Masculine or feminine? the Italian dilemma!

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

If you are a native English speaker, the word 'house' to you will sound as 'neutral' item. A house doesn't have a gender and yet, if you speak Italian, it suddenly becomes feminine: 'la casa'. But why? In this article you will find some of the answers to this question.

One of the first characteristics you probably noticed when you started learning about the Italian language was the use of genders. Italian has a very defined division of its words between 'masculine' and 'feminine' nouns. That brings to a second important element: Italian doesn't have a 'neutral' gender for words (at least, not officially yet!). How does this system work? To understand a bit more about it could be useful to find out where this system comes from.


Historical bits

Italian is considered as a Romance language along with France, Spanish, Portuguese, and others. This means that it comes indirectly from Latin, to be more precise from the 'vulgar Latin', the unofficial language spoken by the people. This modern language we all love is the result of thousands of years of lingistic evolution that brought together the Latin system with the languages spoken by the various invaders. But that's not the whole story. Latins weren't the origin of everything, and before them, Italy was populated by indigenous groups with their own languages. The common linguistic element between these groups, Greeks, and Latins can be found in their origin: a reconstructed language called Proto-Indoeuropean. The roots of most of the languages spoken today in Europe (intended as a geographical area) can be linked to this 'Indoeuropean family'. Since those ancient times, the proto-language had 3 genders : masculine, feminine, and neutral. This system held together in Latin as well but in its later evolution (Italian), the neutral had been integrated into the masculine category.

Why is it like that? Originally, words' gender was related to the function of the item that was named. It was a work of fantasy and logic: Imagine a tree. Trees names are generally masculine in Italian (e.g. il pero, il melo, il banano, etc) while fruit names are feminine (e.g. la pera, la mela, la

banana, etc).

The trees were considered by the ancients as a sign of fertility and as the generators of fruits and flowers, and given the patriarchal system that was on at the time, they identified the trees as 'fathers' and the fruits as the 'mothers' of future trees (because they would carry the seeds inside them of potential trees).

Using this imaginative example, we can see how there is a sort of pattern and logic in the use of masculine names such as 'il padre' (father), 'il melo' and feminine ones, such as 'la madre' (mother) , 'la mela'. Often the choice was made because of religious reasons: traditionally the god of 'love' in the Greek culture was 'Eros', and he was a man. The noun 'love' in Italian is masculine 'l'amore', just as was that god! After centuries and with the influx of words coming from other languages this 'logical' system was almost completely lost, and the words started grouping together for assimilation. Nowadays it is almost impossible to find a reason for each word of the Italian vocabulary and that's what makes it so difficult to understand sometimes. Something we can rely on is the thorough use of the Italian articles, it will always work in our favour to recognise the gender of words. Some general rules can be applied, for instance, generally, foreign words become masculine - e.g. il computer, lo smartphone, il tablet, il laser, etc... and brands take the same gender of the item they refer to e.g. la Guinnes (la [birra] Guinnes), la Volvo ( la [macchina] Volvo), la Apple (la [compagnia] Apple).

The good news is that language evolution works towards simplicity. Languages never become more difficult and with nouns, their natural evolution simplified (and simplifies), their patterns so you'll brain will learn unconsciously how to use them.

My suggestion is to take it easy and not worry too much about it. it is a complex and 'natural' aspect of the language that you will learn gradually. Keep your mind open, and learn carefully about the use of articles. That will help you to notice which gender is used each time. It is just a matter of time and you'll name words correctly without realising it!

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