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Inanimate vs animate nouns in Polish language

BumSkillet 7 | 5    
9 Oct 2017  #1

How does one distinguish between animate and inanimate nouns in Polish? Is there a rule of thumb?

mafketis 16 | 4,655    
9 Oct 2017  #2

In theory it's easy! This only affects singular nouns with masculine gender.

animate = alive, inanimate = not alive
so.... people and animals (that move around on their own) are animate and things are inanimate

but... there's also something called 'facultative (optional) animacy' where some nouns that refer to things are sometimes or often or almost always treated as if they are alive. It's not a terrible mistake if you accidentally use the wrong form with an inanimate noun. Just paying attention and mimicking what you hear is the best guide.
cinek 2 | 328    
9 Oct 2017  #3


There are some rules but they are vague. In general, people and animals are animate, but all other things (incl. plants) may be either animate or inanimate. What's more, this part of the language is still evolving and we can observe more and more inanimate things to became animate, especially in colloquial speech. E.g. fruits, vagetables: zjadłem pomidor -> zjadłem pomidora, jem banan -> jem banana etc.

Also, people sometimes 'animate' things to sound funny e.g. mam pomysł -> mam pomysła, odpaliłem wóz -> odpaliłem woza etc.

DominicB - | 2,259    
9 Oct 2017  #4


There are some "rules of thumb", but plenty of exceptions. The following are generally facultative animate:

One-piece tools
Car brands
Units of currency
Fruits that are not native to Poland (like tomatoes and bananas, mentioned above)
Articles of clothing, especially men's clothing
Parts of the body
Polish towns and cities

There is a whole list of them on pages 71 to 74 of Swan's reference grammar. Go to this site and click on "Reference Grammar" to download a pdf file:
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
9 Oct 2017  #5

Polish has something called "virile/masculine animate nouns", which are confined to male beings vs. "masculine inanimate nouns". confined to masculine-gender objects, as opposed to "masculine animate nouns", e.g. animals etc. which are not human, while still masculine, e.g. "pies" (dog) etc..

Quite involved at that:-)
DominicB - | 2,259    
9 Oct 2017  #6


Not quite. In the singular, there are four genders: masculine animate (including facultative animates), masculine inanimate, feminine and neuter. In the plural, there are two genders: virile (male humans) and non-virile (everything else besides male humans).
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
10 Oct 2017  #7

Yes, this is correct. I did omit the plurals, you're right.
Appreciate the addendum:-)
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
12 Oct 2017  #8

Interesting that you count animate vs. inanimate nouns as "separate" genders, not merely masculine, feminine, and neuter. I'd think, at least I was always taught (by TWO Polish-educated teachers no less), that animate/inanimate nouns were subsumed under the heading of which ever gender the noun in question is assigned.

I'm not challenging you, I'm merely questioning whether there's actually a fourth gender in Polish. Maybe in the end it's all semantics:-)
DominicB - | 2,259    
13 Oct 2017  #9


You're misunderstanding what grammatical gender is. It has to do with patterns of agreement between nouns and the grammatical forms of their associated adjectives and pronouns. Think of gender that way, and you won't get confused. If you think of grammatical gender in terms of sex, you will get confused. While they may overlap, they are really two very different concepts.

A lot of time is wasted by those learning highly inflected languages like Polish or Latin by failing to distinguish the difference between gender, sex, and declension. And by teachers who don't know the difference themselves.
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
13 Oct 2017  #10

I understand perfectly well what grammatical gender means, also how it functions. My query concerned rather the issue of biological gender as reflected in animate vs. inanimate nouns, that's all, and whether or not these comprised more than three genders.
DominicB - | 2,259    
13 Oct 2017  #11


There are six genders in Polish: four in the singular and two in the plural, to whit, masculine animate (with facultatives), masculine inanimate, feminine and neuter; and virile and non-virile. These correspond to the six possible sets of pronomial and adjectival endings that agree with the noun in question. If you think of it that way, the rules are very simple and easy to apply.

If you think of Polish as having three genders, you will soon get confused. The rules will be very complicated, and you will find them difficult, and sometimes impossible, to apply.
mafketis 16 | 4,655    
13 Oct 2017  #12

There are six genders in Polish: four in the singular and two in the plural

That's the approach I like, but Polish linguists are more into merging them into five genders based on singular and plural taken together... I know... yech

masculine-virielle on oni
masculine-animate (including facultative animates) on one
masculin-inanimate on one
feminine - ona one
neuter - ono one
DominicB - | 2,259    
13 Oct 2017  #13


Yes, that does make a bit of a mess out of it.
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
13 Oct 2017  #14

Thanks for "clearing" things up a bit, DominicB. Many grammarians though disagree on this point as well:-)
DominicB - | 2,259    
14 Oct 2017  #15


It doesn't get any clearer than that. Don't know what you were expecting.
Lyzko 17 | 3,423    
14 Oct 2017  #16

Nothing, other than the same thing you were:-) Clear as glass.

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