4 Gender of nouns
In this section you will learn about the gender of nouns and the forms of the Italian equivalent of English ‘a/an’.
In the previous section you heard people ordering una birra and un bicchiere di vino bianco, among other drinks. In Italian the word for beer (birra) is feminine, while the word for glass (bicchiere) is masculine. Read the following explanation to find out about Italian nouns and their grammatical gender.
Language: Nouns and their gender
All Italian nouns have a gender: they are either masculine or feminine.
Knowing the gender of nouns is important since it determines the form of the article (‘a’ and ‘the’ in English) that you use with them and the form of the adjectives that describe them.
Nouns ending in -o are usually masculine:
- un aperitivo an aperitif
- uno spuntino a snack
Nouns ending in -a are usually feminine:
- una birra a beer
- un’aranciata an orangeade
Nouns ending in -e are not so easy: some are masculine and some are feminine. Where they relate to people, it is easy to guess their gender:
- un padre a father (masculine)
- una madre a mother (feminine)
In other cases you simply have to learn the gender of each noun rather than follow a rule. For example, liquore (‘liqueur’) is masculine but lezione (‘lesson’) is feminine.
Most words imported into Italian from other languages are masculine:
- un caffè a coffee
- un tè a tea
- un toast a toasted sandwich
As for any rule, there are exceptions which you will meet later. If in doubt, a dictionary will tell you the gender of each word.
Look at the following words and try to work out which ones are masculine and which ones are feminine, using the information above.
un cappuccino una cioccolata un’aranciata un succo una spremuta un aperitivo una birra un amaro uno spuntino una pizza un cornetto una brioche uno scontrino un’acqua minerale una pasta uno spumante
[una spremuta a freshly squeezed juice]
The masculine words are:
un cappuccino, un succo, un aperitivo, un amaro, uno spuntino, un cornetto, uno scontrino, uno spumante.
The feminine words are:
una cioccolata, un’aranciata, una spremuta, una birra, una pizza, una brioche, un’acqua minerale, una pasta.
Culture: Amaro and spumante
Amaro (literally ‘bitter’) is a type of liqueur usually made with herbs, which is commonly drunk after dinner as a digestif. It has a strong flavour and a syrupy consistency not unlike cough medicine but may have an alcohol content as high as 40%. Amaro is commercially produced in every Italian region, for example Amaro Averna in Sicily and Amaro Montenegro in Emilia Romagna, just to name but two. Many of the recipes for it originated in monasteries.
Amaro is typically drunk neat but can also be drunk on ice.
Spumante is a sparkling wine. Sparkling wines are made throughout Italy but the best-known are probably Asti from Piedmont, Lambrusco from Emilia Romagna and Prosecco from Veneto.