What Gender is Your Country?

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally published in November 2013]

I am often asked by my students why countries receive masculine or feminine names in languages that make a grammatical gender distinction. For example, why is Portugal masculine in French but feminine in Russian? Conversely, why is China feminine in French but masculine in Russian? Is there a geographical pattern to the gender assignment? The answer is “not really”. On first glance, it does seem that Russian and French, at least, place many countries in the same categories. As can be seen on the maps posted here, countries in in central and western Asia and northern Africa tend to be coded as masculine in both Russian and French, while most European nations fall in the feminine category. The pattern, however, is deceptive.

Let’s consider how gender assignment words in different European languages. Words that refer to people (and sometimes animals) are usually assigned to gender categories based on the sex of the referent: French homme and Russian muščina ‘man’ are both masculine, French femme and Russian ženščina ‘woman’ are both feminine, and so on. Words that refer to entities without sex—whether countries or objects—tend to obtain their gender assignment simply by the phonological shape of the word. Sometimes, the gender is determined seemingly by the orthographic shape of the word, which reflects its earlier pronunciation. As a result, gender assignment (particularly, in a foreign language) “makes no sense”. For example, in German “a tree is male, its buds are female, its leaves are neuter”, as Mark Twain once put it. Moreover, semantic counterparts (translations) between languages are often not assigned to the same gender: the word for ‘letter’ is masculine in German, feminine in French, and neuter in Russian; the word for ‘book’ is masculine in French, feminine in Russian, and neuter in German. In the same vein, ‘sun’ is masculine in French, neuter in Russian, and feminine in German, whereas ‘moon’ is feminine in French and Russian, but masculine in German. Similar examples abound.

French_country_name_genders.svgAs for country names, French classifies some as masculine and others as feminine. The Wikipedia map reproduced on the left purports to show the distribution of “masculine” and “feminine” countries, shown in green and purple, respectively. Unfortunately, a number of errors mar this map: for example, La Grande-Bretagne (Great Britain) is feminine, not masculine. The general rule is that country names that end in silent “e” are feminine. Hence, the feminine country names la France (France), la Belgique (Belgium), l’Allemagne (Germany), l’Algérie (Algeria), la Chine (China), la Guyane (Guiana), la Russie (Russia), la Corée (Korea). Notable exceptions include the masculine country names that end in a silent “e”, such as le Belize (Belize), le Mexique (Mexico), le Mozambique (Republic of Mozambique), le Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe), le Zaïre (Republic of Zaire), le Cambodge (Cambodia).


This map disregards, however, the fact that some country names are grammatically plural. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the gender affects both the selection of the article and the agreement on various other elements in the sentence. A more detailed map is reproduced on the left. As can be seen, the gender assignment of country names is revealed by the choice of the article only in the case of place names that start from a consonant, are grammatically singular, and appear with an article in the first place. A few country names in French do not call for an article (this situation is much rarer in French than in English or German). Madagascar, for example, appears without an article and is feminine, possibly, because the word la republique, which constitutes part of its full name, is feminine. Oman also appears without an article but is masculine, possibly because the word le sultanat is masculine. The gender of plural country names, such as Les États-Unis (United States) and Les Philippines (the Philippines) is determined by the singular: the former is masculine and the latter is feminine. The article used with plural terms is the same in both genders, but predicative participles do show gender agreement with such terms in the form of an extra silent “e”. For example, Les États-Unis sont divisés but Les Philippines sont divisées. Like other nouns, geographical terms that start with the vowel appear with the article l’, regardless of their gender, but the gender again becomes important for agreement purposes. L’Égypte (Egypt) is feminine, whereas L’Uruguay (Uruguay) is masculine. Once again, the agreement on the participle is expressed through a silent “e”, only apparent in spelling: L’Égypte est divisée but L’Uruguay est divisé…


As with other nouns, no direct correspondence exists between the gender of a given country name in French, in German, in Russian, or in any other gendered language. As most country names in German appear without an article, I will focus on the gender assignment in Russian toponyms. Articles do not exist in Russian, but the gender is reflected in various other elements: demonstratives (‘this’, ‘that’), adjectives, verbs, and so on; gender may also affect how a particular term is declined. As can be seen from the map reproduced on the left, country names in Russian can be masculine, feminine, or neuter. A few country names, such as Soedinënnye Štaty (United States) and Filippiny (the Philippines), are grammatically plural. Most of those plural names are grammatically masculine, including Soedinënnye Štaty (United States), Ob”edinënnye Arabskie Èmiraty (United Arab Emirates), Komory (Comoros), Mal’divy (Maldives), Sejčel’skie Ostrova (Seychelles), Solomonovy Ostrova (Solomon Islands), and Maršallovy Ostrova (Marshall Islands). Filippiny (the Philippines) can be construed as either feminine or neuter. Unlike in French, however, where plural nouns still trigger gender agreement on predicative participles, in Russian genders in the plural are not relevant for agreement.  The only difference that gender assignment makes for plural country names is in the form of the genitive case: compare the masculine s Maldiv-ov (from the Maldives) and s Filippin (from the Philippines). The null genitive plural ending is characteristic of some feminine and neuter, but not masculine, nouns (for a more detailed discussion of the genitive plural endings in Russian, see Bailyn and Nevins “Russian Genitive Plurals as Impostors”).

In some rare but instructive cases, a country name can have a mixed or ambiguous gender assignment. As in French, the assignment of specific country names to gender categories depends on phonological form rather than on meaning. The meaninglessness of gender assignment becomes particularly clear in the cases where the same country can be referred by a formal or informal name, which differ in their gender assignment. For example, while Soedinënnye Štaty (United States) and Niderlandy (the Netherlands) are both plural and masculine, the informal names for these countries—Amerika (America) and Gollandija (Holland) are both feminine. Similarly, Velikobritanija (Great Britain) is feminine, as is Anglija (England), a term often used informally for the whole UK. In contrast, Soedinënnoe korolevstvo (United Kingdom) is grammatically neuter. By the way, Šotlandija (Scotland) and Irlandija (Ireland) are both feminine, but Uèl’s (Wales) and Kornuol (Cornwall) are masculine. Other examples of formal and informal country names belonging to different genders include Turkmenistan and Kirgizstan (Kyrgyzstan), which are masculine by their official names, but also have feminine informal designations, Turkmenia and Kirgizija, that are more commonly used. Likewise, the formal country names Demokratičeskaja Respublika Kongo (DRC) and Respublika Kongo (Republic of Congo) are both feminine because the word respublika is feminine. But their informal designation, Kongo (Congo), is neuter.

Some other country designations are even more tricky. Peru and Čili (Chile) are typically neuter when talking about the political entity, but feminine when talking about the physical country. Somali seems to be in anarchy even in the Russian language: the country name varies between masculine, feminine, and neuter. Another problematic set of cases involves Tonga and other similar country names of Pacific Islands: despite ending in -a, which usually places nouns in the feminine category, they are typically masculine, because the Russian word ostrov for ‘island’ is masculine. Izrail’ (Israel) has been incorrectly colored on this map; the word is definitely masculine in Russian. Both Palestina (Palestine) and Iudeja (Judea) are feminine.

In general, gender assignment in Russian follows a complex algorithm that takes into account the natural sex (for people and sometimes animals), whether the noun is declinable, its phonological shape, and more. As far as country names are concerned, the ending is of the utmost importance in determining its gender. Names of large historical countries typically end in -ija, regardless of their form in English or in the language of the country itself. Following the general gender assignment rules in Russian, these names are feminine: Francija (France), Čexija (Czech Republic), Indija (India). There are a few exception to this pattern, such as the masculine names of Kitaj (China), Livan (Lebanon), and Alžir (Algeria). Newer or smaller countries typically have names that are simply transliterated. If they happen to end in -a or –ija, they will generally be feminine (e.g. Kosta Rika); otherwise, they are mostly masculine. Also in line with general gender assignment rules, country names ending in -o are neuter: Marokko (Morocco), Monako (Monaco), and San Marino.

But when it comes to foreign toponyms in Russian in general, including names of cities, towns, lakes, mountains, rivers, and so on, the most important factor in determining gender is whether a given term is declined or not (that is, whether it changes its ending based on its position in the sentence). Declinable toponyms are assigned to a gender category in accordance with their declension pattern (which is, in turn, based on the ending): nouns ending in a hard consonant are generally masculine, those ending in -o or -e are neuter, those ending in -a are feminine, as are most of those ending in a soft consonant. In contrast, indeclinable toponyms are assigned to a gender category based on their “umbrella word”: names for cities in this category are masculine because the word gorod ‘city’ is masculine; river names are feminine, as is reka ‘river’; while lakes are neuter, as is ozero ‘lake’. Foreign toponyms are almost twice as likely as their native Russian counterparts to be used in appositive construction without declension, where the actual toponym does not get the relevant case ending: a construction such as v gorode Vellington (literally ‘in city Wellington’, with no prepositional case ending on the toponym) is nearly twice as common as one such as v gorode Moskva (‘in city Moscow’). Moreover, a phrase such as v gorode Vellington (without case ending on the toponym) is more than four times as common as one such as v gorode Vellingtone (with a case ending on the toponym). (These figures are based on the statistics in Graudina et al. 1976.)

The issue of whether a given foreign toponym is declined, is much more complicated. (In what follows, we shall see the forms of the locative case, which is naturally the most common case to be used with place names.) The deciding factors here are the phonological shape of the toponym, as well as its origin. A great deal of variation is also found among speakers of Russian as to which toponyms they decline. On one end of the spectrum we have foreign toponyms that ending in a consonant; as a rule, such words are declined, as in v Vellingtone (in Wellington), v Vašingtone (in Washington), v Pariže (in Paris). Exceptions include some Latin American place names that end in -os, as in v Fuèntos (in Fuentos), not v Fuèntose. Asian foreign toponyms, including country names, also tend not to be declined: v Bangladeš (in Bangladesh) is more common than v Bangladeše. Moreover, compound toponyms tend not to be declined (although occasionally they are, particularly in colloquial speech): na Pèr-Lašez (at Père Lachaise), but rarely na Pèr-Lašeze. Finally, compound toponym whose last part is an “umbrella term”, such as strit (street), skver (square), park (park), and the like, do not decline regardless of their frequency: na Bejker-strit (on Baker Street), but never na Bejker-strite.

On the other end of the spectrum we have toponyms that never decline: these include names that end in -u (e.g. v Katmandu, in Kathmandu), as well as those that end in -i. The case of i-final toponyms is interesting because both -i and –y in Russian are plural endings: compare knigi ‘books’ vs. žurnaly ‘magazines’ (the choice depends on the hardness/softness of the stem-final consonant). Yet when it comes to foreign toponyms ending in -i and –y, they pattern differently: those ending in -i are virtually never declined (e.g. v Tbilisi, v Nagasaki, v Tripoli), while those ending in –y virtually always decline, replacing the -y by the appropriate case endings (e.g. v Afinax, in Athens; v Tatrax, in Tatra Mountains; v Kannax, in Cannes).

Also close to the “indeclinable” end of the spectrum are foreign toponyms ending in -o  or -e. Such toponyms mostly remain unchanged, as in v Oslo (in Oslo), v Bordo (in Bordeaux), v Sorrento (in Sorrento), v Kale (in Calais). Historically, however, Russian did decline such toponyms, hence the title of a short story by Turgenev (mid-19th century): Večer v Sorrente (“Evening in Sorrento”). Interestingly, toponyms in -o/ -e of Ukrainian and Belarusian origin, which decline in those languages, do not decline in Russian: v Kovno (in Kovno), v Grodno (in Grodno). Moreover, even Russian native toponyms ending in -o/ -e are apparently shifting towards being indeclinable: the older form v Birjulëve (in Biryulevo), for example is being gradually replaced by v Birjulëvo.

The final and the most complex class of foreign toponyms in Russian involves those that end in ‑a. In Russian, like in Italian or Spanish, a final “a” is a salient marker of feminine gender; for example, small children mistakenly treat exceptional masculine a-final words like deduška ‘grandpa’ and plural words like myšata ‘baby mice’ as feminine. Yet, not all foreign toponyms ending in -a are not regularly declined or assigned to the feminine gender. Here, the origin of the place name and its frequency of use in Russian play important roles. Well-known names of large cities do decline: v Buxare (in Bukhara), v Siene (in Siena), v Ankare (in Ankara). Compound Italian‑ or Spanish-derived place names generally do not decline: v Santjago-de-Kompostela (in Santiago-de-Compostella), v Pal’ma-de-Mal’orka (in Palma-de-Majorca). But compound terms with La‑ or Santa– as the first part sometimes do: both v La-Plata and v La-Plate (in La Plata), v Santa‑Klara and v Santa-Klare (in Santa Clara) are acceptable. As for French-derived place names in ‑a, those that have the (stressed) -a in French do not decline in Russian (v Spa), whereas those that end in a silent “e” in French and acquired an (unstressed) –a in Russian do decline: v Ženeve (in Geneva, in French: Genève), v Lozanne (in Lozanne), v Tuluze (in Toulouse). Japanese place names in -a do not decline in Russian, except “Hiroshima”: this toponym was so frequently used during the Cold War that it became fully Russified and therefore declinable: v Osaka (in Osaka), v Sunagava (in Sunagawa), but v Xirosime (in Hiroshima). Finnish and Estonian toponyms vary so that both declined and non-declined forms—v Kuokkale and v Kuokkala (in Kuokkala)—are found; the general tendency is for more frequently used or better known place names to decline, while lesser known toponyms do not. Abkhaz and Georgian place names in -a typically do not decline, with the exception of well-known resort town: in Adzjubža (in Adzyubzha), but in v Picunde (in Pitsunda).


Bailyn, John Frederick and Andrew Nevins (2008) Russian Genitive Plurals are Impostors. In Andrew Nevins & Asaf Bachrach (eds.) Inflectional Identity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 237–270.

Graudina, Ljudmila Karlovna, Viktor Aleksandrovich Ickovich, and Lia Pavlovna Katlinskaja (1976) Grammatičeskaja pravil’nost’ russkoj reči. Opyt častotno-stilističeskogo slovarja variantov [Grammatical correctness of Russian speech. An experimental frequential stylistic dictionary of variants]. Moscow: Izdatel’stvo Nauka.




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