Many German words have gender — they are either neuter, masculine, or feminine. But they don’t always work the way you would expect them to.
Inanimate objects are allocated to all three genders — like Fenster (window) is always neuter, Boden (floor) is always masculine, and Wand (wall) is always feminine.
And sometimes living things, even people, are not what you think they should be. A Baby (baby) or Kind (child) of either biological sex is always grammatically neuter, and a Mädchen (girl) is too — although when she gets older, she becomes a Fraulein (young miss) or Jungfrau (young woman) instead. And a Person (person) is grammatically feminine, even if that person happens to be a man.
It can make a difference if the word is singular or plural. This is further described below and in the lesson on nouns.
Often, the case of the word is important. To illustrate, the words he, him, and his are all different in case. This is further described below and in the lesson on case and declension.
Nouns are either neuter, masculine, or feminine as indicated above.
Some nouns related to profession or status come in both masculine and feminine forms, such as Schauspieler(in) (actor/actress) or Schuler(in) (schoolboy/schoolgirl). Note: Schuler(in) is just an abbreviation used here for Schuler or Schulerin.
The only absolute rule about the gender of nouns is that they have to be learned on a case-by-case basis. However, there are some tricks that make this job easier:
◆ If it’s a male person past school starting age, the corresponding word is masculine. If it’s a female person past puberty (or if the word Person is specifically used), it’s feminine. But below those ages use Baby, Kind, or Mädchen which are grammatically neuter.
◆ Words ending in -heit or -keit are feminine.
◆ For all-female groups of people, use the feminine plural (which ends in -innen). For all-male or mixed groups, use the regular plural (which has various endings).
◆ Nouns formed from verbs (spelled the same as the infinitive) are neuter — such as Essen (food) which is formed out of essen (to eat).
◆ When the sex of an animal is not known, assume it’s male, except for cats (Katzen), which are assumed to be female.
◆ If the singular ends in -e and the plural is formed by adding an -n after it, it’s often (but not always) feminine. Example: Blume (flower)/Blumen (flowers). (Note: Blumen is neuter, although it’s shown in black here because it’s plural.)
◆ If the singular and the plural are spelled the same (that is to say, change nothing to make it plural) it’s neuter or masculine.
◆ If the singular ends in -um and the plural ends in -en instead, it’s neuter. Example: Museum/Museen (museum/museums). These are words taken from Greek.
◆ If a singular noun declenses (changes its ending based on case) it’s either neuter or masculine. Only about 6% of German nouns are declensable, and most of those refer to some sort of male person. They are shown here in lavender or light blue. Examples: Jahr (year) and Postbote (mailman). Feminine nouns never declense.
◆ Nouns related to food are roughly equally distributed among neuter, masculine, and feminine.
◆ Failing the above, if it’s something your great-grandfather could hold, like Stuhl (chair), it’s probably masculine. If it’s a more conceptual thing, like Gesundheit (health), it’s probably feminine. But if it’s a product of the internet age, like Download (a download), it’s probably neuter.
◆ And if all that doesn’t work, do what the Germans do when they don’t know what gender to use — just use neuter and don’t apologize for it.
Articles are a little more difficult. Each article comes in multiple forms, and you have to use the one that matches the noun or pronoun it goes with. For the nominative case, the singular articles are:
das, der, and die (the)
ein/ein and eine (a and an)
Some pronouns come in multiple forms, just like articles, and some don’t. The nominative case singular pronouns that must match in gender are:
es, er, and sie (it/he/she)
Adjectives are usually the adverb plus an ending. For the nominative case singular, the most common endings are:
-es and -e/-e
Although some adjectives take no endings at all.
Verbs, conjunctions, and interjections
Verbs, conjunctions, and interjections do not have gender.
Plurals and the other cases
The important thing about plurals right now is that a single ending encompasses all three genders. So instead of having to learn neuter singular, neuter plural, masculine singular, masculine plural, feminine singular, and feminine plural; you only have to learn neuter, masculine, feminine, and plural.
Plurals and the other cases are further described in the articles on the tesseract (to be published), nouns, and declension. neuter food word picture – masculine food word picture – feminine food word picture
Look for Jennie’s German Language Classroom for English Speakers on the last (sometimes next-to-last) Wednesday of every month.
Copyright © 2019 by Jennifer Freeman. In particular, permission is not granted to assemble the parts of this series together and distribute them. You may of course post links to the individual posts.