3

Since it ends in o, you'd expect it to be masculine. Additionally, it's not a contraction of an originally feminine noun such as foto < fotografia. The dictionary indicates nothing too significant of its etymology:

lat. tribus,us 'tribo, divisão do povo romano'

This being the case, how did the noun tribo come to be feminine?

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  • Portuguese “tribo” comes from Latin “tribus and “tribus” is/was feminine in latin too, so you could say that Portuguese “tribo” is feminine because its antecedent, “tribus” was/is also feminine, but I believe you seek for a deeper explanation. I just don't know if an explanation that has to go through Latin and very possibly PIE fits in Portuguese StackExchange. .By the way, the Latin word “tribus” has many meanings, for what I've seen.
    – Schilive
    Jan 16 at 23:25
  • @Schilive It’s because of medieval hesitation that settled into the historical gender, but has not always been that way. See below.
    – tchrist
    Jan 16 at 23:54
  • 1
    Tribo isn't the only feminine noun ending in "o". There are many more. Likewise, "carisma" isn't the only masculine noun ending in "a".
    – Centaurus
    Jan 17 at 2:00
  • @Centaurus, and there's also nouns ending in “a” or “o” that can be masculine or feminine, like “caixa” and sorta “macho”, since there's “macha”, but it's not very used. Endings can be tricky.
    – Schilive
    Jan 17 at 2:09
9
+100

The short answer is Latin. The longer answer is quite a bit more nuanced.

The various fourth-declension -us feminines in Latin like tribus and manus were much more apt to retain their original gender than the rather uncommon second-declension -us feminines were. That is why we have a mão, as mães from the Latin fourth-declension feminine manus.

Similarly, Latin tribus also stayed feminine in most Romance, including in modern Portuguese where it’s always feminine a tribo today, like in as doze tribos de Israel or in as tribos urbanas.

In contrast, second-declension Latin -us feminines usually became masculines, especially in Iberia. The Latin word methodus was a second-declension feminine that became masculine in modern Portuguese o método and Spanish el método. Yet in France it remained feminine: modern French has la méthode. Other second-declension feminines that became masculines today include humus becoming húmus, humo.

But tribus is from the fourth declension not the second, and so it largely retained its original gender. It stayed feminine and became la tribu in all three of French, Spanish, and Asturian, and is now la tribù in modern Italian. However, in Catalan and Galician, a language very closely related to Portuguese, it became masculine, producing o tribo in Galician and el tribu in Catalan.

The split between Portuguese and Galician provides your first visible indication that there’s a much more interesting story behind all this. That is, you can find no end of old examples where Portuguese uses o tribo not a tribo. Why is that? For that matter, you can even find it used in the masculine today from time to time, although this is not considered standard Portuguese any longer.

But it once was! Or at least, could be.

In A categoria gramatical de género do português antigo ao português actual Maria Carmen de Frias e Gouveia da Universidade de Coimbra at various points writes:

Recolhi muitos vocábulos que mudaram de género do período arcaico para o português actual: afronto, alcachofra, aleijão, ametisto, apostema, bacio, banco roto, cisma, clima, cometa, cornas, dote, esfinge, espinafre, estige, estratagema, fantasma, hipérbole, íbis, mapa, mar, metamorfose, pirâmide (pirames), planeta, retrete, rim, rouba, etc. Variaram, desde cedo: árvore, cárcere, fim, teiró, tribo, entre outras. Curiosamente, retomaram o género etimológico, por exemplo, andorinha, diocese (esporadicamente masculino na época medieval, como se verá) e tribo.

...

Árvore era ainda de género masculino em Duarte Nunes de Leão, não obstante o feminino ter surgido em época muito mais recuada: «.., dizemos este método, este dote, este paul, este tribo, este nariz, este árvore [...]» (Leão: cap. VII, 224). O feminino definitivo é, portanto, posterior a finais do século XVI.

Tribo, palavra hoje feminina, sofreu hesitação de género, mesmo ao longo de século XVII. Vieira (Ali, 1964: 70) usa-a nos dois géneros: «De huma tribo a outra tribo» (Sermões, 8, 264 e «Ajuntou todos os tribos que poude» (Ibidem, 9, 412). Camões empregou-a como masculina: «o tribo ilustre» (Lusíadas, III, 140).

Como se pode ver por estes exemplos, as razões que levaram à mudança do género dos vocábulos podem ser, efectivamente, de variada ordem: alguns, como cometa, fantasma, planeta ou tribo (e eventualmente dia) viram o seu género alterado devido á terminação, (mesmo guia e espia que, embora aplicados a homens, eram femininos em Castilho e Vieira), recuperando mais tarde, possivelmente por influência culta, o género etimológico; outros sofreram mudança por associação com o sexo da pessoa de que são atributo; outros ainda, adquiriram o género que tinham na língua através da qual entraram em Português ou por analogia com outros vocábulos como teria acontecido com dote, agora masculino.

...

Por outro lado, provou-se que, em vários casos, a hesitação no emprego do género gramatical, com a consequente coexistência de formas, levou – como ainda hoje acontece – a uma mudança.. O mesmo sucede com outros vocábulos, como as palavras de género duvidoso, podendo ocorrer uma futura alteração, como se anuncia já na forma grama, que conhece o uso erudito (o masculino) e o feminino que tende a fixar-se por influência da terminação. No entanto, não pode afirmar-se com toda a segurança que essa coexistência, numa determinada época, de uma forma masculina e outra feminina leve automaticamente a uma mudança, ou ao abandono de uma forma em favor de outra. Registaram-se casos, por exemplo, em que houve coexistência de formas, uma delas mais evoluída em relação ao étimo, e voltou-se, depois, ao género etimológico (como com cometa, tribo, etc.) e o inverso (dote, diocese, entre outros exemplos).

I encourage you to read her paper. She also provides a long list of academic references for further study.

By the way, some of these languages that use -u forms today have older, obsolete -o versions, or else the other way around. Others have it as an invariant that has no plural inflection, as in Sardinian where you can have tribù nuraghesas, with feminine plural concord but an unchanging nominal form.

Such unchanging nominals in -u(s) can also be found from time to time in Spanish, such as in el/los humus and el/los virus. Those two were originally feminine and neuter but in the second-declension in Latin, not masculine like today.

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  • Interesting, your answer. I've heard that there was a time in which the Latin and Greek were considered better and that's what made so many words go back into its etymological form, like “flor” that was “chor” or “fror”, i.e., “flōs” > “flōrem” > “fror” or “chor” > “flor”. I know that that existed in Spanish, but do you know if it also happened with Portuguese? I just know that there was a lot of borrowing from Latin and Greek in that time, mainly Latin, and that a lot of Spanish words went back into its original/etymological form.
    – Schilive
    Jan 17 at 0:42
  • 1
    @Schilive Yes, the paper mentions "alguns, como cometa, fantasma, planeta ou tribo (e eventualmente dia) viram o seu género alterado devido á terminação, (mesmo guia e espia que, embora aplicados a homens, eram femininos em Castilho e Vieira), recuperando mais tarde, possivelmente por influência culta, o género etimológico". So there have been some “educated” influence in the recovery of the original gender.
    – tchrist
    Jan 17 at 1:37
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    Nitpicking here: tribu is not a masculine word in Catalan. It's "la tribu" dlc.iec.cat/… . You might be confusing it with "tribú" which is masculine but doesn't descend from tribus but tribunus, and it means tribune (the roman magistrature).
    – Pere
    Jan 17 at 14:36
  • 1
    Both of them are wrong. Normative dictionaries and all kind of sources say otherwise, and can tell you that I've never heard "el tribu" and it would sound very bad. avl.gva.es/lexicval/?paraula=tribu dlc.iec.cat/Results?DecEntradaText=tribu&AccentSen=True diccionari.cat/lexicx.jsp?GECART=0137291 dcvb.iec.cat/results.asp?Word=tribu aplicacions.llengua.gencat.cat/llc/AppJava/… ca.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tribu_(antropologia)
    – Pere
    Jan 18 at 21:45
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    I'll try to fix en.wikitionary (ca.wikitionary is already right ca.wiktionary.org/wiki/tribu ).
    – Pere
    Jan 18 at 21:46

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