German/Grammar/Noun gender

Noun gender edit

We've covered pronouns, but have been putting off covering nouns themselves, so it's time to remedy that. It's a complex topic so we'll be splitting it up into multiple sections; verbs are an even more complex topic and we are by no means done with them. The difference between gender as used in English and as used in German has already been covered in the section on personal pronouns, so in this section we'll concentrate on a few rules to help determine the gender of certain nouns.

Noun gender and pluralization are among the most frustrating aspects of German for learners. There are thousands of nouns and not only does one have to learn the meaning of the word itself, but also this ancillary data if you want to use the word correctly. This exists in English as well, but for a limited number of "irregulars" which are relatively easy to master. But in German the "irregulars" seem to outnumber the "regulars", a fact which takes while to adjust to.

What to look for in a gender rule edit

To reiterate what was said in the section on personal pronouns, many rules for determining gender have been formulated, but few of them are actually useful for the learner. For the time and effort you put into memorizing a single such rule, you can just learn by rote the genders of some common words which may be more useful to you in everyday life.

Two things to consider before taking the time to learn such a rule are its applicability and its consistency. For a rule to be applicable it must hold for a number of common words. For example there's a rule that a brand of car is masculine. But unless you're particularly interested in cars and talk about them with your friends, or you work in the automobile industry, you're unlikely to use this rule very often. Here, consistency refers to the lack of exceptions, so if a rule has a long list of exceptions, keeping in mind that these must be memorized for the rule to be useful, its value as a rule is questionable. Mark Twain complained of the typical grammatical rule in German, "... that there are more exceptions to the rule than instances of it." This is hyperbole but it's a valid criticism. If, on the other hand, you are unlikely to come across the exceptions in everyday language then perhaps they shouldn't be given much weight.

So, in this section we'll only cover a few of what we think are the most useful rules in terms of applicability and consistency.

Terminology edit

It will be necessary to distinguish between the ending of a word, the letters that happen to appear at the end, and a suffix, a combination of letters that have meaning in themselves and are added to another word to create a new word. For example "bed" and "red" both have the ending "-ed", but "-ed" is not a suffix in these words because "b-" and "r-" are not words in themselves. But "-ed" is a suffix, forming the past tense, in the words "lived", "dressed" and "jumped".

The most useful rules edit

So, here are what we think are the most useful rules for figuring out gender.

Natural gender edit

As has been mentioned before, German grammatical gender often does not agree with English natural gender. There are cases where it does though and it's worthwhile to remember them. For adult humans, use the natural gender; this applies to:

  • Family members Bruder, m ("brother"); Schwester, f ("sister"); Mutter, f ("mother"); Vater, m ("father")
  • Random people Mann, m ("man"); Frau, f ("woman")
  • People having certain occupations Lehrer, m ("male teacher"); Lehrerin, f ("female teacher"); Arzt, m ("male doctor"); Ärztin, f ("female doctor")
    Note that German adds the feminine suffix -in for females so the gender is built into the word.

An exception is Geschwister, n, ("sibling") but this is rarely used in the singular. Another exception is Weib, n, ("woman"), but in Modern German this term can be considered insulting and Frau is preferred in most circumstances.

Also, gender specific names of animals have the gender you would expect. For example Kuh, f ("[female] cow"). The names of immature animals are usually neuter however, for example Lamm, n, ("lamb"). This holds for immature humans as well: Kind, n ("child").

Compounds edit

As mentioned in an earlier section, German is very fond of combining words together to form new words, sometimes on the fly. When the resulting word is a noun then the gender matches the gender of the second word, which will also be a noun. For example:

  • Zeit, f ("time") produces Freizeit, f ("free time")
  • Hof, m ("yard") produces Bahnhof, m ("train station", literally "transport yard")
  • Schrank, m ("cabinet") produces Kühlschrank, m ("refridgerator", literally "cool cabinet")
  • Garten, m ("garden") produces Kindergarten, m ("kindergarten", literally "child garden")

This rule is very consistent and the main worry is that what looks like a compound is actually an independent word. We'll call this the "Right Hand Rules" law because it applies to inflections of many types, and as an homage to the "Right-hand Rule" used in physics. It means that the part that come last, on the right, rules the inflection of the whole word.

Suffixes edit

German uses suffixes frequently to form nouns from other types of words. These suffixes have specific genders and all the words formed from a given suffix will have the same gender. When applied correctly, in other words when you don't confuse an ending with a suffix, this is a very consistent rule. You can think about this as part II of the Right Hand Rules law.

  • Diminutive suffixes are neuter; the most commonly used is -chen. For example
    • Mädchen, n ("girl"), Brötchen, n ("bread roll"), Hähnchen, n ("chicken") are all neuter.
    It might seem that Kuchen, m ("pastry") is an exception, but the -chen ending is just that in this case; there is no ku- word it's being added to. (A clue is that the -ch- is pronounced differently in Kuchen.)
  • Another diminutive suffixes is -lein as in Fräulein, n ("young woman").
  • Words with the suffix -ung are feminine. This is similar to "-tion" in English, commonly used to turn verbs into nouns.
    • Einladung ("Invitation"), from einladen ("to invite"); Lösung ("solution"), from lösen ("to loosen, to disolve")
    Note that Dung, m ("fertilizer") is not an instance of the -ung suffix and is, in fact, masculine.
  • A less frequently seen suffix that's still worthy of note is -heit/keit. These are really the same suffix with the choice between -h- and -k- depending on the preceding letter. It is used to turn adjectives into nouns and is roughly equivalent to "-ness" or "-ity" in English. The resulting noun is always feminine, for example Möglichkeit, f ("possibility") from möglich ("possible").
  • As mentioned above, the suffix -in is added to a noun representing a male human to represent his female counterpart. For example
    • Freund, m ("(male) friend", "boyfriend")/Freundin, f ("(female) friend", "girlfriend")
    • Gott, m ("god")/Göttin, f ("goddess")
    • Soldat, m ("(male) soldier")/Soldatin, f ("(female) soldier")
  • The suffix -er, masculine, and its feminine version -erin mean about the same thing as the "-er" suffix in English. They're used to tell you what someone or something does and to tell you where someone is from. When applied to people, the -er is used for males and -erin for females.
    • Empfänger/Empfängerin, m/f ("receiver") from empfangen ("to receive")
    • Fahrer/Fahrerin, m/f ("driver") from fahren ("to drive")
    • Kugelschreiber, m ("ballpoint pen") from Kugel ("ball, sphere") and Schreiber, m ("writer"), in turn from schreiben ("to write")

The -e ending edit

Most nouns ending in -e are feminine. For example

  • Ecke ("corner"); Frage ("question"); Schule ("school"); Sonne ("sun")

This is a widely applicable rule, but there are exceptions so be wary of it. Exceptions include the -ee ending

  • Kaffee, m ("coffee")
  • Tee, m ("tea")
  • See, m ("lake")

There are some random exceptions as well

  • Auge, n ("eye")
  • Ende, n ("end")
  • Gebäude, n ("building")
  • Name, m ("name")

The word See has another meaning, "sea", which is feminine, making it a member of a small collection of nouns that have different genders depending on the exact meaning.

The -o ending and imported words edit

Words that end in "-o" tend to be neuter. This has marginal applicability and has exceptions as well, so learning it is probably optional. For example Auto ("car"), Foto ("photo"), and Kino ("movie theater") are all neuter. But Disco ("disco") is feminine. In general, words borrowed from other languages are either neuter or inherit the gender they had in the source language. The problem with applying this is that German has borrowed from many languages over the years, and unless you're familiar with the source language, and know that that is the language in question since it's not always clear, this won't help you. Also, German generally prefers to use its own native roots rather than borrow words directly, so there are a fewer borrowed words in German than in, say, English.

The remaining words edit

Unfortunately, while these rules do cover a good number of nouns, they do not cover a majority of them, and these must be memorized by rote. The best time to do this is when you're learning the word in the first place. If you're absolutely stumped and are forced to guess, then go with masculine; not a majority, but certainly a plurality of nouns are masculine, so it's the best bet if there is no other information.


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