Spanish nouns are divided into two groups: masculine nouns and feminine nouns.
Since nouns include many objects and ideas that are not associated with a particular sex, it may seem a little strange to divide nouns into masculine or feminine categories. But we must remember that this gender division is mainly a grammatical—not a biological—one, and normally only affects the way we use adjectives and determiners with nouns.
Other languages have gender divisions as well. The German language, for example, divides nouns into three categories: masculine, feminine and neutral.
Some languages use other kinds of divisions. For instance, in Japanese, nouns are categorized according to their form, and this division affects the use of numerals.
THE GENDER OF SPANISH NOUNS REFERRING TO PLANTS AND NON-LIVING THINGS
Nouns referring to plants and non-living things have an arbitrary gender that we must learn in order to correctly apply adjectives to these nouns. For example, the noun mesa, which means table, is feminine, and the noun libro, which means book, is masculine.
You may ask: “Why is a table feminine and a book masculine?” It’s not that Spanish speakers feel that a table has a feminine character and a book has a masculine one; it’s just that these words happen to fall into these classes, irrespective of their nature.
“And why,” you might argue, “is the noun referring to a table feminine and not masculine?” In fact, there is no special reason for it. We just need to learn it this way. There are some hints we can use to recognize a noun as masculine or feminine, but they are related to the nouns’ spelling and not to any characteristics of the objects they refer to. I’ll write about this in another post.
THE GENDER OF SPANISH NOUNS REFERRING TO HUMAN BEINGS
Though the gender division is a mainly grammatical distinction, it’s important to know that the gender of nouns that refer to human beings often reflect their sex. Nouns that do refer to men are almost always masculine, and those that refer to women are almost always feminine.
Hombre (man), padre (father) and yerno (son-in-law) are masculine nouns.
Mujer (woman), madre (mother) and nuera (daughter-in-law) are feminine nouns.
I say “almost” because there are a few nouns that describe human beings irrespective of their sex. For instance, bebé is a masculine noun that means baby (boy or girl), and persona is a feminine noun that means person (man or woman).
SPANISH NOUNS ARE VARIABLE WORDS
Most nouns can change their form in order to express number (singular or plural).
You can read more about the plural form of nouns and adjectives in this post.
In addition, many nouns that refer to human beings change their form in order to express the sex of human beings.
There are several patterns of variation, the two most frequent being:
1 The masculine noun ends in -o and the feminine noun ends in -a:
niño (boy) – niña (girl)
2 The masculine noun ends in a consonant and the feminine noun requires the addition of -a to that consonant:
profesor (male teacher)- profesora (female teacher)
Certain other patterns can be observed in the following examples:
rey (king) – reina (queen)
conde (count) – condesa (countess)
barón (baron) – baronesa (baroness)
príncipe (prince) – princesa (princess)
abad (abbot) – abadesa (abbess)
sacerdote (priest) – sacerdotisa (priestess)
actor (actor) – actriz (actress)
emperador (emperor) – emperatriz (empress)
héroe (hero) – heroína (heroine)
As you may have noticed in my first examples, in some cases the noun that refers to a man and the noun that refers to a woman are totally different words:
hombre (man) – mujer (woman)
padre (father) – madre (mother)
yerno (son-in-law) – nuera (daughter-in-low)
As in the case of nouns that refer to human beings, some nouns that refer to plants and non-living things are variable with respect to gender. In this case, the gender variation doesn’t express a sex differentiation, but rather a variation in meaning:
calzado (footwear) – calzada (road)
naranjo (orange tree) – naranja (orange)*
NOUNS THAT ARE BOTH MASCULINE AND FEMININE
Some nouns that refer to human beings can be used as both masculine and feminine nouns.
artista (male or female artist)
cantante (male or female singer)
The difference is only expressed and perceived when a determiner or adjective is applied to the noun:
un artista famoso (a famous male artist)
una artista famosa (a famous female artist)
este cantante italiano (this Italian male singer)
esta cantante italiana (this Italian female singer)
THE GENDER OF SPANISH NOUNS REFERRING TO ANIMALS
Nouns that refer to animals follow the pattern of nouns that refer to human beings only in a few cases.
conejo (male rabbit) – coneja (female rabbit)
tigre (male tiger) – tigresa (female tiger)
caballo (stallion) – yegua (mare)
More often, animal nouns have an arbitrary gender with no sexual implications, as in the case of nouns that refer to plants and non-living things.
Some of them are masculine:
Some of them are feminine:
You can read more about Spanish nouns that refer to animals and view numerous examples in this post.
I hope these explanations are useful. If you have questions, requests or suggestions, please leave a comment below!