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I find it totally non-intuitive that each noun has its own gender in French, and other European languages. No one French I query knows why something is designated either masculine or feminine, and I often trip up. There seems to be no rhyme or reason behind it. Worse still, two different words for the same item can be one masculine, other feminine!

However, with new words - Euro comes to mind - that decision as to its sex(?) has to be made by someone at some point. What criteria are used, or is it the toss of a coin?

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    The first part of your question seems to be nothing but a rant about the (for you unfamiliar) use of gendered nouns. It doesn't add anything to the question and I suggest you remove it. Also, regarding "two different words for the same item": I'm assuming you mean two words that can be translated to the same word in English. Which is wrong for a number of reasons, chief among them that the English translation is not "the meaning" of those words. You might as well say "one word (in English) that's used for two disparate meanings! (words in French)".
    – Buurman
    Nov 8, 2017 at 12:03
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  • English translation is not "the meaning" of those words. Thanks for saying this.
    – user3177
    Nov 10, 2017 at 17:19
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    @Buurman - it's not a rant. And when French has two words for one body part - one masculine ane one feminine, your comment doesn't hold water.
    – Tim
    Sep 15, 2019 at 6:44
  • Re the dvs - after many conversations with French people, 'male and female' was deemed incorrect. So, the title gets changed to 'masculine and feminine'. Apparently some English speakers believe they know better than the indigenous French.
    – Tim
    Sep 15, 2019 at 6:46

3 Answers 3

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The main rule is the habit, that's why most of the following "rules" have plenty of exceptions. You really can't (except maybe for the first rule) take them seriously to guess the gender of an unknown noun.

The termination of a noun is a good clue about its gender. If you know many nouns that ends the same way and are of the same gender it is probable that other nouns that end the same way are of the same gender. Some common "families" are:

  • nouns that end in "-tion" or "-té" are mostly feminine
  • nouns that end in "-oir" or "-er" are are mostly masculine

Abstract concepts are usually feminine: la liberté (freedom), la vérité (truth), la société (society)...

Often, parts of something are of the opposite gender: un mois (a month), une semaine (a week), un jour (a day), une heure (an hour).

When two items are working as a duo there is usually one masculine and one feminine: la lune et le soleil (the moon and the sun), le couteau et la fourchette (the knife and the fork).

When two words are very close synonyms usually the one with the most abstract meaning is feminine and the one with the most concrete one is masculine: une pierre/un caillou (both mean "a stone" but "la pierre" designate the general concept of stone).

Finally, feminine nouns usually end with a "-e" and masculine nouns don't. Notice that most of the examples I gave follow this rule but it isn't an absolute.

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    The usual term for these genders in languages are masculine and feminine when gender is more or less aligned with sex for animates (humans & animals). Not male or female...
    – GAM PUB
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:08
  • I wasn't confident enough in my English grammar to contradict the OP. edit is coming. Nov 9, 2017 at 9:22
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To answer to the particular question about the euro case, the choice to use the masculine is natural.

89% of the words ending with an 'o' are masculine and the majority of the ones that are feminine are actually shortened variants of longer feminine words not ending with an 'o', e.g.:

une diapo(sitive), expo(sition), info(rmation), moto(cyclette), météo(rologie), photo(graphie), promo(tion), sono(risation), stéréo(phonie), thalasso(thérapie)...

Euro is not the shortcut of the feminine Europe but a word per se so the masculine was a natural choice.

Other reasons for this choice are the Euro replaced the masculine Ecu, tries to compete with the masculine dollar and follows the Franc which was masculine too.

Note that there is however no rule for a currency name gender. Some old or current ones were/are feminine, like the Spanish peseta, Italian lire, Greech drachme , English livre (pound) or the Scandinavian couronnes.

See also Is there any general rule to determine the gender of a noun based on its spelling? for word endings / gender relationship.

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Please note that gender is not the same as sex.

With regards to your actual question, how is gender decided for new words?", I can't answer definitively for French (as I'm not a native speaker) but I can make some educated guesses based upon what I know of French, what I know of language evolution and how this goes in my own native language, which is gendered as well.

I assume it is like with any evolution of language, a combination of usage and formal or informal rules (which are themselves derived from usage).

Ie, people start using a certain word and to use it they have to assign it a gender. They choose this gender based on any number of reasons (similar words, the way it sounds, the ending of the word, its meaning, ...). If enough people use a certain gender it gets recognized and added to the dictionary with that gender.

Drawing from my native language, Dutch, there have evolved a few rules-of-thumb for guessing the gender of words, which can be applied to new words. If the new word is a barbarism (an import from another language, such as English) there might be a number of rules specifically for handling such words.

Examples of such rules in Dutch are:

  • words that describe abstract concepts are usually feminine, words that describe concrete objects usually masculine. (Thus "universiteit" (university) is both feminine and masculine, depending on whether you mean the institution or the building).
  • anglicisms (barbarisms from English) are usually masculine or feminine, unless specific rules apply. For example, words ending on -ism or -asm in English are usually neuter.
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    Interesting reading, thanks. Your last point - 'anglicisms are usually male or female' - are there other options? I wonder if the word 'Euro' was used for a while before its gender was decided, but I'm sceptical, hence the example in the question. And, no rant, only frustration!
    – Tim
    Nov 8, 2017 at 13:36
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    The usual term for these genders in languages are masculine and feminine when gender is more or less aligned with sex for animates (humans & animals). Not male or female...
    – GAM PUB
    Nov 8, 2017 at 17:06
  • Thanks GAM PUB for that point, I didn't think about the naming. I'll update my answer.
    – Buurman
    Nov 10, 2017 at 10:56
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    Options - in Dutch, English, yes. Not so in French, which is why it's awkward. How could anyone even guess whether the word for, say, a chair or a table would be designated masculine or feminine? Because, in reality, they're not either in themselves, so deduction can be impossible. But at some point decisions had to be made - and that's where the question came from.
    – Tim
    Nov 10, 2017 at 12:52
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    I understand the confusion, it's really not that easy, mostly because there are no clear rules. Keep in mind, chair and table are masculine and feminine, respectively, in Dutch and masculine in German. The best tip for learning word genders is usually to not try and rationalize what gender a word is or should be but to simply learn the gender along with the word itself. For example, when learning French, learn 'la table' instead of just 'table'. And most French people don't mind if you guess wrong.
    – Buurman
    Nov 10, 2017 at 16:32

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