Get a grip on masculine and feminine forms in Portuguese

The words homens (men) and mulheres (women) are useful to know if there are no other clues on toilet doors. This sign says men have sex (trasar normally means to scheme or plan but it can mean to have sexual intercourse) when they can and marry when they want. Whereas women have intercourse when they want and marry when they can.

The words homens (men) and mulheres (women) are useful to know if there are no other clues on toilet doors. But these are not toilet door signs!  This illustration says men have sex when they can, and marry when they want. Whereas women  are the opposite. Yeah, yeah, whatever. “Transar” means to plot, scheme, plan or prepare, but in Brazilian slang it is to have sexual intercourse. “Poder” is to be able, “querer” is to want, and “casar” is to marry. I used this diagram because I thought it would raise a few sobrancelhas (eyebrows). You’ll soon learn all parts of the anatomy with Bernardo!

Queremos falar português, nao é? Claro! (We want to speak Portuguese, don’t we? Of course!) So far we have covered nouns, definite articles and indefinite articles in French and Italian (see the “related articles” below), now it’s the turn of Portuguese. It is relatively simple, in my opinion – é simples (which is pronounced “eh sim-plesh”). And if it all seems a bit baffling at first in print then the YouTube tutorials that at the bottom of this post will make things seem facil (easy).

Like French and Italian, in Portuguese nouns are either masculine or feminine, and the adjectives and articles that qualify them have to match their number and gender. When you are learning words In Portuguese it is helpful to include the definite or indefinite article in the learning process to make it easier to remember if a word is masculine or feminine.

The definite article

“The” in Portuguese is either o (pronounced as oo rather than owe) before a masculine singular noun, or a in front of a feminine singular noun. In the plural, you just add an s.

  • o livro = the book
  • os livros = the books
  • a caneta = the pen
  • as canetas = the pens

Incidentally, the os and as are pronounced like oosh and ash, which is why Portuguese – particularly the European variety – can be very much a “whoosh whash whoosh”-sounding language, particularly when spoken fast.

The indefinite article

“A” or “an” is um in front of a masculine noun (singular, obviously), or uma in front of a feminine noun.

  • um copo = a cup, glass or tumbler
  • uma cidade = a city

Unlike in some of the other Romances languages, there is no problem with the vowels of the articles appearing in front of a noun beginning with a vowel

  • o amigo = the (male) friend
  • a amiga = the (female) friend
  • uma amiga = a (female) friend

Unilke in English, in Portuguese there is a plural form of the indefinite article, meaning “some”:

  • uns copos = some cups, glass or tumbler
  • umas cidades = some cities

So far, so good, hey? Nothing too complicated. Yet. Vamos continuar

Peeping tomHow do you recognise whether words are masculine or feminine?

As in other Romance languages, nouns denoting male beings are masculine. Hence o homen = the man, o senhor = the gentleman, o filho = the son, o irmão = the brother, o tio = the uncle, o pai = the father.

Those denoting female beings are feminine. Hence a mulher = the woman, a senhora = the lady, a filha = the daughter, a irmã = the sister, a tia = the aunt, a mãe = the mother.

The masculine plural form can cover both male and females. For example, os pais can mean the fathers or the parents, and filhos can mean sons or children. This is typical of Romance languages.

Male words have female equivalents where appropriate, just as English has “actor” and “actress”. For example, o gata is the male cat and a gata is the female cat,  o velho is the old man and a velha is the old woman.

Here are some patterns based on word endings.

Nouns ending in o are usually masculine

  • o rio = the river
  • o ano = the year
  • o vinho = the wine
  • BUT  a foto = the photo, a tribo = the tribe

Nouns ending in me are usually masculine

  • um nome = a name
  • o volume = the volume, tome
  • BUT  a fome = hunger

Nouns ending in a tend to be feminine

  • a casa = the house
  • a hora = the hour
  • a data = the date

However, there are quite a few exceptions to the ‘a ending is feminine’ rule. For example, all the words that come from Greek ending in ma such as o telegrama and o drama; and words ending in a that denote male beings such as o papa, the pope, and o guia, the male guide (or a guidebook).

Other common exceptions are

  • o dia = day
  • o mapa = map
  • o planeta = planet
  • o cometa = comet

Nouns ending in gem, ie, tude, and dade are feminine

  • a viagem = journey
  • a espécie = sort, kind
  • a juventude = youth
  • a universidade = university

Nouns ending in ção, são, stão, and gião when they correspond to the English endings –tion, –sion, –stion, and –gion respectively are feminine… (the ão is a very nasal sound .. a bit like the “own” part of “frown”.)

  • a nacão = nation
  • a confusão = confusion
  • a congestão = congestion
  • a região = region

How to form the plurals

When the singular word ends in a vowel you normally add an s; hence livro becomes livros (books)

But when the word ends in r or z you add es; hence rapaz becomes rapazes (boys) and mulher becomes mulheres.

When a singular word ends in m that changes to ns in the plural; hence homen becomes homens (men), viagem become viagens journeys etc. (It’s a very nasal sound again).

When a singular words ends in al, el, ol or ul, the l is usually dropped and becomes is instead: o hospital, os hospitais (hospitals), o hotel, os hotéis (hotels), o lençol, os lençóis (sheets). But note, the Brazilian currency is o real in the singular but os réis in the plural. 

On my wish list of places to visit:  Lençóis Maranhenses national park in the north-eastern state of Maranhão in Brazil. It gets its name from the fact that the dunes look like  lençóis (sheets)

On my wish list of places to visit: the Lençóis Maranhenses national park in the north-eastern state of Maranhão in Brazil. It gets its name from the fact that the dunes look like lençóis (sheets).

If a singular word ends in s, the plural depends on whether the last syllable is stressed or not (the accents on words in Portuguese indicate which syllable is stressed; if there is not accent then normally it is the penultimate syllable). If the stress is on the final syllable then the s gets an es added after it; hence o país (the country) becomes os países (the countries). But if the stress is not on the final syllable then the word does not change; hence o lápis (the pencil ) and os lápis (pencils)

When a singular word ends in ão then normally this changes to ões in the plural; hence a estação (the station) becomes as estações, and again the nasal sound is very strong (like the ending of “groins” in English). But sometimes the ão becomes ães  for example, o cão, os cães (the dog/dogs). And just to complicate things even more, some ão words just add an s in the plural. For example,  o irmão becomes simply os irmãos (brothers) and a mão becomes as mãos (hands).

The gender of countries in the Portuguese lang...

The gender of countries in the Portuguese language: countries with masculine names are green, those with feminine names are purple and those with neutral names are yellow. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Finally, the names of months, seas, rivers and mountains are usually masculine, and the names of cities, towns, islands and continents are usually feminine. But Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo are not. I guess they are masculine because the word rio (river) is masculine as per the o rule above, and because Saint Paul was masculine. The female equivalent of São is Santa, as in Santa Catarina. The adjective santo/santa means “holy”. Countries can be either masculine or feminine, but there are a few that are neuter, including Portugal itself.

So, how are you coping so far? Here are some tutorials on YouTube that will help, particularly with pronunciation, and there is a mix of Brazilian and European Portuguese. Boa sorte! (Good luck)

5 thoughts on “Get a grip on masculine and feminine forms in Portuguese

  1. Hi Bernard!

    This is a great post! Lots of really great tips and resources. I’ve started preparing to learn Portuguese (and plan to do so more full time next summer), but I’ve had difficulty with the singular definite articles (o, a) because I’m used to seeing the definite article with some type of consonant like in French, Italian or Spanish as you know. But I guess it will take some getting used to.🙂

    I also really enjoyed the meme you had at the beginning! That’s hilarious!🙂

    • Hi Dillon, I hope you are well. Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you enjoyed that article. It seems like you are gifted with languages so no doubt you will take to Portuguese quite well, but I must warn you that often when I want to speak Portuguese the French words come out instead, and when I want to speak French I blurt in Portuguese. But I think they are both lovely languages. Your blog is impressive but must be hard work (or time-consuming) for you. My French is rather rusty so it is the sort of thing I need. All the best, Bernard

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