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Grammatical Gender in Gaelic | Macgeoffster's Blog

Grammatical Gender in Gaelic

Don't forget to scroll down for a 'Review of Sources' and a 'Summary of Findings' on this topic.


Having taught Gàidhlig for a while now, I find that people who are native English speakers have a difficult time coping with the concept/implementation of grammatical gender, especially if they haven't learnt other languages which have grammatical gender. English, for the most part, has eliminated the need for it, retaining it only when dealing with the gender of living things. Exceptions might be things like vehicles or vessels, which are frequently considered to be feminine or 'lands' with the concepts of 'fatherland' or 'motherland.' I'm sure there are others.

Gàidhlig, like many other languages maintains the use of grammatical gender. Gàidhlig used to have three genders! A neuter gender existed for (inanimate objects) generations ago, but has been lost, resulting in a bit of a bùrach /buːrəx/ - a mess. Personally, the best discussion I have seen on the old third gender is found in, A Gaelic Grammar, by George Calder, pages 76-77. The key point being that when the neuter gender fell out of use, the words formerly included in that category were not distributed in a regular fashion, creating the bùrach.

Any of us who have studied Gàidhlig for any period of time know that the books that are out there are all imperfect. Each book has strengths and weaknesses and these vary by topic in each book as authors struggle to cope with the manner in which they wish to present the topic. Grammatical gender is no different in this regard. As grammatical gender impacts things like the form of the definite article, adjectives, and the case of nouns, the topic of grammatical gender can be diced up and distributed into discussions of these or other topics.

TIP: When describing the grammatical gender of a noun, I use the Gaelic abbreviations: fir. = fireann (masculine), boir. = boireann (feminine). Ultimately the goal is to use Gaelic, and putting m. or f. next to Gaelic words can provide you an offramp out of 'Gaelic brain' by forcing your brain think of the concept in English. You might want to do the same. It doesn't take long to adjust and you get very acquainted to the words fireann and boireann.

TIP: When you learn a noun in Gaelic, always learn it with a lenitable adjective - feminine nouns lenite adjectives that directly modify them: e.g. cù mòr (fir.) versus caora mhòr (boir.). Over time, you will develop an intuition as to the grammatical gender of the noun just by saying it in your head.

Think of grammatical gender more as a category of how a noun behaves as it interacts with other parts of a sentence rather than trying to define a noun as “male” or “female” in the sense of how a person is male or female. There are two types of gender that must be kept in mind in using language – the gender of the noun, and the actual gender of the entity (person, animal or object - if an object can actually have a gender) the noun represents.


Disclaimer: I consider all these sources to be treasures in my library and refer to them often. All these sources are useful in varying ways and I hope that my comments will be taken in the manner they are intended - simply as a useful guide to learners who want to research more. This also functions a a kind of bibliography for the information in this post.

A Gaelic Grammar, by George Calder, pp. 74-77, 1990.
(A+) Here is found the most complete and specific list of rules. (See the Summary of Findings, below, for more)

Gràmar na Gàidhlig by Michel Byrne, pp.24-26, 2004.
(A+) Another good list and discussion of the rules/categories of grammatical gender.

Beginner's Gaelic, by James MacLaren, pp. 59-60, 1999.
(A+) A decent, comprehensive list.

Elementary Course of Gaelic, by Duncan Reid, pp. 63-64, 1968.
(A) Another good list.

Complete Gaelic (Formerly Teach Yourself Gaelic), by Boyd Robertson and Iain Taylor, p. 58, 2010.
If you were to needing to fit the categories of grammatical gender into a tweet, this is your list. Handy in emergencies.

Cothrom Ionnsachaidh, by Ronald Black, pp. 79-80, 1997.
Ronald Black states a rule (remember most rules are actually guidelines with varying numbers of exceptions) that in the Nominative Case (the basic or dictionary form) masculine nouns end with a broad vowel (a, o, u) and feminine nouns end with a slender vowel (e, i). This is an attempt to create a rule similar to the latin-based languages. But since the topic is not as simple as a simple rule, a flowchart of exceptions is given, which removes words referencing living beings, and those ending in -ag or -achd. I have not done a study to see how the rule fares in regular use but it is an interesting approach.

Progressive Gaelic 1, by Moray Watson, pp.46-62, 2012.
Over two units, there is a discussion of the nominative singular forms of masculine and feminine nouns, using the definite article as the primary means of exploration. If you need an explanation of the nominative definite article, this might be what you need.

Speaking Our Language, by Cànan, Series 1, Part 1, p. 71, 1993.
Just the briefest of introductions to the topic. It states that the following noun is lenited if the noun is feminine. At the level for which this book is intended, that might suffice, but the extra catch is that the adjective has to directly modify the noun (attributive) and not be used predicatively. (Use of the Three Column Method makes this clear.)

Ceumannan 1, by Emma Christie, p. 347, 2009.
Here we have a decent list of ways to tell the gender of a noun - at least in writing. If the noun refers to a living thing, we use that (minding the boireannach exception). If the definite article is used, that can provide some clues as the grammatical gender of the noun is a determining factor of which form of the definite article to use. A following leniting adjective can be a clue (mind the attributive v. predicative problem). If those clues are of no help, look it up!

Scottish Gaelic in Twelve Weeks, by Roibeart Ó Maolalaigh and Iain MacAonghuis, p. 11, 2011.
Here the message is to just learn them by heart as you learn new nouns. The trailing adjective trick is useful.

Bun-Chursa Gàidhlig, by Bill Blacklaw, pp. 26-27, 1991
The message here is, grammatical gender is a thing, here are lists of vocabulary grouped by gender, and the form of 'the' changes based on the gender of the noun. Also, feminine nouns change after prepositions (Feminine Dative). There is not really any discussion of how to determine the gender of a noun, other than by looking at the provided list.

Everyday Gaelic, by Morag MacNeill, p. 4, 2007
Learn the gender of a noun as you go along.

Colloquial Scottish Gaelic, by Katherine M. Spadaro and Katie Graham, 2001
I did not find a specific discussion of grammatical gender as a topic, other than as needed for discussing other grammar points.

Gaelic without Groans, by John Mackechnie, pp. 35-36, 1981
A very gentle discussion of the concept of grammatical gender, but no useful lists.

Teach Yourself Gaelic, by Roderick Mackinnon, 1971
A book which is usually good for some rules, but I didn't find any here. The topic is only expressed in the context of case and the definite article.

Gaelic Made Easy, Part 2, by John M. Paterson, pp. 11-12, 1998.
Some rules, but it is not presented in a manner which is easy to extract.


Taking the sources above and compiling a list of categories of nouns based on grammatical gender, we arrive at the following:

Masculine Nouns

What makes a masculine noun? Unfortunately, there aren’t any hard and fast rules. Here are some guidelines to give you a hand:

1. Nouns ending with the following are masculine:
  • "-a," “-ach"
  • diminutives ending in “-an” or “-ean”
  • derivative nouns ending in “-as"
  • derivative nouns for agents/‘doers’ ending in: "-ear," "-air," "-iche," “-adh"

2. Nouns denoting male entities are masculine. If a masculine pronoun references a feminine noun, the noun is considered to be masculine. This applies to people as well as animals.

father \ athair (masculine)
boy \ gille (masculine)
man \ fear (masculine)
rìgh \ king (masculine)
rooster \ coileach (masculine)
stag \ damh (masculine)
drake \ dràchd (masculine)
ram \ reatha (masculine)

Notable exception:
woman \ boireannach (masculine)

Something happened as the word for woman crossed the Irish Sea. In Irish, 'bean' means 'wife' and 'mná' means 'woman'. In Scottish Gaelic, these two words became mashed together.

a' bhean \ the wife [nominative singular]
na mnathan \ the wives [nominative plural]
a' mhnaoi \ (with) the wife [dative singular]
na mnathan \ (with) the wives [dative plural]
na mnà \ of the wife [genitive singular]
nam ban \ of the wives [genitive plural]

Since 'bean' and 'mná' were mashed together for the purposes of 'wife', 'boireannach' became the word for woman in Scottish Gaelic (and it doesn't exit in Irish for this meaning). Alexander Macbain's Etymological Dictionary of Scottish Gaelic states that 'boireannach' was originally in the neuter gender. As the neuter gender fell out of use, it joined the masculine nouns.

3. Masculine nouns referring to classes or species include male and female entities in those classes or species. For example, cat is a masculine noun that represents male cats and female cats. Therefore it is sometimes necessary to specify the gender of the entity being referenced by the masculine noun with an additional word.

3a. Male human entities can be denoted with the prefix “fear-.”

grandchild \ ogha (masculine)
grandson \ fear-ogha (masculine)
friend \ caraid (masculine)
male friend \ caraid (masculine - can use the same word as a class and specific person)
teacher \ teagaisg
male teacher \ fear-teagaisg (masculine)

3b. Male entities that are domesticated animals can be denoted with the adjective “fireann.”

cat \ cat (masculine)
a male cat \ cat fireann (masculine)
pig \ muc (feminine)
a male pig \ muc fireann (masculine)

3c Male entities that are wild animals can be denoted with the prefix “boc” before the genitive form of the feminine noun.

goat \ gobhar (feminine)
a male goat \ boc-goibhre (masculine)      

4. It’s a good bet that the names of the seasons, days of the week, elements (fire, etc.), liquors, colors, the young of all animals (regardless of sex) and agricultural products such as vegetables, grains and timber, are masculine.

5. Frequently, nouns whose final vowel is broad, are masculine.

Feminine Nouns

1. Nouns ending with the following are (usually) feminine:
  • derivative nouns for attributes ending in “-e"
  • diminutives ending in “-ag”, “-achd”
  • “-id”

2. Nouns denoting female entities are feminine. If a feminine pronoun references a masculine noun, the noun is considered to be feminine.

mother \ màthair (feminine)
girl \ nighean (feminine)
cearc \ hen, chicken (feminine)
cow \ bò (feminine) [cow as in female domesticated animal]

Notable exceptions:
heifer \ agh (masculine)
woman \ boireannach (masculine)
cow \ mart (masculine) [cow (bovine) to become food]

3. Female entities of a class may be specified with additional words or prefixes.

3a. Female human entities can be denoted with the prefix “ban-" or “bana-”

grandchild \ ogha (masculine)
granddaughter \ ban-ogha (feminine)
friend \ caraid (masculine)
female friend \ bana-charaid (feminine)
teacher \ teagaisg (masculine)
female teacher \ bean-teagaisg (feminine)
rìgh \ king (masculine)
ban-rìgh \ queen (feminine)

3b. Female entities that are domesticated animals can be denoted with the adjective “boireann.”

cat \ cat (masculine)
a female cat \ cat boireann (feminine)

4. It is likely that names of countries, musical instruments, heavenly bodies, and diseases are feminine.

5. Frequently, nouns whose final vowel is slender, are feminine.

Final Word

I hope this discussion has provided some guidance for mastering the concept of grammatical gender. I'm sure there are other thoughts which differ on one point or another.

One more thought abut a few of the examples from above. As an attempt to remove gender from occupations, words like 'fear-teagaisg' or 'bean-teagaisg' have been replaced with 'neach-teagaisg' as 'neach' just refers to 'person.' The plural of 'neach' being 'luchd.' This can be done with any of the professions were 'fear' or' bean' were prefixed.