English:

This question is more out curiosity than anything else, but I was wondering if there is a reason that nouns like "artista", "testigo", and "poeta" are gender neutral, meaning the word ending doesn't change based on the gender like the word "misionero/a" does.

To someone like me still learning Spanish, you would expect "la artista" and "el artisto". Or "el testigo" and "la testiga". Or "la poeta" and "el poeto". But that's not the case.

I thought there might be a phonetic reason for this abnormality, but it doesn't appear to be that. Can anyone help me out? Is there a noticeable pattern that you can follow to find other nouns like this?

Español:

Esta pregunta es más por curiosidad que por otra cosa, pero me preguntaba si hay una razón por la que sustantivos como "artista", "testigo", y "poeta" son neutrales al género, es decir, la palabra final no cambia basado en el género como la palabra "misionero/a" hace.

Para alguien como yo que todavía está aprendiendo español, que se puede esperar "la artista" y "el artisto". O "el testigo" y "la testiga". O "la poeta" y "el poeto". Pero eso no es el caso.

Pensé que podría ser una razón fonética para esta anormalidad, pero no parece ser ese. ¿Alguien puede ayudarme? ¿Existe un patrón notable que usted puede seguir para encontrar otros sustantivos como este?

up vote 5 down vote accepted

They aren't actually gender neutral nouns in Spanish except adjectives that have been forced into nouns like lo bueno. Neuter gender would mean they'd use the article lo, or would always use a neuter adjective form (which is -o, it matches the masculine one). Of the Romance languages, only Asturian and Romanian have significant use for the neuter with nouns/adjectives. What you're describing is actually a word being of the "common gender" (género común).

The reasons will be different depending on the word. Some came from words that had nothing to with jobs and people started using them for jobs, and so the -a ending would sound weird (like with piloto). Some are considered positions, like military ranks, and don't change (includes policía probably). Others have suffixes that naturally end in -a, and it's generally only words ending in -o in their base form that change their vowel. Still others came from the active participle forms -ante, -(i)ente which don't change, although there is a tendency to start adapting some but not all of these (presidenta, for instance) to have a separate feminine form.

As guifa says, there are multiple classes of words which have come into Spanish as common gender, for varying reasons. Fortunately, the majority of them are recognisable by their suffixes, and the majority of these come under just three:

  • -ista artista, periodista, protagonista (From Latin -ista, from Ancient Greek -ιστής (-istḗs))
  • -ente agente, cliente, paciente (From Latin -ēns, -entis / see -ante)
  • -ante habitante, representante, estudiante (From Old Spanish active participle of verb)

Note: some -ente words have developed feminine inflected forms e.g. la tenienta, la parienta, la asistenta, la presidenta.


  • from Greek common gender words
    • -ócrata demócrata, aristócrata, burócrata
    • -ópata homeópata, psicópata, ludópata
    • -asta cineasta, entusiasta, gimnasta
    • -icida suicida, homicida, parricida
    • -ata pirata, apóstata, acróbata
    • -ita israelita, hipócrita, jesuita
    • -nauta nauta, astronauta, aeronauta
    • -uta terapeuta, recluta, hermeneuta
    • -ota idiota, patriota, déspota
    • -eta poeta, atleta, asceta

Note: Most of these have less than 10 examples total in the Spanish language.


The rest have very varied origins, with a few coming under semantic groups:

  • Nationalities azteca, boricua, belga, árabe
  • Zodiac sagitario, leo, tauro
  • Misc
    • alto, modelo, piloto, testigo, socorro, nacido, contacto
    • alienígena, guardia, colega, policía, fantasma, defensa
    • líder, mártir, rival, general, oficial, joven, conserje

Note: again, some of these have developed female inflected forms (in some dialects): la árbitra, la segunda, la soldada, la médica, la rea, la pilota, la jueza.

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