Words From Greek Ending in '-ma' Often Masculine

Most of Them Are English Cognates

puzzle for article on Spanish gender
Un enigma de madera. (A wooden puzzle.). Photo by Belis@rio; licensed via Creative Commons.

In many of my lessons on gender, I have mentioned that most masculine words ending in -a are words that come from Greek. There are dozens of them, nearly all of them ending in -ma. Among the ones you're likely to recognize even if you know little Spanish are problema (problem), tema (theme or subject), teorema (theorem), trauma (trauma) and poema (poem). A few, such as planeta (planet), end in -ta.

So the question often comes up: Why are these words from Greek ending in -a masculine? According to the popular language website Del Castellano, it has to do with the way the words entered the language. In Greek these words were all neuter gender, and they remained neuter as they became part of Latin. But as Latin morphed into Spanish, the masculine and neuter genders merged in a way that formerly neuter nouns became masculine. (The neuter gender still exists in Spanish for some specialized situations, but it isn't used for the names of things.)

Something similar happened with the Greek words that evolved into those Spanish words ending in -ta that refer to roles of people, such as dentista (dentist) and atleta (athlete). Those words were masculine in Greek and then Latin. As Spanish evolved, the "default" form of those words continued to be masculine — but they alternatively could become feminine when referring to women.

Many words for occupations fit this category.

Unfortunately, there's no foolproof way to know which Spanish words ending in -ma come from Greek, although nearly all of them have English cognates, and many have them are connected with science or academic matters. Among the -ma words that don't come from Greek is víctima (victim), which is feminine even referring to a male.

Víctima comes from Latin and thus follows the regular pattern.

Sample Sentences

Here are sentences showing some of the masculine -a words in use. The words may have meanings other than those in the translations:

El carisma es una especie de magnetismo que inspira confianza y adoración. (Charisma is a type of attraction that inspires confidence and adoration.)

El clima de Colombia es muy variado. (The climate of Colombia is quite varied.)

El astrónomo británico Edmund Halley fue el primero en calcular la órbita de un cometa. (The British astronomer Edmund Halley was the first to calculate the orbit of a comet. Note that the feminine cometa is the word for a kite.)

El diafragma es una parte del objetivo que limita el rayo de luz que penetra en la cámara. (The diaphragm is a part of the lens that limits the light beam entering the camera.)

Un diagrama de Venn usa círculos. (A Venn diagram uses circles.)

Los dilemas morales son una preocupación desde la antigüedad. (Moral dilemmas have been a concern since antiquity.)

¿Crees que eres inteligente? Aquí encontrarás algunos muy difíciles enigmas. (Do you think you're intelligent? Here you will find some very difficult puzzles.)

Aunque es muy raro, los fantasmas pueden ser visibles durante el día.

(Although it's quite rare, ghosts can be visible during the day.)

No todos los idiomas españoles son latinos. (Not all the languages of Spain are from Latin.)

Esta organización es como un sistema cerrado. (This organization is like a closed system.)

El tema seleccionado del estudio debe ser un problema prioritario de nuestra sociedad. (The subject selected for the study should be a critical problem in our society.)

Sources: Sample sentences have been adapted from sources that include Yahoo México, MuyInteresante, Definicion.mx, Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Monografías, Microsoft, TheWebfoto, WikiHow.com, AndroidPit.es and CircoViral.