How to gender a noun
The following pointers range from fairly reliable rules through to rough guidelines, in that order.
- 1 Best bets
- 2 Biological gender
- 3 Speaking in tongues
- 4 If you know the...
- 5 Flying the flag
- 6 On loan from
- 7 Time!
- 8 Weird stuff
- 9 When all else fails...
Your best bets are special endings (in the nominative singular) which often come with specific genders. As these are the most reliable rules, if there is such an ending, you should go with the rules for that special ending in preference to the more generic rules further down.
These are agentive endings. Bits that you stick onto another noun to show that someone makes or does something, like -er in English which gives you fish » fisher, wash » washer, clean » cleaner, and so on. These are all masculine nouns:
Careful, this only works if the noun is made up of a noun plus an ending or a loanword. There are some feminine nouns which aren't "composed" like that which behave differently. As a general rule, if it's not a loandword (they're fairly easy to spot) and if you take away the ending, and what you're left with doesn't make sense, then it's not one of these. For example, with cathair and nathair, if you remove the -air, you're left with cath and nath and which don't make sense because cath and nath don't mean anything on their own. So, it's not nath+air, but just one word. See the next section for more examples.
Abstract nouns ending in -(a)iche are not covered by this rule either (e.g. gòraiche).
-air and -ir
If the -air at the end is not the doer/maker ending, then the noun is usually feminine:
For this rule to work, you have to count syllables. The rules is that words ending in achd which are only one syllable long are generally masculine, if they have more than one, they're generally feminine. Especially with one-syllable words, there are several which are feminine in certain dialects, possibly because there are more of the longer, feminine ones so it may be people are over-generalising the pattern. Still, as a rule it's fairly reliable.
Masculine (1 syllable)
Feminine (2+ syllables)
Pitfall Some multi-syllable words ending in -ac have common mis-spellings with achd. These mis-spellings do not follow the above pattern.
- currachd should be currac (masc.)
These are nice. They're practically all masculine.
This is usually the feminine diminutive ending so virtually all of these are feminine:
- caileag » caileige
- marag » maraige
- cuileag » cuilaige
Careful, there are some masculine nouns which look like they have a diminutive ending -(e)ag at the end, in particular aiseag, but that's not a diminutive ending. Rule of thumb: if you can take the -(e)ag off and you still have a word, it's almost guaranteed to be the feminine diminutive ending.
Also fairly reliably you get this ending with masculine nouns:
If you can strip this off and you still have a word that has a related meaning, that means this is the masculine diminutive ending -(e)an and thus you have a masculine noun. Careful not to confuse this with plurals.
- balachan « balach
- cuman « cùm
- ballan « ball
The other words ending in -(e)an in the singular don't involve the diminutive ending by and large but most of them are still masculine, so you can more or less assume most words ending in -(e)an in the singular being masculine:
These are also nice. Practically all are masculine:
Whether spelled with or without the hyphen, these are all feminine:
Biological gender over-rides the other rules i.e. if the word is for a being that is biologically female, it is almost always feminine gramatically.
The one notable exception is boireannach which is grammatically masculine because it is boireann plus a noun forming ending -ach that produces masculine nouns.
And vice versa, if biologically male...
Speaking in tongues
Language names are all feminine:
If you know the...
Genitive in -e
Nouns with genitives in -e are mostly feminine:
- gaoithe « gaoth
- coise « cas
The main exception is *taighe « taigh this is masculine.
Genitive in -thrach
Nouns with genitives in -e are mostly feminine:
- cathrach « cathair
- nathrach « nathair
Slenderising plurals not involving an ending
If a noun forms it plural by slenderising and without involving an ending, it will be masculine:
- cait « cat
- cinn « ceann
- cnuic « cnoc
- siùil « seòl
Flying the flag
Virtually all country and continent names are feminine.
- An Fhraing
- A' Ghreug
On loan from
Loanwords have a tendency to be masculine, grammatically speaking.
The main exceptions are ones that end in -(a)idh which are pretty unpredictable
- companaidh (fem.)
- coiridh (masc.)
The days of the week are masculine - not that you'll need that often. The months are masculine from January through to August and feminine from September to December (I wouldn't read anything myffic into it, just take it as a convenient coincidence!):
- Am Faoilleach masc.
- An Gearran masc.
- Am Màrt masc.
- An Giblean masc.
- An Céitean masc.
- An t-Ògmhios masc.
- An t-Iuchar masc.
- An Lùnastal masc.
- An t-Sultain fem.
- An Dàmhair fem.
- An t-Samhain fem.
- An Dùblachd fem.
Beyond the above you sometimes find lists which state that trees, diseases or vegetables are one or the other but mostly it's so hard to define what counts as a tree, disease etc and what doesn't that they're not that helpful overall. One sort of useful one is that most musical instruments are feminine:
- a' phìob
- an fhìdheall
- an druma
But then there's an clàrsach.
When all else fails...
Unfortunately this rule is often taught first, rather than last... Only apply this when none of the above applies, no shortcuts!!!
If the ending in the nominative is broad, there is a fair chance (i.e. better than purely guessing) the word is masculine, if it's slender, there's a fair chance it will be feminine.
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