This is not an area I'm familiar with, so if any of the following description/discussion is misguided, I apologise in advance:

In languages with gendered nouns, the nouns for woman and man are normally feminine and masculine respectively. It's also usually the case that the grammatical gender of kinship terms reflects the sex of the individuals referred to. So mother, sister, grandmother and so forth will usually be feminine, and father, brother, grandfather will be masculine. This is sometimes referred to, I believe, as natural gender, where the grammatical gender happens to reflect biological gender in some way.

However, linguists are often at pains to point out that grammatical and biological gender are totally and utterly different things! This is clearly true. It would be unwise to suggest that French people conceptualised tables themselves as being female or having female attributes, even if the word table in French happens to be of feminine gender. Instead, it's probably better to think of grammatically gendered nouns within a given language as being grammatical classes/families of noun in the same kind of way that various European languages have -ar/ -ir and -er families of verb.

So my question is: are there languages which, for example, have (any, or a reasonable number of) grammatically masculine nouns for female kinship terms or grammatically feminine nouns for male kinship terms?

Also of interest would be languages with a grammatically feminine word for boy or grammatically masculine word for girl or similar.

In other words are there languages where the grammatical gender occasionally or often does not reflect natural gender?


In German, diminutives are almost always neuter, even when they refer to humans, like Mädchen "girl". In Ancient Greek, similarly, παιδίον "child". German also has some non-diminutive neuter words for humans, like Weib "woman".

In Latin, words for humans tend to be either common (they take on the grammatical gender of their referent) or epicene (they have a fixed grammatical gender that never changes). Epicene nouns are thus "wrong" about half the time: homo "human" is always grammatically masculine, and persona "person" always grammatically feminine, though they're well-attested referring to humans and people of both genders.

This isn't quite what you were asking, but in many Bantu languages, gender #1 is used for individual humans, gender #0 (also known as gender #1A) is used for kinship terms, and gender #2 is used for groups of humans. However, words that define a person by a specific quality (like "giant" is defined by size, or "blind person" is defined by blindness) are in gender #7 instead. These languages generally don't have a masculine/feminine split, but this shows that even when you have an animate/inanimate distinction instead, words for humans don't always obey it!

  • 2
    In German "Weib" and (archaic) "Frauenzimmer" are also neuter, but not diminutive.
    – fdb
    Oct 18 '19 at 20:27
  • 2
    Mark Twain made quite a good thing out of the story of the Fishwife and its sad fate.
    – jlawler
    Oct 19 '19 at 2:17
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    There's also the perennial first-declension masculine nouns, still the same in Spanish as they were in Latin - poeta 'poet', for instance.
    – jlawler
    Oct 19 '19 at 2:18
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    @jlawler Did those become feminine in Romance? In Latin they had first-declension forms, but still took masculine agreement (poeta bonus, nauta malus, etc).
    – Draconis
    Oct 19 '19 at 17:11
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    It's mostly those Latin 1st declension nouns that derive from the Greek, I believe. Oct 20 '19 at 14:40

Others have already mentioned that German has

  • words with a fixed grammatical gender that can be used for both males and females, such as "Mensch" (m), "Person" (f), "Kind" (n), "Star" (m), "Opfer" (n), and

  • words with neuter gender that denote either only females ("Weib", "Mädchen", "Fräulein") or only males ("Bübchen"), where the latter is less frequent.

Interestingly, there are also a few words that have masculine gender but denote exclusively females, or vice versa. These words have one thing in common – they are used for males or females that don't fit the stereotypical role model:

  • "Memme" (f): weepy, fearful man,
  • "Schwuchtel" (f): male homosexual,
  • "Vamp" (m): vamp, femme fatale,
  • "Drachen" (m): quarrelsome wife,
  • "Blaustrumpf" (m): educated, intellectual woman.

There's even a non-human example: "Drohne" (f) is the male bee (perceived as weak), "Weisel" (traditionally m, sometimes f) is the queen bee (perceived as strong).

  • Memme at least is definitely not used exclusively for males in my experience.
    – Cubic
    Oct 24 '19 at 15:07
  • @Cubic That's a bit strange. "Memme" originally meant "mother's breast", then "mother" or, even more generally, "woman". Calling a man "Memme" means accusing him of behaving like a woman. Calling a woman "Woman" would not really qualify as an insult.
    – Uwe
    Oct 24 '19 at 15:38
  • Last time I checked the average person doesn't check the etymology of a word to decide if its usage in a particular situation is appropriate. And certainly not for slang terminology.
    – Cubic
    Oct 24 '19 at 16:52
  • @cubic I can confirm that Du feige Memme was used as a slur on boys when I was at school. Oct 24 '19 at 17:21

In Riffian, feminine nouns are marked with the grammatical morpheme t-radical(-t), for example: ahermuc/boy -> tahermuct/girl.

But, some feminine nouns don't follow this construction. For instance:

-kinship nouns:

imma / mother

illi / daughter

However, the gender agreement is always applied, for example: illi tamzyant / little daughter (compare to: memmi amzyan / little son).

  • 1
    Wow, I'd never heard o imagined "circumfix"es before. Amazing (to me and my provincial linguistic experience). Thank you. Oct 24 '19 at 23:54
  • @Araucaria amzyan means little and illi means (my) daughter and memmi means (my) son.
    – amegnunsen
    Oct 25 '19 at 5:57
  • Yes, of course. Didn't read carefully. So adjectives agreeing with feminine nouns take the same circumfix? Oct 25 '19 at 8:39
  • @Araucaria Yes, it shows that there is an agreement.
    – amegnunsen
    Oct 25 '19 at 12:01

French has la sentinelle, sentry (typically a male soldier), and le mannequin, model (typically a woman).


German has some terms like this, but not for kinship terms.

Some neutra are: das Kind "the child", das Opfer "the victim", das Weib "the woman", das Mitglied "the member (of an organisation)", das Medium "the medium (in a seance)"

Always masculine, even when referring to feminine people, are: der Säugling "the suckling", der Star "the star (in pop culture)"

Always feminine, even when referring to masculine people, are: die Person "the person", die Persönlichkeit "the personality", die Emminenz "the emminence", die Hoheit "the highness"

EDIT: A very special one is this diminutive without a non-diminutive form used on men: das Herrchen "the owner of a dog"


In the Ukrainian language, there are several words for 'girl', among them two are of the neuter gender: дівча [diwˈtʂa] and дівчисько [diwˈtʂɪsʲkɔ].

Дівча belongs to the so-called 4th noun declension, neuter gender nouns with consonantal stems in -t: nominative plural of дівча is дівчата [diwˈtʂata] where -a is a standard neuter gender plural marker, like in Latin. This declension also includes all the names of baby animals which are all, naturally, neuter too, irrespective of their actual sex, e.g. 'puppy' – цуценя [tsutsɛˈɲa] (pl. цуценята [tsutsɛˈɲata]); 'lionet, lion cub' – левеня [lɛvɛˈɲa] (pl. левенята [lɛvɛˈɲata]).

Дівчисько is formed with the suffix -иськ- that creates nouns with augmentative / grotesque meaning which are used for their comic / pejorative effect and which are automatically neuter gender, like the German diminutive -chen/-lein.

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