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Getting started with Italian 1
Getting started with Italian 1

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4 Nouns and their gender

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Figure 1

In Activity 3 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 and why you need to get to grips with this concept as soon as possible in your Italian studies.

Nouns and their gender

When learning a foreign language for the first time, you will become familiar with simple grammatical terms such as ‘noun’, ‘verb’, ‘adjective’ and so on. People, animals, objects and abstract concepts are all nouns. All Italian nouns – not just people and animals – have a gender; they are either masculine or feminine.

Knowing the gender of nouns is important since it determines the form of the article (‘the’ or ‘a’ 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)

But in other cases, you simply have to learn the gender of each noun rather than following a rule.

  • maionese mayonnaise (feminine)

It is also possible to identify the gender of some nouns ending in -e by looking at the cluster of letters that precede the -e . For instance, singular nouns ending in -ore are masculine, nouns ending in -zione are feminine.

  • un liquore liqueur (masculine)
  • una lezione lesson (feminine).

Most words imported into Italian from other languages are masculine:

  • un caffè a coffee
  • un tè a tea

As for any rule, there are exceptions. If in doubt, a dictionary will tell you the gender of each word.