"Transvestite" first-declension masculine nouns?!

From: Carl W. Conrad (cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu)
Date: Thu May 22 1997 - 08:10:46 EDT

At 9:13 PM -0400 5/21/97, Gregory and Carol Yeager wrote:
>Say, now, I've stumbled upon a neat-o idea for teaching Greek to
>youngsters. Tell me what you think. It has to do with those ridiculous
>nouns of the first declension that have feminine forms that are really
>masculine: ho mathetes, ho prophetes, and so on.
>How do I alert my kids to these....grotesque blemishes in the otherwise
>pristine koine Greek <g> ? Well, finally I figured it out, after saying
>countless times...."remember, this is a noun that has a feminine form,
>but it's really masculine....." One of my little geniuses chirped,
>"Just like Dennis Rodman!" "Or like Ru Paul <sp?>" suggested another.
>And the problem was solved. I didn't think it wise to call them
>"transvestite words" but Rodman words is perfect- everyone knows

With all due respect, I think this way of looking at first-declension nouns
is both theoretically and historically misleading. While one may well say
that the first declension has more feminine nouns than masculines, it ought
not to be referred to as the FEMININE DECLENSION but rather as the H/long-A
declension, although perhaps better, just the A-declension since there are
short-A nouns there also (the sort with H in genitive and dative sg.). It's
a matter of mostly long-A stems that have become H-stems except when the
long-A was preceded by E, I, or R and of short-A stems. But the masculine
nouns of this declension are as old and as normal as the feminine nouns;
there are lots of first-declension agent-nouns in -THS in addition to
POIHTHS and NAUTHS; there are lots of proper names of men in -AS and in the
patronymic -IDAS, particularly from the many parts of the Greek-speaking
world like the Peloponnese and southern Italy and Sicily where Doric
dialects prevailed. There is nothing abnormal and certainly nothing
"transvestite" about such masculine nouns. Declensions are categorized not
by any dominant gender associated with them but rather by the kinds of
vocalic or consonantal stems associated with them. I think, then, that
categorization of the declensions fundamentally in gender terms is
pedagogically a mistake in the first place, and talking about masculine
nouns of the first declension as "transvestite" does violence to their
perfectly natural place in the first declension.

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018
cwconrad@artsci.wustl.edu OR cwc@oui.com
WWW: http://www.artsci.wustl.edu/~cwconrad/

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