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In Allen & Greenough, §34, I see a short discussion on the gender of animal names:

Many nouns may be either masculine or feminine, according to the sex of the object. These are said to be of Common Gender: as, exsul, exile; bōs, ox or cow; parēns, parent.
Note.—Several names of animals have a grammatical gender, independent of sex. These are called epicene. Thus lepus, hare, is always masculine, and vulpēs, fox, is always feminine.

My question is, are there any clues as to which animals have "common gender," and which have a fixed grammatical gender? A few ideas:

  • If it's easy to tell the gender of an animal just by looking at it, then it's common gender, otherwise it's grammatical.
    • An issue with this is that canis appears to be common gender, while vulpes is grammatical – and it's surely not much more difficult to identify gender in a fox than in a dog.
  • If it's a domestic animal, then it's common gender, otherwise it's grammatical.
    • But while canis and bos are common gender, ovis is feminine.

Is this simply a matter of memorization? Or is there a guideline, if not a rule, for animal name gender?

  • 1
    Very interesting question, I guess I've just never thought about it as systematically as you have. It's also interesting how the Germanic system works for comparison: a cow is always feminine and a bull always masculine, but a dog can be either. But then there is bitch... – Cerberus Aug 24 '16 at 2:30
  • Luraghi 2013 observes that "[n]ouns that refer to non-breeding animals often do not have variable gender: hēkhelidṓn ‘the swallow (fem.)’ usually also refers to the male, in spite of some sporadic masculine forms; ho bátrakhos ‘the frog (masc.)’, with no sex-specific reference." She did say this about Greek but we can apply this to Latin too. To use her terminology, non-breeding animals often have a fixed grammatical gender. – Alex B. Sep 2 '16 at 18:21
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In Latin (and Romance languages) grammatical gender usually corresponds to real gender only with animals which are very near to human life, that is animals we need to distinguish by gender. Obviously this applies to humans too.

So we have parens, but also mater and pater. But we have only exsul, probably because back then most of the time political exile was inflicted to males.

As for other animals, we don't usually care about the sex of a hare or a fox; the really few times we do, we can just say "female fox": no need for a new word here; ovis is feminine, while aries and vervex are male, because sheep were of utmost importance for the Romans, so they often needed to distinguish between male and female. So bos is neutral, but vacca is used for the female and taurus for the male. There is also hircus and caper vs capra and capella for male vs female goats (thanks @TKR).

As for canis, they would call the female canis femina: this is probably because the sex of a dog was of little importance at the beginning: maybe only to dog breeders, who maybe had a custom word that just happened to not survive. We have instead catula and catulus; this is probably because the diminutive form is also used to express attachment, not only real physical smallness: and if you are attached to a dog, you'll use its correct gender if you can (see italian cagnolina); while a female form of "canis" was difficult to create, the female form of "catulus" was immediately available.

Anyway, there is no way to be sure about every single animal; you can make a good guess, but you should always check on your dictionary. For example it's not a given that a generic word bos must exist – it doesn't for sheep (maybe because there weren't "standard" situations when males and females needed to be named together).

  • Caper and hircus mean goat, not sheep. There's capra/capella for a female goat, and aries and vervex for a male sheep (ram or wether). – TKR Sep 1 '16 at 17:06
  • I thought a goat was a male sheep! thank'you for correcting me! I'll fix the answer – user786 Sep 1 '16 at 18:02

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