Gender in German


This page briefly covers the topic of noun gender in German. This document will attempt to explain what gender is, how to determine the gender of a noun, and how gender works with the case system in German.

What is noun gender?

To monolingual speakers of English the concept of noun gender may seem somewhat strange. Afterall, in English nouns are simply nouns; prefaced with either "the" or "a/an" on occasion. In many languges, however, nouns have what is called "gender" (das Genus in German) For example, In French and other Romance languages nouns can be either masculine or feminine. In German nouns can be one of three different genders: masculine (m), feminine (f) or neuter (n). Although a challenge, mastering German noun gender is important to the learning of German.

Noun gender actually has little to do with biological gender. Let us briefly consider the origin of the term:

Main Entry: 1genĚder
Pronunciation: 'jen-d&r
Function: noun
Etymology: Middle English gendre, from Middle French genre, gendre, from Latin gener-, genus birth, race, kind, gender -- more at KIN
Date: 14th century
1 a : a subclass within a grammatical class (as noun, pronoun, adjective, or verb) of a language that is partly arbitrary but also partly based on distinguishable characteristics (as shape, social rank, manner of existence, or sex) and that determines agreement with and selection of other words or grammatical forms b : membership of a word or a grammatical form in such a subclass c : an inflectional form showing membership in such a subclass
2 a : SEX gender > b : the behavioral, cultural, or psychological traits typically associated with one sex

Biological vs. Grammatical Gender

While gender can refer to biological sex, it more generally refers to different categories of items. Many masculine items, such as men and boys have masculine gender, and similarly many feminine items, such as women, have feminine gender in German.

However, many nouns, which would logically have either masculine or feminine gender in real life have neuter grammatical gender. For example, the German word for girl -- Mädchen -- has neuter gender. The reason for this is clear, as the word Mädchen is a combination of Magd (maid) and the diminutive suffix -chen (little), so that a girl is a little maid in German. Furthermore, all words ending in -chen are neuter, so Mädchen is neuter. Finally, all nouns have gender in German, even though there is nothing particularly "gendered" about the concept. Why should cheese be masculine and a leg neuter?

Gender is not universal across languages, either. Some words which are feminine in English are neuter or masculine in German, and some words which are masculine in German are feminine in other European languages. Let us consider the following examples:

das Schiff
the ship -- notice that we often refer to ships as feminine objects in English.
die Sonne
the sun -- note that the "sun" is often masculine in other european languages, such as the Romance languages.
der Mond
the moon -- the sun is feminine, and the moon is masculine in German, which is just the opposite of many European languages; compare with "la luna".

For this reason, one must memorize the gender of each noun when learning that noun. Luckily, the biological gender of an item (person or animal) usually agrees with its grammatical gender. Certain categories of nouns all have the same gender. For example, all nouns made from verb infinitives are neuter; all nouns ending in -heit, keit or -ung are feminine, etc. Finally, in a compound noun, the final part of the compound determines noun gender. So, since Haus is neuter, Rathaus, Kaufhaus, and Krankenhaus are also neuter.

Noun articles

each noun in German can take either a definite article, an indefinite article, or no article at all, depending on the situation. Such articles must agree with the noun in case and gender. The cases are nominative, accusative, dative and genetive in German.

Definite Articles

Definite articles refer to a specific item or items: the dog, the cat, the bird, the snakes. The definite article must agree in gender with the noun to which it belongs.

  1. der Hund
  2. die Katze
  3. das Vögelein
  4. die Schlangen

In the nominative case, the masculine definite article is der, the feminine is die and the neuter is das. The plural article is die, which looks like the feminine article. Do not confuse them, as they change depending on their grammatical case.

Indefinite Articles

The indefinite refers to an indefinite or unspecified item: a dog, a cat, a bird. There is no indefinite article for plural nouns. In such cases, no article is provided, and the noun appears alone: snakes, referring to "snakes in general".

  1. ein Hund
  2. eine Katze
  3. ein Vögelein
  4. Schlangen

In the nominative case, the masculine indefinite article is ein, the feminine is eine, and the neuter is ein. The masculine and neuter articles are the same in the nominative, dative and genitive, but differ in the accusative. Do not confuse them.

Summary of Articles

Below we provide a table summarizing the definite and indefinite articles for each gender depending on case.

Definite Articles Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Dative dem der dem den
Genitive des der des der

Now let us consider the indefinite articles:

Indefinite Articles Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative ein eine ein
Accusative einen eine ein
Dative einem einer einem
Genitive eines einer eines

Conclusion

Let us conclude by summarizing what we've learned. First, nouns in German have gender. Gender can be either masculine, feminine or neuter. Furthermore, grammatical gender does not have to correspond to physical/biological gender. Gender is indicated partially by which form of the definite or indefinite article that a noun takes. These articles are summarized above.

If you can any questions, feel free to email the author of the page: Steve Krause. I can also be reached by way of my website: Catalyst.

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