How to figure out the gender of Latin nouns
Are you wondering how to find the gender of Latin nouns? This post will help you to identify Latin noun gender with confidence.
Latin has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In most cases, we can predict Latin noun gender in one of two ways:
- based on a noun’s meaning OR
- based on its declension and its nominative singular ending.
Dictionaries and grammar books are not usually necessary.
This post presents a process that will help you to figure out the gender of any Latin noun. I am about to tell you a lot of rules, but don’t worry. It gets easier with time, I promise.
For the most part, you can look at a noun and guess its gender pretty easily, as long as you remember a few basic facts. Finding the gender of third declension nouns poses a challenge, but I will do my best to make that simple, too.
But before we start discussing gender rules, let’s review what Latin noun gender is and why it matters in the first place.
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What is Latin noun gender?
Since the three genders are masculine, feminine, and neuter, students often think about biological sex and get confused. But really, grammatical gender is just a classification system.
Every noun has a gender, even inanimate nouns that don’t have biological sex. A table can’t be male or female, but the Latin word mēnsa “table” is feminine.
What does “being feminine” mean? Basically, this means that mēnsa displays endings characteristic of feminine nouns. It must also be associated with feminine adjectives and pronouns. So if you say that the table is big, the adjective “big” needs to be feminine (magna).
The word “gender” comes from the Latin genus, which means “race”, “class”, or “kind” (among other things). The classification of nouns into three genders goes all the way back to ancient Rome.
Why does Latin noun gender matter?
Gender plays an important role in Latin grammar. Every noun, adjective, and pronoun has a gender.
Adjectives must agree in gender with the nouns they modify, and pronouns must agree in gender with their antecedents. Gender can even be relevant in verb conjugations (for instance, in the perfect passive system).
When you read Latin, knowing a noun’s gender will help you to decide how it relates to nearby adjectives, pronouns, and (sometimes) verbs. This, in turn, will help you to understand the meaning of the sentence or paragraph.
In other words – you can’t ignore Latin noun gender. So let’s dive right in! How do you tell if a Latin noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter?
Find the gender of a Latin noun based on its meaning
We can find the gender of some Latin nouns by considering their meaning. So the first step in determining gender should always be to ask what the noun means.
Rule #1: In Latin, grammatical gender always correlates with natural gender where people are concerned. In other words, Latin nouns referring to a person receive the grammatical gender that matches the sex of the person.
- māter ‘mother’ is feminine
- rēx ‘king’ is masculine
- mīles ‘soldier’ is masculine
In the modern world, of course, women can be soldiers. But since this occupation was reserved for men in ancient Rome, mīles is a masculine noun. The same principle applies to words meaning ‘poet’, ‘farmer’, ‘general’, etc.
NOTE: There are, however, a few nouns that can be masculine or feminine based on the person in question. We call these common gender nouns. Examples are exul ‘exile’, incola ‘inhabitant’, and parēns ‘parent’.
This rule about the gender of a person matching his or her sex is hard and fast and should always be applied. Note, however, that words referring to groups of people can be of any gender (for example, turba ‘crowd’ is feminine and exercitus ‘army’ is masculine). In addition, there are a few personal nicknames that are neuter.
Rule #2: Infinitives and indeclinable nouns are always neuter.
Beyond these two rules, there are a few other gender conventions that are worth remembering – although these admit exceptions.
- Species of trees are feminine, as are most city and country names.
- Names of months and winds are masculine.
- Names of rivers and mountains are usually masculine.
This list is handy, but don’t obsess about it too much. If you only remember one thing, remember about the trees. I can’t recall ever stumbling upon a masculine tree name, and trees come up surprisingly frequently in Latin literature.
If you are seeking the gender of a Latin noun that is not a person, tree, month, etc., then – and only then – is it time to pay attention to declension.
For most nouns, you will in fact figure out their gender based on their ending and not on their meaning. But you always have to check meaning first.
Find the gender of a Latin noun based on its declension
Most of the time you can decide what gender a noun is from its declension. Each declension has its own gender rules, and (with the exception of third declension) they are very straightforward.
If you need a refresher on declensions, then pause here to read my post on how to find the declension of any Latin noun. But if you feel confident in your declensions, then let’s keep going!
First Declension Nouns
First declension nouns are almost always feminine. The exceptions are those first declension nouns that refer to male occupations or identities (because natural gender wins out).
Common masculine first declension nouns include agrīcola ‘farmer’, poēta ‘poet’, and nauta ‘sailor’. Again, remember: in the ancient world, women would rarely have played any of these roles.
Second Declension Nouns
Second declension nouns are almost always masculine or neuter. The main exceptions are species of trees, which – as we noted above – are feminine.
So how do we tell if a noun is masculine or neuter? Easy. Check what the nominative singular of the noun ends in.
- If the nominative singular of a second declension noun ends in –us, –er, or –ir, the noun is masculine. Examples are equus ‘horse’, annus ‘year’, and ager ‘field’.
- But if the nominative singular ends in –um, the noun is neuter. Examples are oppidum ‘town’, bellum ‘war’, and dōnum ‘gift’.
Third Declension Nouns
Third declension is the nightmare declension. There is no other way to put it. Third declension nouns can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. And, unfortunately, the rules for determining gender are not as solid as we might like.
I have been learning Latin since I was 7. I’m almost done with a PhD in Classics at Harvard. And yet I still have doubts about third declension noun gender sometimes.
There are some basic guidelines – but always remember that there are exceptions, too. I first learned the mnemonics below from Henle’s Latin. I wouldn’t recommend that textbook, but the following guidelines work as well as any I have ever encountered.
- ERROR: If the nominative singular of a third declension noun ends in –er or –or, it is most likely masculine. Examples are amor ‘love’ and labor ‘work.’
- SOX: If the nominative singular of a third declension noun ends in S, O, or X, it is most likely feminine. Examples are urbs ‘city’ and nox ‘night.’
- LANCET: If the nominative singular of a third declension noun ends in L, A, N, C, E, or T, it is most likely neuter. Examples are animal ‘animal’, carmen ‘song’, and caput ‘head.’
The problem is that I can think of exceptions to all the above guidelines off the top of my head. For instance, collis ‘hill’ is masculine, and iter ‘journey’ is neuter. There is one extremely common exception to SOX that you should be aware of.
Exception to SOX: nouns with their nominative singular ending in –us and their genitive singular ending in –eris or –oris are neuter, not feminine. Examples are corpus, corporis “body”; pectus, pectoris “chest”, and mūnus, mūneris “gift, offering”.
When you learn a new third declension noun, memorize its gender if it does not follow these rules and the SOX exception. If you are making Latin flashcards, add the noun’s gender to its flashcard.
And when you forget the gender – and you will, it’s part of life – don’t be afraid to pull out your dictionary and check it.
Fourth Declension Nouns
Most fourth declension nouns are masculine, but there are a few neuter ones. And, of course, we have to account for females and trees.
- If the nominative singular of a fourth declension noun ends in –us, the noun is masculine. Examples are exercitus ‘army’ and currus ‘chariot.’
- But if the nominative singular ends in –ū, the noun is neuter. Examples are cornū ‘horn’ and genū ‘knee.’
Fifth Declension Nouns
Fifth declension nouns are almost all feminine. Common fifth declension nouns are spēs ‘hope’, aciēs ‘battle line; sight’, and fidēs ‘trustworthiness.’
The lone two exceptions are merīdiēs ‘noon’, which is masculine, and diēs ‘day’, which can be both masculine and feminine (depending on the author, time period, etc.).
Further Reading on Latin Noun Gender
So now you know how to tell the gender of Latin nouns. Remember, always check the meaning of the word first. But in most instances, you will have to turn to the specific declension and its rules. And with third declension, dictionaries are definitely your friends.
If you would like to read more about Latin noun gender, I recommend Allen & Greenough’s New Latin Grammar. Paragraphs §29-34 discuss general rules of gender in more detail, while §84-87 give a more extensive account of the quirks of third declension.
Allen & Greenough’s is an excellent resource for any serious student, and I refer to it frequently while reading and teaching Latin. It can, however, be a bit overwhelming for beginners, and for this reason I recommend a dose of caution.
For example, the paragraphs on third declension are of little help in actually learning the language. As the grammar itself concedes, the gender of third declension nouns “must be learned by practice and from the Lexicon.” (§84)
This is why I prefer to stick with ERROR, SOX, and LANCET when I teach third declension to my students.
I hope you found this post helpful for determining the gender of Latin nouns. And if you are wondering about the presence of macrons throughout, then check out all the reasons why you should memorize Latin macrons!
(Seriously, macrons can help you out a lot. Trust me! Go read about them!)
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Thank you so much for all of this latin help, it is beautifully explained and easy to follow. You are amazing!!!
You are very welcome, Talia! I’m glad to be of help 🙂
Thank you. I enjoy reading your emails. I’m actually teaching with Henle for our homeschool group. 🙂 We go through Latin 1 in three years though, starting over in years 2 and 3 from the beginning, but going at a faster pace each time. This is my second year with it, and I’m shocked how much we do know. Of course, there’s an infinite amount to learn!
Hi Shelley, thanks for stopping by! I’m glad to hear that Henle is working for your homeschool group. 🙂 It is definitely one of the most popular textbooks in the homeschooling community – my mom had us start with Henle and then later transition to Wheelock’s. I believe I did Henle Latin 1 over two years in middle school
I started learning Latin at 7 (in 1973) and stopped at 18 – to my ever lasting regret. Since then other languages have come my way, but Latin is still in my mind and still very useful. Having memorised declensions from an early age, they are firmly embedded, but I found the thread above interesting. We used JA Harrison’s Latin Reading Course which although first published in 1970 is still in print – amazing. Robert
Hi Robert, that’s great that you have the declensions so firmly in your mind! Starting young is very helpful in that regard; I also learned declensions for the first time at age 7 and I don’t think I will ever forget them. I’m not familiar with Harrison’s book, but I will have to take a look at it. Thanks for stopping by! 🙂