or not) of what is masculine or feminine. For example, fiore (flower), cuore (heart), amore (love), cioccolatino (chocolate candy), profumo (perfume) are masculine; guerra (war), violenza (violence), aggressione are feminine. Even the symbol of femininity, the breasts, is masculine: il seno.

But unlike some languages, say French, it is easier to learn the genders because there is greater regularity. Your primary rule is that nouns that end in -o are masculine and nouns that end in -a are feminine. Of course there are exceptions, which I'll go into later. Your problem will come with nouns in -e, which can either be masculine or feminine.

Some feminine exceptions for words ending in -o. La mano (hand) and words that are shortened forms of words ending in -a: la foto (from fotografia), la moto (from motocicletta).

Some masculine exceptions for words ending in -a. Greek words ending in -ma: lo schema (scheme, pattern), il problema (problem), il sistema (system), il programma (program). Words ending in -ista when the person is male: il dentista (dentist), il socialista (socialist), il pianista (pianist), il femminista (the feminist). The same for words ending in -eta: il profeta (prophet), l'atleta (athlete). Words that are shortened forms of words ending in -o: il cinema (from cinematografo).

Now for the hard part. What to do with the nouns ending in -e.

Here are some patterns.

They are masculine when:

They refer to males: il padre (father), il re (king), il principe (prince).

They end in -one: il sapone (soap), il carbone (coal), il provolone. Exception: la canzone (song).

They end in -ore (there are many of these): il dolore (pain), l'amore (love), il fiore (flower), il rumore (noise), lo stupore (amazement), il colore (color).

Most nouns in -ale: il giornale (newspaper), il segnale (signal), il canale (channel, canal).

Nouns in -ile. Il barile (barrel), il cortile (courtyard).

Now for the feminine in -e

Nouns that refer to women: la madre (mother), la scrittrice (writer).

Nouns ending in -zione, -sione, -gione. This is an enormous group that often has corresponding words in English, all of them of Latin origin. La situazione (situation), l'esagerazione (exaggeration), la comprensione (understanding, comprehension), la tensione (tension), la stagione (season), la prigione (prison), la stazione (station).

Most nouns in -ice. La vernice (paint), la radice (root).

Words that end in -i are feminine if they are of Greek origin: la crisi (crisis), l'analisi (analysis), la prassi (practice).

There are many foreign words used in Italian, especially coming from English. The rules are not quite fixed. The default used to be masculine (il film, il golf, il bar), but now there is a tendency to use the gender of the equivalent in Italian- l'e-mail is feminine because posta= mail is feminine, la star (celebrity, male or female) is feminine because la stella is feminine.

There are other minor patterns you should notice and remember as you're learning the language. For example, all the months are masculine (but the seasons are not), the days of the week are masculine except for Sunday, most fruit is feminine (but pomegranate is il melograno, persimmon is il caco), vegetables are split, all numbers are masculine, including years (il tredici porta sfortuna, thirteen is unlucky).