The gender of Spanish nouns
First of all, it is useful to make a difference between animated nouns (people and animals: abogado-lawyer, ratón-mouse) and inanimate nouns (agua-water, piedra-stone). It is also important to know that grammatical gender of nouns (masculine, feminine) and their sex (male,female; although not all nouns posses it) is NOT the same. All nouns posses grammatical gender, but only animated nouns posses sex. Sometimes grammatical gender and sex coincide, but it is not always the case. That is why we are going to deepen into this matter.
As we can see in this video, grammatical gender of nouns plays an important role in Spanish. The video covers the relationship between gender and sex in animated nouns. It proposes three types of combinations. The first one uses the word ending to specify gender and sex (“-o” for masculine/male and “–a” for feminine/female: el gato/la gata). The second one uses exactly the same word to refer to masculine/male and feminine/female. However, the article changes to make the difference: el estudiante, la estudiante. The last one uses completely different words to refer to masculine/male and feminine/female.
But there are other animated nouns that don’t reflect any difference in form to refer to male and female; this is called “género invariable” (invariable gender). The mechanism used to express sex is the incorporation of other nouns like “macho” (male) and “hembra” (female). Example: el hipopótamo macho/el hipopótamo hembra (this would be incorrect: *la hipopótamo, *la hipopótama). Moreover, the agreement with other words, as adjectives, corresponds to grammatical gender and not to sex. Example, this would be correct: el hipopótamo hembra es precioso; but this incorrect: *el hipopótamo hembra es preciosa.
Besides, when we want to generalize with animated nouns (like “profesores”) and there are both sexes implicit in the noun, Spanish uses masculine gender; it does not only represent male but also female in Spanish.
Let’s talk now about inanimate nouns (remember: they don’t have sex!). There is no exact grammatical explanation for the grammatical gender of “buzón” (masculine) and “penalización” (feminine). But, still, there exist some rules that answer (more or less) our questions:
- Words ending in “–o” tend to be masculine, whereas words ending in “–a” tend to be feminine.
- Words ending in en –miento, -aje, -án, -én, -ín, -ón, -ún, -ar, -er, -or, -ate, -ete, -ote, -és, -miento, etc. tend to be masculine; whereas words ending in -ción, -sión, -zón, -dad, -ed, -ez, -eza, -ia, -ncia, -tud, etc. tend to be feminine.
- Proper nouns tend to posses the grammatical gender their hyperonyms have (the hyperonym of “Madrid, Valladolid y Sevilla” would be “ciudad”). Example: “Toledo está preciosa” is agreed in feminine because “ciudad” (city) is feminine in Spanish.
And finally, some inanimate nouns used in masculine or feminine have different meanings. Some examples of nouns changing in meaning if their word ending changes are: manzano (apple tree)/manzana (apple), bolso (bag)/bolsa (plastic bag); some examples of nouns changing in meaning if only changes the gender of the article that accompanies them are: el capital (money possessed)/la capital (capital of a country).