Early Latin and late Latin

Michèle FRUYT

University of Paris-Sorbonne (Paris 4)



6. Morphological gender

Some substantives are attested in early and late Latin with grammatical gender hesitations and fluctuations. This generally concerns a neuter substantive which may have a masculine or a feminine allomorph, since Latin displays a tendency to eliminate the neuter gender. Two genders are sometimes documented for a given noun in both early and late authors: gelu, -ūs Nt. ‘frost, ice’ and gelus, -ūs M. in archaic Latin (Accius, Afranius, Cato Agr.) as well as in late Latin (Tertullian, etc.). Some early gender hesitations are to be seen in late authors: beside the usual Nt. pl. castra (-ōrum), Nonius mentions a feminine variant documented in Accius. Although classical texts do not illustrate very often this hesitation, it must have existed in all periods in the low language levels, in the concrete, everyday vocabulary (e.g. body parts, cultivated plants, natural phenomena): collum, -ī Nt. ‘neck’ vs collus M. (Pl.), aeuum, -ī Nt. ‘age, generation’ vs aeuus (Pl., Lucr.), corium, -ī Nt. ‘leather’ vs corius (Pl., Var.). Such hesitations are numerous in phytonyms, a grammatically unstable lexical class: papāuer Nt. ‘poppy’ vs papāuerem acc. (Pl.), coriandrum, -ī Nt. ‘coriander’ vs coriandrus M. (Cato Agr.), rāpum Nt. ‘turnip, beet’ (Varro, Pliny, Mart.) vs rāpa F. (in the first century AD: Scribonius Largus, Columella). This phenomenon is also found at the end of the first century AD or the beginning of the 2nd century AD in Petronius, in the direct speech of the freedmen in a very low level of colloquial, spoken language: lac (lactis) Nt. ‘milk’ is inflected with a masculine accusative sg. lactem (cf. Apul.).

This morphological gender hesitation is increasingly documented in very late Latin. In Gregory of Tours, we can find the same neuter noun used in the same sentence with an ambiguous neuter or masculine gender as well as with an ambiguous neuter plural or feminine singular form (Greg. Tur. Franc. 8,31: exilia, in exilio, extra exilium). This is well attested in Merovingian Latin (Goullet 2014: 183: 3, 18r, 13-14: a maleficia tua; 17, 115v, 23: saeuissimas tormentas). Since it was continued in some Romance languages (Fr. un grain, une graine for Lat. granum Nt.), we may suppose its continuity throughout Latin, even if the data are missing in the classical texts.

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