Sex Matters in the Italian Language

May 8, 2011

Male female symbols

maschio, femmina

masculine, feminine

“Non vedo l’ora di vedere il mostro!” I declared to a friend in Florence.

When she broke out laughing, I knew I had done it again. I had meant to say, “I can’t wait to see the exhibit (la mostra).” Instead I said I couldn’t wait to see the monster.

This is the difference gender can make in Italian.   I walked into a florist’s and asked for a bunch of flowers. Or so I thought. Instead of un mazzo, I could have ended up with una mazza (a sledgehammer or club). I once said that I adore the scent of lavender—but instead of lo spigo, I said la spiga (ear—as in corn). I’ve complained about a pain, not in the neck (il collo), but in the glue (la colla). I’ve asked for una foglia (leaf) when I wanted un foglio (sheet of paper) to write something down. In my most mortifying strafalcione (linguistic blunder), I proclaimed in a crowded restaurant that my husband and I were enjoying our apartment's view of  the roofs  of Rome—except that instead of the masculine tetti I used the feminine slang tette, which translates as “tits.”

If these transformations weren’t confusing enough, body parts tend to change gender in the plural. Il braccio (arm) becomes le braccia; il sopracciglio (the eyebrow), le sopracciglia; il dito (finger), le dita; il ginocchio (knee), le ginocchia; il labbro (the lip), le labbra; l’osso (the bone), le ossa.

Other words, for no reason I can decipher, also do a gender flip in the plural. A wall, for instance, is masculine: il muro. But put two walls together and they become feminine: le mura. The sheet (il lenzuolo) I put on the bed may be masculine, but the sheets (le lenzuola) I hang up to dry are feminine. I break un uovo (an egg) but scramble le uova (the eggs).

While the words for trees (alberi) are masculine, the names of their fruit are feminine. La mela (the apple) comes from il melo (the apple tree); the cherry (la ciliegia) from il ciliegio (the cherry tree); the peach (la pesca) from il pesco (the peach tree)–but the limone from l'albero di limone. If you want un’arancia but ask for un arancio, you could end up with an orange tree on your plate.

A conversation about animals can be equally confounding. A male cat is a gatto and a female one a gatta, but some animals are always masculine, such as coniglio (rabbit), delfino (dolphin), topo (mouse), corvo (crow),  scoiattolo (squirrel), and  serpente. Others are always feminine: aquila (eagle), balena (whale), pantera (panther), rondine (sparrow), scimmia (monkey), tigre (tiger), vipera (viper), and volpe (fox). A male monkey is una scimmia maschio; a female bunny, un coniglio femmina.

It’s enough to make me want to press la mia fronte (my forehead) against il fronte (front) of the nearest building and sigh.

Gender-Bending Words

Masculine                   Feminine

Il ballo (dance)           la balla (bale, bundle)

il colpo (blow)            la colpa (fault)

il costo (cost)             la costa (coast)

il filo (thread)            la fila (line)

il mento (chin)           la menta (mint)

il pizzo (lace)             la pizza

il porto (port)             la porta (door)

il testo (text)             la testa (head)

il velo (veil)               la vela (sail)

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

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