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Modern West Frisian has two grammatical genders: common and neuter. In principle, the distribution for simplex nouns is arbitrary. However, as a result of the animacy hierarchy there is a tendency that nouns denoting human beings prefer common gender, whereas mass nouns are mostly neuter. Nouns denoting animals and things occupy an intermediate position. This can manifest certain distinctions. Thus nouns describing human beings affectionately may sometimes be neuter, and concrete instances of a mass are often common gender.

The gender of complex nouns is primarily dependent on the gender of the head, but here also the animacity hierarchy may cause certain shifts. The schwa extension -e may also function as a head, the reason why the substantial number of nouns ending in -e, as for instance brêgebridge, have common gender.

Many Frisian nouns have the same gender as their Dutch cognates. There are some notable differences, however, which for the most part can be attributed to historical circumstances. The deviations tend to be partly eliminated nowadays, due to Dutch influence on Frisian.

[+] Gender marking

Although Old Frisian had three genders, the language nowadays shows a two-way system. After the Middle Ages, the former masculine and feminine gender merged into common gender, while the neuter gender remained intact. The exception is the dialect of the island of Schiermonnikoog, where three genders are still alive.

Gender marking cannot be read off from the noun itself. Rather, it is only visible from the determiners and modifiers accompanying it. The following grammatical elements may point out, whether a noun is common gender or neuter:

Table 1
Grammatical category Common gender Neuter gender
definite article de kothe cow it hynderthe horse
demonstrative pronoun dy kothat cow dat hynderthat horse
dizze kothis cow dit hynderthis horse
sokke sjippesuch soap sok itensuch food
relative pronoun de ko, dy't ...the cow that ... it hynder, dat ...the horse that ...
interrogative pronoun hokke sjippewhat kind of soap hok itenwhat kind of food
elkeach elke koeach cow elk hyndereach horse
adjective in wite koa white cow in wyt hyndera white horse

The treatment below restricts itself to definite articles to indicate a noun's gender.

It should be noted that gender distinctions also manifest themselves in reference by personal pronouns, which, for one reason, is a complicated affair as personal pronouns still do distinguish three genders. For this issue, see the topic on personal pronouns, and especially this section about divergent pronoun use.

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x Three genders in the dialect of Schiermonnikoog

The only West-Frisian dialect that retained the three gender system is the one of the island of Schiermonnikoog. This fact cannot be observed in the definite articles, since both masculine and feminine gender have the article de. However, the demonstrative pronouns have three forms, as have the relative pronouns. Moreover, the effects of the three genders can be seen in the inflection of the adjective. Finally, the three-way distinction also manifests itself in a special plural morpheme for feminine nouns. The morphological data can also be found in Fokkema (1969), partly also in Fokkema (1969), and in Visser and Dyk (2002).

The interesting category are the feminine nouns, especially those that do not denote human beings. It appears that this category has special features, both semantically and phonologically. Its nouns denote concrete entities. For example, abstract concepts like needneed or jochtright are masculine and neuter, respectively. The denoted concepts also have a limited space and form. Mass nouns are therefore not feminine. The classical article dealing with these features is Spenter (1971).

Furthermore, the great majority of feminine words are monosyllabic - a substantial part of them shows a final schwa in mainland Frisian, as for example Schiermonnikoog spjaldpin versus mainland spjelde. This phonological tendency has gone so far that even nouns denoting male animals may become feminine grammatically if they consist of only one syllable: so, the male duck, which is called jerk (mainland Frisian jerke) is a feminine word in the Schiermonnikoog dialect. Furthermore, the property of monosyllabicity has been reinterpreted in such a way that this category receives its main stress on the final syllable. We then see the effect that loan words from Romance languages, that typically have final stress, are categorized as feminine, although this gender otherwise does not seem very productive. Examples are febrykfactory and fyuelviolin, which have become feminine words in the dialect of Schiermonnikoog.

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x Gender in East and North Frisian varieties

With respect to the Frisian dialects in Germany, East Frisian varieties kept a three-gender system, as North Frisian mainland varieties did. In contrast, the normal syncretism of masculine and feminine gender did occur in Insular North Frisian, however with a remarkable exception for Fering-Öömrang, the variety of the islands Feer and Oomram (Föhr and Amrum), where a – from a Germanic comparative point of view – special syncretism of feminine and neuter gender has taken place. This phenomenon is described by Hoekstra (1996) as the result of changes in the pronominal system. For an overview of East Frisian see Fort (2001) and Versloot (2001), for an overview of North Frisian see Walker and Wilts (2001).

[This extra is written by Hauke Heyen (Kiel)]

[+] The gender of simplex words

There is no way of telling the gender of a simplex word by its form. Therefore, the gender of simplex words must be learned item per item. There are actually quite a number of words which have the same form, but which differ in gender. Compare the following list of homonyms:

Table 2
Common Neuter
de bloedthe sucker it bloedthe blood
de moedthe courage it moedthe mind
de boutthe bolt it boutthe leg, the drumstick
de hierthe rent it hierthe hair
de fearthe feather it fearthe ferry
de falthe fall it falthe hatch
de soalthe sole it soalthe channel, the waterway
de mesykthe music it mesykthe brass band
de sinthe meaning; the sentence it sinthe temper
de Skriftthe Scriptures (bible) it skriftthe writing; the notebook

Gender is, however, not completely arbitrary. There are a number of phenomena that show that gender assignment is to some extent semantically driven. More specifically, gender assignment seems to be partly subject to the animacity hierarchy: human > animal > thing > mass. It appears that the more a noun belongs to the left side of the hierarchy, the greater the chance is that it has common gender. The reverse holds true likewise.

In accordance with the animacity hierarchy most monomorphematic nouns denoting human beings are common gender, i.e. de minskethe human being, de manthe man, de frouthe woman, etc. Exceptions are it bernthe child and it wiifthe wife. When a noun denoting one or more human beings is nevertheless used as a neuter word, it is always in an emotional (often pejorative) sense, witness the following contrasts:

Table 3
Unmarked Affective
de minskethe human being it minskethe woman (emotional)
de hearthe gentleman it hearthe fellow
de naasjethe nation it naasjethe scum

Also common gender nouns which are commonly used as emotional (mostly invective) terms for human beings (mostly women and children) show a tendency to become neuter:

Example 1

de/it pjut the toddler
de/it poarre the toddler, the little thing
de/it stumper the wretch, the poor thing
de/it ychel the bitch
de/it snib the snappy bitch
de/it sleep the sloven, the slut
de/it slet the slut
de/it mokkel the cracker (emotional)

Even nouns normally denoting animals or things may become neuter if they are used for humans in a derogatory sense:

Table 4
Thing/animal Human (derogatory)
de flardethe rag de/it flardethe little rascal
de bleithe white bream de/it bleithe silly girl
de pystthe pizzle de/it pystthe hussy
de kreeftthe lobster de/it kreeftthe sly woman
de klierthe gland de/it klierthe pain in the ass

Nouns denoting animals can be common gender (de kothe cow) or neuter (it kealthe calf). In some cases, however, the common gender nouns show a tendency to become neuter:

Example 2

de/it ei the ewe
de/it ezel the donkey
de/it kamiel the camel
de/it kameleon the chameleon
de/it kwyn the freemartin
de/it inter the yearling

In a number of cases, the neuter noun denotes a substance (mass), whereas the homonymous common gender noun denotes a thing made of this substance:

Table 5
Mass Thing
it hierthe hair (mass) de hierthe hair (thing)
it hoarnthe horn (mass) de hoarnthe horn (thing)
it doekthe cloth (mass) de doekthe cloth (thing)
it trie(d)the thread (mass) de trie(d)the thread (thing)
it reidthe reed de reidthe reed, cane
it striethe straw de striethe (blade of) straw
it gersthe grass de gersthe grass-stalk
it heathe hay de heathe hay-stalk
it koarkthe cork de koarkthe cork (on a bottle)
it duffelthe duffel de duffelthe duffel coat

Also compare the following cases in which basically neuter mass nouns like it sâltthe sâlt and it sopthe soup are used as common gender nouns if they denote a specific portion:

Example 3

a. Wolst my de sâlt efkes jaan
Would you pass me the salt (i.e. the salt cellar), please
b. De sop stie al op 'e tafel
The soup (i.e. the soup tureen) was already on the table

It should be noted that some additional variation may exist with respect to the choice of the definite article in particular. For more information, see the definite article in Frisian.

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x The gender of proper names

Proper names can show gender in certain constructions. In line with the animacity hierarchy, personal names are assigned common gender, and place-names are neuter, for instance in it Amearika fan 'e takomstthe America of the future. An example with a personal name is de Wytske fan myn dreamenthe W. of my dreams. Note that the element -ke in Wytske is a diminutive in a formal sense; the male's variant is Wytse. Unlike real diminutives, which always make the derivation neuter (see the next section), the suffix in personal names has no effect on gender.

[+] The gender of complex words

The gender of complex words is normally determined by their morphological head, which as a rule is the right-hand element in Frisian: the right-hand constituent of compounds, the base word of prefixations and the suffix in the case of suffixations. For example, diminutive formation always results in a neuter noun. Compare:

Table 6
Simplex word Complex word
de grientethe vegetables de sopgrientethe soupgreens
it sopthe soup it grientesopthe vegetable soup
de diethe act de misdiethe ciminal act, crime
it begrypthe understanding it misbegrypthe misunderstanding
de baarchthe pig it barchjethe piglet
de mûlethe mouth it mûlfolthe mouthful
it skipthe ship de skipperthe skipper

Even word-final elements which are not suffixes in a strict sense may determine the gender of the noun. Thus, almost all nouns ending in -e/ə/ are common gender. The relation between final -e and common gender is nicely illustrated by the following dialect pairs:

Table 7
Common Neuter Translation
de golle it gol part of the barn where the hay is kept
de souwe it sou the sieve
de hoale it hoal the hole
de swarde it swaard the rind
de bille it bil the thigh
de spine it spyn the pantry
de tsjurre it tsjoar the tether
de mudde it mud the hectolitre

The behaviour of this final schwa can be best understood if it is asigned the status of a suffix. This idea is reinforced by the fact that -e at the same time determines the choice of the plural morpheme of these nouns, which is -en, and not -s, as could be expected in regular plural formation.

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x Gender change by opacity of a suffix

Nouns ending in -el are mostly common in Frisian. This may explain why words like de stisel the starch and de spruselthe bit, the scrap, which originally are derivations with the neuter suffix -sel, have changed their gender. The word stisel originates from styf-sel, from the verb stiivjeto starch (with shortening of the stem vowel). Sprusel is from sprút-sel, from the verb spruteto sprout. The reason for gender change is that this suffix has become opaque, which will have been enhanced by the deletion of the final consonant of the stem (respectively [f] and [t]). Follow the corresponding link for more details on the suffix -sel.

Although the gender of a complex word is primarily determined by it right-hand head, the animacity hierarchy as described above plays a role in complex words as well. For example, derivations with the suffix -(e)ling can be either common or neuter, with this division that all words denoting human beings are common: de ferstekkelingthe stowaway, de beroerdelingthe vile fellow, de hoarnlingthe bastard. Also most words for animals are common gender: de mestlingthe store (animal), de harmelingthe ermine, where de/it hokkelingthe yearling can also be neuter. On the other hand, most derived words for things are neuter: it wytlingthe sheet, it keatlingthe chain, it fuotlingthe foot (of a sock, stocking). An exception is de tommelingthe thumb (of a glove), maybe under influence of the base tommethumb, which is common.

There are also some compounds that are direct exceptions to the rule that the head determines the gender:

Table 8
Common head Neuter compound
de bankthe bench it finsterbankthe window-sill
de dragerthe carrier it pakjedragerthe carrier (on a bicycle)
de rôkthe skirt it boarstrokthe undershirt
de bûsethe pocket it festjebûsthe waistcoat pocket
de jeftethe gift it sketjeftthe portion of feed for the cows in the shed

As with tommeling above, the gender in these cases seems to be determined by the non-head. However, it could also be the case that a historical change /də/ > /t/ hast taken place (see the section below), which might be possible as the compound no longer was transparant (note also the deletion of the final schwa in festjebûs and sketjeft).

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x Gender clash by clipping

The phenomenon of clipping may also cause a deviation from the rule that the head determines the gender of a complex word. An example is it iepenloftthe.N open-air, which is a stage play in the open air. The neuter gender is unexpected, since the head de loftthe air is common. However, it iepenloft is a clipping of it iepen-loft-spulthe.N open-air-play, where the original head it spul is neuter indeed.

Possibly clipping is also the reason why there is a gender difference between de fuotbalthe.C football, which is the actual ball with which football is played, and it fuotbalthe.N football, which refers to the play itself (and everything accompanying it). The latter could be a clipping of it fuotbalspulthe.N football-play, where spulplay is a neuter noun. An alternative explanation may be found in the animacy hierarchy: the play could be interpreted as a mass noun, while the ball itself is clearly a thing.

[+] Gender differences between Frisian and Dutch

The gender of nouns in Frisian is often similar to the gender of their counterparts in Dutch, which has a two-gender-system as well, as is described here: gender. Still, there are a number of differences between the two languages. The most important of them are listed below.

Common gender in Frisian and neuter (or both neuter and common gender) in Dutch is found with a number of nouns which have a final schwa in Frisian, but not in Dutch (for the effect of final -e, see the gender of complex words):

Table 9
Frisian common with final schwa Dutch neuter
de koardethe cord; the flex het koord
de oardethe region, place, resort het oord
de fochtethe liquid het vocht
de fontethe font het font
de hoalethe cave; the hole het hol
de hikkethe gate het hek
de oerethe hour het uur
de (spin)wielethe spinning-wheel het spinnewiel
de snottethe snot het/de snot
de makadethe macadam het/de macadam
de tarrethe tar het/de teer

In some pairs with the same gender distinction, common gender in Frisian may reflect an old dative form, i.e Old Frisian tha instead of nominative/accusative thet. The relevant nouns typically denote a place and frequently occurred after a preposition governing dative case. Examples are:

Table 10
Common in Frisian (old dative) Neuter in Dutch
de marthe lake het meer
de boskthe wood het bos
de multhe waist het middel
de middenthe middle het midden
de einthe end (but: it einthe piece, the distance) het eind(e)

A clear explanation cannot be given for all differences, however. An example is Dutch het konijnthe rabbit versus Frisian de knyn.

As for the other way round, quite a number of nouns are neuter in Frisian but have common gender in Dutch. Here the neuter gender in Frisian may, at least in part, be the result of a historical phonological development by which the article de was reduced to /t/ and reinterpreted afterwards as it:

Table 11
Neuter in Frisian Common in Dutch
it aardthe nature de aard
it almenakthe almanac de almanak
it bitthe hole (in the ice) de bijt
it boadskipthe message de boodschap
it briefthe letter de brief
it bûnthe union de bond
it fabrykthe factory de fabriek
it grifthe slate-pencil de griffel
it helterthe halter de halster
it hôfthe yard de hof
it kajútthe saloon; the dormer de kajuit
it kâltthe chat de kout
it kettingthe chain de ketting
it laadthe drawer de la(de)
it laaithe slate de lei
it lêstthe burden; the trouble de last
it plakthe spot de plek
it rútthe window-pane de ruit
it sinthe mind; the temper de zin
it skaadthe shadow de schaduw
it slaadthe salad, lettuce de sla
it sopthe soup de soep
it stee(d)the place de stee
it stringthe strand de streng
it tikselthe shaft (of a wagon) de dissel

It is remarkable that this group includes a large number of nouns denoting body parts:

Table 12
Neuter in Frisian Common in Dutch
it sliepthe temple de slaap
it wangthe cheek de wang
it kinthe chin de kin
it burdthe beard de baard
it skouderthe shoulder de schouder
it boarstthe breast de borst
it spienthe nipple de speen
it bilthe thigh de bil
it kûtthe calf de kuit
it ankelthe ancle de enkel
it kropthe instep de krop
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x Dutch influence

Nouns that have a Dutch cognate with a different gender tend to lose their original Frisian gender in favour for the one that figures in Dutch. This is especially the case with the lesser used words. Among others, this phenomenon is noticed in Tamminga (1978) (also to be found in Tamminga (1985:100-101)) and in De Haan (1997).

[show extra information]

This topic is greatly indebted to an unfinished grammar of Frisian, written in English by Jarich Hoekstra.

For gender in Old Frisian, see Bremmer (2009), especially page 53.

A few remarks on the gender of individual words are made by Kalma (1952:90-91).

The explanations for the transition to common gender (i.e. older dative form) and to neuter (i.e. a historical phonological change) can be found in Visser and Hoekstra (1996). An elaboration is Visser (2011).

The suffixal status of the gender-determining final schwa has initially been proposed by Visser (1986) and elaborated in Visser (1994), all on the basis of observations by Tamminga (1985:132-134).

On the gender of proper names, see Visser (2002:267-268).

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  • Walker, Alastair G. & Wilts, Ommo2001Die nordfriesischen MundartenMunske, Horst Haider, Århammar, Nils, Hoekstra, J.F., Vries, O., Walker, A.G.H., Wilts, O. & Faltings, V.F. (eds.)Handbuch des FriesischenMax Niemeyer284-304
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