Since this one was shown as "hot network question", this question is a follow-up which I do not identify (yet) as answered e.g., here, raised as an observer (chemist).

As stated by the title, I wonder why some of the Indo-European languages assign to nouns either male, or female gender reflected in pronouns (like French "il", "elle"). Other however know the additional choice of neuter (like English "it", German "es"). For me, an explication in tune of "it is a offspring of Latin" does not hit the nail, as there is the Italian pronoun "es". On the other hand, despite perceived as more similar to each other than to German, Polish and Russian seem to share the concept ("ono" and "оно", respectively) with German.

Is the third noun a (relatively) new property among the Indo-European languages?

  • I believe it's more a case that many languages lost a gender. Some, like Welsh and French, lost neuter, and the neuter nouns were made either masculine or feminine. Others, like Danish or Dutch, joined masc and fem together instead. Commented May 3, 2021 at 10:53
  • Then additional should not be read as «later, subsequent extension» for that there are the pronouns for all three gender like is, ea, id in Latin.
    – Buttonwood
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 11:33
  • How do you perceive the difference ofSlavic to Germanic? Do you mean the to vs. ono vs. ono (ten vs. on vs. onen) distinction or something else? Commented May 3, 2021 at 13:50
  • 2
    A minor point but there isn't any "Italian pronoun es". Commented May 3, 2021 at 15:57
  • 2
    Don’t forget that the loss of the masculine/feminine distinction as a nominal gender category in the Scandinavian languages has resulted in these languages having four distinct pronouns: two based on natural gender (Da. han he, hun she) and two based on the remaining grammatical genders (den it [commune], det it [neuter]). And in Icelandic, which retains all three genders, there are five, though they’re not always sharply distinguished: hann he, hún she, it (m), it (f), það it (n). Commented May 3, 2021 at 21:05

1 Answer 1


The three genders are found in all the oldest Indo-European languages we know (Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Gothic, Old Irish, Old Church Slavonic, Old Norse) with the exception of Hittite.

Hittite had two genders; but the two were neuter and common, rather than masculine and feminine.

Some scholars believe that Hittite represents an earlier stage, and Indo-European acquired the feminine gender after it split off; others argue that Hittite lost the masculine-feminine distinction (as most varieties of Scandinavian and some of Dutch have done in recent times).

Either way, it is clear that the three-way distinction was ancient in Indo-European. Nevertheless, it has been lost independently in many places, usually by the neuter merging with the masculine (eg in Romance, Celtic, and many Indic languages), the feminine merging with the masculine (as in Scandinavian above), or grammatical gender being lost entirely (English and Farsi).

It is never easy (and often not possible) to answer "Why" questions about language, but one factor that is surely relevant is when sound changes cause different forms to fall together.

Consider, for example, Latin, where the distinction between many masculine and neuter nouns and adjectives in the singular is only in the final consonant or lack of one:

  • O-stems (2nd declension)
    • nominative singular -us (m) -um (n)
    • accusative singular -um (m) -um (n)
  • U-stems (4th declension)
    • nominative singular -us (m) -u (n)
    • accusative singular -um (m) -u (n)

All other cases in the singular are identical.

Since these final -s and -m were mostly lost in the Romance languages, any formal distinction between these masculine and neuter nouns in the singular disappeared. (The plural of neuters was more distinct, and must have been remodelled by analogy once the awareness of the distinction was disappearing).

But many feminine nouns and adjectives had their stem in -a (1st declension) which had different vowels in their endings in many cases, so remained more obviously different.

  • I see, e.g. in examples (m/n) of dominus / forum (about o-stem), exercitus / cornu (about u-stem); and eventually domina (a-stem and example of «true femina» (not like agricola).
    – Buttonwood
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 14:34
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    I'm fully aware this is nitpicking, but the lack of a m/f distinction is found in the other Anatolian languages as well, such as Luvian/Luwian.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 19:53
  • @Draconis: thanks. I thought that was probably the case, but didn't think it worth mentioning - or indeed checking.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 20:19

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