Did you know? Italian sopranos have to be virile

by Bernard O'Shea

Italian nouns are either masculine (maschile) or feminine (femminile) and the articles and adjectives that go with them have to agree in gender and number. Let’s look at some masculine nouns followed by their feminine counterparts: lo zio (the uncle), la zia (the aunt); il ragazzo (the boy); la ragazza (the girl); il padre, la madre (father, mother); il giorno, la notte (day, night).

Emma Trentini (1878-1959), Italian soprano ope...

Il soprano Emma Trentini (1878-1959)

Nouns ending in o tend to be masculine, nouns ending in a tend to be feminine, while nouns ending in e can be either. Nouns denoting a male person are usually masculine and those denoting a female person tend to be feminine. These are often linked to professions, for example il cantante is a male singer, la cantante is a female singer. However, in keeping with the o = masculine rule, the word for “soprano” in Italian, which is, um, soprano, is masculine – il soprano, whereas of course sopranos are almost inevitably women in real life but I am not ruling out the possibility that there might be male ones too.

But note: as in French, all those words that have been borrowed from Greek that end in -a, or more precisely –ema and –amma, tend to be masculine – il problema, il programma.  Another curiosity is the fact that the noun femminile itself (meaning “the feminine grammatical form“) is masculine – il femminile. That is Italian logic for you.

If you are interested in gardening and eating, you might like to know that in Italian most trees are masculine – il pero, the pear tree – but their fruit are usually feminine – la pera, the pear. However, lemons, figs and mandarins are masculine for some reason: il limone, il fico, il mandarino – maybe they don’t taste so good.

The definite article (“The”); l’articolo determinativo

If you have been attentive you will have noticed that definite article (the “the”) in front of some masculine nouns is lo and in front of others it is il. Why? It is because Italians are dramatic and like to make things complicated? Or it could be they are sensitive to sounds: they use lo before masculine nouns beginning with what is sometimes described as “an impure s” – that is, an s followed by another consonant (lo sbaglio, the mistake; lo sport) and before masculine nouns beginning with z, as in the above mentioned lo zio, the uncle. It is also used in front of ps– and gn– hence lo psicologo (the psychologist) and lo gnocco (the dumpling).

As in French, the feminine definite article is la before all consonants (la nonna, the grandmother).

Also as in French, in front of both masculine and feminine nouns beginning with a vowel, l is used – l’animale (a masculine word), l’automobile (a feminine word).

The indefinite article (“a/an”); l’articolo indeterminativo

With masculine nouns, un is used before most consonants or vowels (un padre, un animale) but uno is used before z and an “impure” s (uno zio, an uncle, uno scolaro, a male scholar or pupil).

With feminine nouns, un’ (with an apostrophe) is used before all vowels, and una is used before all consonants (un’automobile, una ragazza).

To summarise definite articles:

  • l’ goes with an masculine or feminine noun starting with a vowel
  • lo goes with masculine nouns starting with a z, or s + consonant (or ps- and gn-)
  • il goes with masculine nouns starting with any other consonant
  • la goes with feminine nouns starting with a consonant

To summarise indefinite articles:

  • uno goes with masculine nouns starting with a z, or s + consonant (or ps- and gn-)
  • un goes with all other masculine nouns (both consonant and vowel)
  • una goes with feminine nouns starting with a consonant
  • un’ goes with feminine nouns starting with a vowel

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