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In linguistics, the adjective epicene is used to describe a word that has only one form for both male and female referents. In some cases, the term common is also used, but should not be confused with common or appellative as a contrary to proper (as in proper noun). In English, for example, the epicene (or common) nouns cousin and violinist can refer to a man or a woman, and so can the epicene (or common) pronoun one. The noun stewardess and the third-person singular pronouns he and she on the other hand are not epicene (or common).
In languages with grammatical gender, the term epicene can be used in two distinct situations:
- The same word can refer to both masculine and feminine antecedents, while retaining its own, either masculine or feminine, grammatical gender. For example, Classical Greek λαγώς (lagṓs) "hare" is masculine, but can refer to male and female hares (he-hares and she-hares), and ἀλώπηξ (alṓpēks) "fox" is feminine, but can refer to male and female foxes (he-foxes and she-foxes). For this meaning the term common is different from epicene.
- An article, noun, adjective or pronoun has identical masculine and feminine forms, but they don't follow always one agreement pattern. For example, in French, the noun enfant "child" and the adjective espiègle "mischievous" can be either masculine or feminine, but they are differentiated by the article:
un enfant espiègle (masculine) "a mischievous male child" une enfant espiègle (feminine) "a mischievous female child"
- The same can happen in French with the epicene elided singular articles (l'), the definite (les) and undefinite (des) plural articles and the contractions aux (à + les) and des (de + les) when in contact with the noun, so the adjective takes the task of marking the gender:
les adultes français (masculine) "the French male adults" or "the French adults" (of any gender) les adultes françaises (feminine) "the French female adults"
- For these meanings the term "common" is also used.
- However, there can be cases where the agreement cannot force the disambiguation, even with the presence of pronoun, article, noun and adjective when they are all epicene:
moi, l'éleve moldave (masculine or feminine) "I, the Moldavian student"
This can be further complicated when dealing with spoken French (when some orthographical nuances are lost) or referring about biological entities with non-binary gender, such as the hermaphrodite snail or dioecious plants.
|Look up epicene in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- Psychology , A Journey of Discovery 4th: Psychology, Psychology
- Dictionary.com: epicene (accessed on 10 August 2015)
- William W. Goodwin: A Greek Grammar. Revised and enlarged. Boston, published by Ginn & Company, 1895, p.35, §.158