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For languages with two genders, is there a name for a noun (or pronoun, adjective, etc) which can be of either gender?

This seems to be quite common for names of professions, for instance, in Latin based languages:

  • dentista (Spanish, Portuguese)
  • dentiste (French)

The grammatical gender, in these cases, follows the natural gender.

(El buen / La buena) dentista.

Dictionaries tend to identify the gender of the noun by specifying both male and female:

  1. Wiktionnaire:

    dentiste /dɑ̃.tist/ masculin et féminin identiques

  2. Wiktionary Portuguese entry:

    dentista m f (plural dentistas)

Is there a more precise, technical, or concise way to refer to such nouns?

When sipping cocktails and speaking to new Linguist nerds I've met on a bus trip through Europe, must I refer to "That class of nouns for which gender is determined by the natural gender of the referred object?" Or can I speak of, for instanced "morphological gender", "dual gender", etc?

When doing a (purely hypothetical--this isn't a homework question) test, and asked to identify the gender for a list of nouns, must I answer 'M', 'F', and 'M/F'? Or can the latter category be 'D' (dual?) or 'N' (natural)?

  • There's a term invariant to describe words which don't change form, especially when compared to other words in the same language or other POS in the same language which do change form. But gender invariance is only one kind. – hippietrail Feb 21 '15 at 8:22
  • What do you mean by "The grammatical gender, in these cases, follows the natural gender."? Are you saying that the form of the word won't change, but any agreement with it could be of either gender? – curiousdannii Feb 21 '15 at 8:26
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    @curiousdannii: I have added more examples. The grammatical gender (to the extent that I understand it) follows the natural gender in the case of such nouns. El bebé is masculine, La bebé is feminine, after the natural gender of the referent. Let me know if there is further confusion. – Flimzy Feb 21 '15 at 16:03
  • @Flimzy I think that's going to be rather complex phenomena, and frameworks would give different answers. Should bebé there actually be considered to be one word, or two? All will depend on who you ask ;) – curiousdannii Feb 21 '15 at 21:43
  • @curiousdannii: I have removed the examples, as it seems they are examples of a slightly different, but related phenomenon. See my comment on the accepted answer. – Flimzy Feb 21 '15 at 22:04
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In historical linguistics we usually say "communis generis" or "of common gender", abbreviated "c."

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    I thought common gender refer to situations when masculine and feminine have merged, not situations when they both exist but words can move freely between them. – curiousdannii Feb 21 '15 at 3:46
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    @hippietrail In Greek and Latin grammar “common gender” refers to words that can grammatically be either m. or f., like ho bous “bull” and hē bous “cow”. “Epicene” refers to words that are grammatically of one gender, but can refer either to male or female entities; e.g. ho anthropos always takes a masculine article or adjective, but can designate either a male or a female human being. – fdb Feb 21 '15 at 9:38
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    @SixthOfFour Norwegian generally (though not always) still distinguishes all three genders. Other languages that have a common gender are the Anatolian ones: Hittite, Luwian, Lycian, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 22 '15 at 9:43
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    @SixthOfFour I don't think any version of Nynorsk has only two genders. The masculine and feminine are distinguished in standard Bokmål, though some speakers do conflate them to a common gender, which I believe gives a kind of ‘archaic’ or more formal feel to it. The four-gender distinction was often touted of Swedish, but it was never a real thing. It was based on there being four different anaphoric pronouns, which is true of all the Scandinavian languages. Adjectives in the definite singular do optionally decline differently for words with masculine reference, though, even now. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '15 at 13:12
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    @SixthOfFour Ah, in that case I don't need to be explaining Swedish to you. (Cringe at ‘du äro’, shudder!). In Norwegian, phrases like ei bok or kona mi are ubiquitous, even in Bokmål, and unmistakably feminine in both definite article and possessive pronoun; cf. masculine en sykkel or mannen min. The feminine is more restricted in non-animate nouns in Bokmål than in Nynorsk, but there a fair few common ones that are always feminine, and a lot of variation between speakers. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 23 '15 at 13:27
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I think "epicene" might be the word you are looking for here (or one possible word).

From Random House dictionary's definition of "epicene":

Grammar. (of a noun or pronoun) capable of referring to either sex, as attendant, chairperson, Kim, one, or they; having common gender.

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As fdb noted in the comments, these are sometimes called "common nouns" (or "common-gender nouns"), and sometimes "epicene nouns". Some languages use both terms; when they do, the two usually have slightly different meanings:

  • A "common-gender" noun (generis communis) can apply to either semantic gender, and switches its grammatical gender to agree with that. In Latin, a good (male) dog is a canis bonus, while a good (female) dog is a canis bona.

  • An "epicene" noun (not sure of a Latin equivalent; the name is Greek) can apply to either semantic gender, but keeps the same fixed grammatical gender no matter what. In Latin, a good human is a homo bonus, no matter what, because homo is inherently masculine even when describing a woman.

"Common gender" is also sometimes used in systems that don't have a masculine-feminine distinction, such as Swedish and Hittite; both of these languages have only two genders, "common" and "neuter" (generis neutrius). I don't think "epicene" is ever used in these contexts.

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Interesting question, one that doesn't have a obvious answer. (Wikipedia has a section for words like this but no label.) It depends on how you analyse things...

  1. Some people would consider the words to actually be two related but separate words, just as we have actor and actress in English. In that case you don't actually have any words which are both genders. Maybe that's a cop-out as it's just pushing the problem down to the level of word roots, but there are some theories which say that all roots could theoretically receive any kind of morphology, and so having a root with two genders isn't anything atypical at all.

  2. Grammatical gender is often called noun classes (especially when there are more than just masculine, feminine and possible neuter.) There is good evidence for many, perhaps most, languages that the masculine class is the default unmarked class, with the other classes being used for marked words. In some languages you can freely use the less marked classes with words. To make up an example (because I don't remember the specifics, it was from an Australian language) if a yam is in the vegetable class, which is a subset of the neuter class, which is a subset of the masculine class, then yams could be inflected freely with any of the masculine, neuter or vegetable inflections. If you were in such a language, then it could be natural to use which ever class matches the biological gender of the referent.

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I assume you mean "when talking about languages with gender", because you seem to be looking for an English word and we don't have gender. And by "gender", I assume that you mean "sex-based" systems, since the term "gender" is also used to refer to the pairing of singular and plural forms in Bantu languages.

In Khoe languages, "lion" can be either feminine or masculine, depending on whether you are referring to a male lion or a female lion. That's a case where the form can freely vary depending on the sex of the referent. This is distinct from the Spanish case where the noun form is invariant and the agreement pattern follows the sex of the referent. In Classical Arabic, the noun khalīfah "caliph" has the form of a feminine noun though the referent and agreement pattern is masculine. So the notion of "can be of either gender" refers to a number of different linguistic situations. Needless to say, asking about "natural gender" opens up a huge can of worms, and you may wish to investigate patterns of agreement among transgender Spanish-speaking dentists.

I have never heard any term used in linguistics to refer to any of these phenomena. If you start calling those nouns "epicene", people will stare at you for a few years until it becomes familiar, but perhaps you can start a trend.

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    The English language lacks many charactaristics for which we have linguistic terminology. "Gender" being an obvious example. So if your answer is "English doesn't have a term for this, because the English language doesn't have such nouns," your logic is clearly faulty. – Flimzy Feb 20 '15 at 20:59
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    Your question asks "In languages with gender, is there a name for a noun...". English is not a language with gender, therefore your question is not about an English linguistic term, and could only be a question about linguistic terms in Spanish, German etc. Such a conclusion would be patently ludicrous, and the only reasonable conclusion that we can draw is that you made a mistake in your question. I don't see any evidence that you read or understood my answer. – user6726 Feb 20 '15 at 21:58
  • I'm sorry. You are correct. My question contained a minor grammatical ambiguity, which could only possibly be resolved by actually reading the question. I have resolved that ambiguity now. – Flimzy Feb 20 '15 at 22:19
  • @Flimzy No, don't think User is correct here. You wote "In languages with gender", English has gender. Not everywhere, and not on common nouns. But it has it on pronouns, at least on some reading of the phrase have gender. – Araucaria - Not here any more. Oct 20 '19 at 20:28

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