A neuter noun is a noun that is neither male nor female, but is of neutral gender. Nouns are words that are used to name a particular person, object, quality or action. They are the detailing words that for the basis of understanding messages in speech and writing, and form one of key types of words found in a person’s lexicon. By being neutral, the neuter noun tells the reader or listener that the thing being referred to neither belongs nor relates to a male or female within the context being described.
The neuter noun is, therefore, an element of grammatical gender. Grammatical gender is separate from actual gender. This means the gender of the word and not the thing or object being described. This however, can also, in some languages, be the same thing. For example, in Spanish, a ‘professor’ is either male — el profesor — or female — la profesora — and is never neuter.
There are four main types of grammatical gender. These are masculine, feminine, neuter and common. Masculine and feminine nouns are self-explanatory: the noun itself is either male or female or the object-person is male or female. Common gender applies to words that represent things that could be either male or female, such as ‘leader,’ ‘deer’ and ‘president.’ The common noun is not necessarily present in all languages as a concept.
Languages differentiate between the grammatical genders in different ways. These can be based on semantics, morphology or lexicon. Semantic neuter nouns can be derived from the meaning because the word is neither male nor female or lacks the qualities associated in that language with male or female things. Morphology indicates a neuter noun by the ending of the word itself and all words with the same ending or the same stem have the same gender.
In German, the neuter noun appears almost random or arbitrary. This is because the gender of the noun is based on neither morphology nor semantics. There are some cases where the ending of words gives a clue as to the gender; for example, words ending in ‘-chen’ and ‘lein,’ which are both neuter, even if this means ‘madchen,’ or girl, and ‘fraulein,’ unmarried woman, are neuter. The rest of the neuter nouns must be remembered because there are little clues from the words themselves.
The neuter noun in Spanish is complex. Outwardly, all nouns are either masculine or feminine. This depends on the gender of the object as in German or the gender of the person or animal named. The neuter noun turns up as a kind of concept and is preceded by the definitive article ‘lo’ or by creating a neuter form of words such as ‘this', turning ‘éste’ into ‘esto.’ The neuter form is used when the object is unknown or when referring to a concept or feeling.
Old English used to be more like German. The gender of the noun could be told by the ending of the noun. The nouns were then divided into male, female and neuter with no idea of common nouns. After 1066, grammatical gender disappeared from English as an inflection. The majority of objects are now without gender, except for specific nouns used for people and animals where the gender is known such as the difference between a ‘bull’ and a ‘cow.’