Date of this Version
American Journal of Philology, Volume 137, Number 3 (Whole Number 547), Fall 2016, pp. 551-555
Why is patria (“fatherland”) a feminine noun? How is it that virtus (“courage”), though etymologically linked with the masculine vir, is also a feminine noun? And more vexingly, what is it about a book (liber) that makes it masculine instead of, say, neuter? When first-year Latin students ask these sorts of questions, our immediate impulse is to reassure them that grammatical gender is just that—grammatical. Trying to divine some underlying sexual characteristic that makes courage feminine or a book masculine is not only futile but also counterproductive to early language learning. As I tell my own students: theirs not to wonder why, theirs but to memorize.