Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Word Sex

Well, if that's not a title that will raise eyebrows...

a brilliant book, by the way,
if a titch blasphemous

Language learners probably figured out that this is another post about the genders of nouns. Almost every Western language besides English (and, as I recently learned, Hungarian) assigns genders to nouns. In German a noun is either masculine, feminine, or neuter/neutral. The English language has this concept as well, as we refer to ships and many other machines as "she" and we have "Father Time" and "Mother Nature," but for the most part, a male is "he," a female is "she," and a thing is "it." In German, however, a girl is "it," a tree is "he," and the keyboard I'm typing on is "she."

More on that in a minute.

There are lots of articles, essays, and blog posts written by English speakers about how silly this all is, and many of those are deliciously funny. I recommend especially the master Mark Twain's essay The Awful German Language, and especially the section called "The Tale of the Fishwife and its Sad Fate." I also recently read David Sedaris's book Me Talk Pretty One Day, and the chapters in which he is struggling to learn French are particularly good. He explains his brilliant but expensive solution to not being able to remember the genders of French nouns in the chapter called "Make Mine a Double."

I have not, however, read many articles or blog posts which explains why the genders seem so screwed up and ridiculous. I thought I'd throw that out there for those who want to know.

Leave it to a teacher to suck the fun right out of even a Mark Twain essay...

First of all, these are the genders we're dealing with, the definite article in German (and its English translation):

      masculine = der (the)     feminine = die (the)       neuter = das (the)        plural = die (the)

I'm not going to claim that the genders of German nouns are logical. But I will tell you that the gender is based on the word, not the thing it is. This why the thing in your living room that you lie on while reading or watching TV is both das Sofa and die Couch. Most foreign words are neuter, and Sofa is a foreign word (Turkish/Arabic, based on Couch is....shit. Not German. There is no German word that begins with C.* It's an Anglo-French word. Couch is feminine. Just learn & accept it. Let me try again.

A sea is feminine - die See. A lake is masculine, though the German word is the same. In this case, I guess, size matters. A sea is normally larger than a lake.

                                 die See = sea                                           der See = lake

Wait. The gender is determined by the word, not the thing it is. So the above example is a crappy one as well.

Last try: I'm going to use the example of that thing you put your money, driver's license, and insurance card into:

                                    American English: wallet                Proper English: purse

In German, this little bugger can be any gender you wish, as long as you choose the proper noun:

  die Brieftasche - most German nouns ending in -e are feminine
  der Geldbeutel - most German nouns ending in -el are masculine
  das Portemonnaie - most borrowed foreign words (that one is French) are neuter

Ok, haha, the funning is over (though nothing I wrote above is untrue). Following is a list of actual rules that apply to the genders of German nouns and have proven to be very useful for me. My source is, in addition to what you see there, 13 years of teaching German in an American high school and trying to make the tips, clues, and rules as simple as possible. And if we were together in my classroom I would now have to pause to define "noun" to half the class.

Please note: The last rule in each category or gender trumps all the other rules.
   Example: Names of trains are masculine (der). However, it's die S-Bahn, because Bahn is feminine.

Always Masculine:

  • days, months, & seasons (der Dienstag, der Juli, der Winter - Tuesday, July, winter)
  • points of the compass, sky, & heavenly bodies (der Norden, der Himmel, der Mond - north, sky/heaven, moon)  Exception: die Sonne
  • precipitation (der Regen, der Nebel, der Schnee - rain, fog, snow)
  • names of cars or trains (der Porsche, der Mercedes)
  • nouns ending in -ismus and -ner  (der Rassismus, der Rentner - racism, pensioner)
  • male beings and professions & occupations carried out by males** (der Bruder, der Sportler - brother, male athlete)
  • all compound nouns that end with a word that is masculine by itself (der Schneemann - snowman)
**No, this does not mean that in Germany there are "boy jobs" and "girl jobs". This means that when the occupation is held by a male, his title is masculine. Der Pilot is a male pilot. Die Pilotin is a female pilot - the word (and often enough the salary) changes to indicate the person is a female.

Always Feminine:

  • names of aircraft, ships, & motorbikes (die Boeing 747, die Titanic)
  • cardinal numbers (die/eine Eins, die/eine Vier - the/a one, the/a four - important for school grades, which are numbers rather than letters)
  • nouns ending with the suffixes -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, & -schaft (die Weisheit, die Einsamkeit, die Realität, die Bescherung, die Mannschaft - wisdom, loneliness, reality, gift exchange, team)
  • nouns ending with the suffixes -ie & -ik (die Philosophie, die Grammatik - philosophy, grammar)
  • borrowed foreign nouns ending in -ade, -age, -anz, -ette, -ine, -tion, & -tur (die Toilette, die Aktion)
  • female beings and professions & occupations carried out by females (die Schwester, die Sportlerin - sister, female athlete)
  • all compound nouns that end with a word that is feminine by itself (die Handtasche - handbag)

Always Neuter:

  • nouns ending in the diminutives -chen, -lein, and the Swabian -le (das Mädchen, das Männlein, das Häusle - girl, little man, little house)
  • infinitives used as nouns [gerunds] (das Essen, das Lesen - eating or food, reading)
  • names of colors (das Blau, das Weiß - blue, white)
  • names of most hotels, cafes, and theaters
  • cities (except der Haag - the Hague, in the Netherlands)
  • (this one always cracked up my students) almost all of the 112 known chemical elements
  • all compound nouns that end with a word that is neuter by itself (das Stinktier - stink animal [skunk])

There are also helpful lists of word groups that are usually masculine, or feminine, or neuter.

Now, does all this really matter? Who cares about the sex of words?!? No German teacher would ever publicly admit that it doesn't matter, but frankly, in casual conversation it doesn't. Yes, screwing up the gender of a word can lead to an embarrassing mistake and giggles from your German friends, but in pretty much all cases whoever is listening to you will understand your meaning even if you say you need to step into the bench (der Bank) to get some cash.

When does word sex matter?
  • on your German Lebenslauf (résumé or curriculum vitae)
  • on a written German grammar test
  • on a written assignment for a German class
  • in an oral exam or job interview if you want to demonstrate mastery of German
  • when you write emails or letters in German (since if you're in doubt while you're writing, you really should take the time to look it up), especially cover letters
  • when you are writing something in German that you intend to publish (in print or online)
  • if you're the kind of person who wants to avoid language mistakes

Another great thing about living in the Schwabenland (which is neuter, by the way, because it is a compound noun ending in Land, which is neuter) is that most everyone swallows 50% of the gender-specific article anyway. You can get by very well using "d'" for every gender: "d' Wurst", "d' Hund", and "d' Spiel" are just three examples (sausage, dog, game).

So if you're embarking on the impossibly frustrating but exceedingly rewarding journey of learning German, do yourself a favor and learn the gender with each new noun. Don't learn "Schornsteinfegermeisterin = female master chimney sweep." Learn "DIE Schornsteinfegermeisterin = THE female master chimney sweep"! Don't learn "Auslandskrankenschein = health insurance document for foreign travel." Learn "DER Auslandskrankenschein =  THE health insurance document for foreign travel." It will make your German-learning and -speaking life a lot easier in the long run.

And if you have to guess at a noun's gender because it doesn't follow any of the "rules" you've memorized, guess masculine (der), because the majority of German nouns are masculine.

*There are words that begin with C which are used in German, but they are borrowed words, and not German.


  1. I've written about this before. Love your examples at the beginning... I often think there are more exceptions than words that actually follow the rules!

    1. I still think German grammar is (somewhat) easier to learn than English pronunciation - though, through, trough, plough, drought... I can't explain "same four letters, five different pronunciations." I'll look for your post about this topic.

    2. Found your excellent post, Bev! And now we have a quandry...I said der is more common, and you said die is more common. I did a quick google search and found two sites backing you up, and two sites backing me up! With numbers and percentages! NOW what do we do?

    3. Ooh, dilemma! I was taught "die", but maybe my teacher was wrong?.

  2. What a master German grammar post! :)

    As a beginner German learner, der die das was the hardest to learn. My teachers would also suggest learning each noun with the article and now I know why! It makes things so much easier once you start learning about Akkusativ and Dativ. And Genetiv.....oh grammar. I've had more than my fair share of sentences just hanging halfway through because I don't know the gender of the noun I'm trying to say!

    1. Imagine teaching Akkusativ and Dativ to high school students who don't know the difference between a noun and a verb, much less between a direct object and indirect object (or even a subject!). In a class of 10-15 students I usually had 1 or 2 students who had a good handle on English grammar.

      Me: "In the sentence, 'The chefs prepare the dinner,' what is the subject?"
      Student: "Food!"

    2. I found that learning German has helped me learn more about English language. I am horribly embarrassed to admit that I didn't recall ever hearing the term "subjunctive mood" in English studies -- and I was going to be an English teacher! I know how to use it, of course. Both in high school and in college studies, we focused more on composition and style. However, it's still a major surprise to me that it didn't ring a bell.

  3. Great post! I have to admit that I have just completely given up. I sit in my Master's classes, and just confidently spew out whatever article comes to my mind. In general, I find that Germans are incredibly forgiving of grammar mistakes as long as they can understand what you want to say. At least nobody has said that I sound like a complete idiot yet...

    1. And I'm sure you don't! I think most Germans realize how difficult word gender is for those who didn't grow up with the language. The number of times I have been _certain_ of a noun's gender only to find out I was wrong....arg! But I'd rather just talk than agonize over every piece of my sentence. The above list has helped me a great deal despite a few exceptions, and that's going to be good enough for me.