Sunday, February 21, 2021

Changing Language, Part 1

I’ve been teaching German for 22 years (since 1999), and although I have also taught English (American Literature in the US, informal conversational English in Germany), I far prefer teaching German. One of the things I love about living in Germany is that I am challenged by the language every single day: Listening, speaking, reading, writing, lately crossword puzzles… Although M and I speak mainly English peppered with German words at home, and although I sometimes get quite frustrated when I don’t understand something, I truly do prefer German because it’s a delicious challenge.

I have taught German I-IV in Wisconsin (that is first year to fourth year high school German) and levels A1 through B1 in Germany. Ultimately those equate to the same grammatical topics and levels, but in Germany I’ve been teaching adults, so therefore some of the vocabulary topics have a different focus, such as parenting, day-to-day life in Germany, dealing with government agencies, etc.

Anyone who has started learning German knows it is a challenging language, especially compared to English. Just as one example, where English has one definite article (the), German has 16, and some of those are the same word but have different functions. For example “der” could be any of these: Masculine nominative, feminine dative, feminine genitive or plural genitive. I realize I have already lost my American readers, in part because cases (nominative, dative, etc.) don’t play much of a role* and very few words in English are assigned a gender.

*Case in point, do you know confidently whether you need “I” or “me” in a sentence involving a second personal pronoun? ("This letter is for ____ and ____.")


In German every noun is assigned a gender, and although there are some hard-and-fast rules, for learners of German the assigned gender seems absolutely random. Sometimes it is. Read Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language for a more amusing essay than I could write on the topic. A spoon is masculine (der Löffel), a fork is feminine (die Gabel), and a knife is neutral (das Messer). Just for fun let me say here that when a spoon is accusative it is den Löffel, when the spoon is dative it’s dem Löffel, and when it’s genitive it’s des Löffels. Yes, every single one of those examples means “the spoon” (in genitive it’s “of the spoon”).

The gender of a noun depends on the word, not the thing. For instance, that thing I lie on while napping reading is both die Couch and das Sofa. Same thing, two different words, two different genders/articles. Some items have a different gender depending on region and dialect. Butter is feminine (die Butter), but in some regions I’ve heard people use masculine (der Butter). Lastly, sometimes the same word is used for two different things and has two different genders. “Der See” is the lake, “die See” is the sea. Die Paprika is the pepper vegetable and der Paprika is the dried red spice. Oh, and if you want to be specific and say paprika powder, then it’s neutral: Das Paprikapulver.

die Paprika    der Paprika    das Paprikapulver

Ok, that’s my basic intro to the confusing nature of gender in the German language. Here's an earlier one. If you are learning German, do not despair. Some of it will click if you stick with it long enough and really want to learn it, but also we foreigners will never be able to learn all the genders of all the nouns in German and keep up with the new words being added every year. The good news is that when you’re just speaking casually as a non-native speaker, screwing up the gender of a word is just not a big deal.

The creators of the German language did, at least, do us one favor and made job titles and names for people pretty logical and easy. Females are feminine (die Mutter, die Tante) and males are masculine (der Vater, der Onkel).* A male pilot is der Pilot, and a female pilot is die Pilotin. The female version of the job title often has a slightly different form (der Arzt/die Ärztin), and my students haven’t had much trouble learning those.

But the German language is changing in an effort to be more inclusive and to move with our changing society and embrace the trans community and gender fluidity. The concept is good, though it poses a significant challenge to learners of German (Deutschlernende). More on that in the next post.

*Yes, das Mädchen (the girl) is genderless or neutral, but that’s because all words ending with the suffix “-chen,” meaning “small,” take the neutral.

das Pferd and das Mädchen - both genderless or neutral
Never mind that the horse, Cyrano, is male and my daughter is female.

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