German lesson 5 — nouns

Compound Nouns

In German, it’s common to string two or more nouns together. (This is how the German language gets its famous 20-or-more-letter words from). For example:

Auto (car) + Bahn (way) = Autobahn (highway)

Notice the combined word gets its gender from the last piece, but only the first piece gets to keep its capital letter (all German nouns are capitalized).

This happens in English too: bed + room = bedroom. Although this example is an unusual one; in English, compound noun pieces are usually not stitched together, but are left separate. Examples: plastic box, pencil sharpener, train tracks, and apartment building.

Abbreviations Of Nouns

As in English, abbreviations are usually the first letter of each word in the abbreviation. But unlike English, a pushed-together compound noun contributes a letter for each piece making up that word. And each piece contributes either a capital letter (if the piece is always capitalized) or a small letter (if the piece is not a noun). Example: GmbH = Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (corporation).

One notable exception to the above is the abbreviation for Bahnhof (train station) — it’s Bf, not Bh.


There are a variety of ways the plural is formed out of the singular. Here are the main ones:

  • ◆ add an -e to the end
  • ◆ add a -n to the end
  • ◆ add -er to the end
  • ◆ add -en to the end
  • ◆ add -nen to the end
  • ◆ add a -s to the end
  • ◆ change the -um ending to -en
  • ◆ add or change nothing at all

In addition, you may also need to add an umlaut over the main vowel (that is to say, change a to ä, o to ö, or u to ü). The main vowel for simple nouns is usually the first vowel; for compound nouns, it’s the first vowel in the last simple word of the compound. See Marktplatz below for an example.

The only real rule to learning plurals is to learn them on a case-by-case basis but here is a trick to make it easier:

Collect a list of nouns that all have the same gender and same rule for forming the plurals. It doesn’t matter if you mix food, articles of clothing, tools, and funiture together; all that matters is that they are the same gender and follow the same pluralization rules.

Now you only have to memorize one set of rules for the entire list. If you don’t remember how to pluralize Strand (beach, for example, but you do remember how to pluralize Fußball (soccer ball), and you remember they’re on the same list, why then you just apply the same rule to Strand.

Here’s a sample list:

             masculine nouns that change a to ä and add an -e:
Bauch to Bäuche Marktplatz to Marktplätze Rucksack to Rucksäcke
Fischmarkt to Fischmärkte Pass to Pässe Saft to Säfte
Fußball to Fußbälle Plan to Pläne Strand to Strände
Hals to Hälse Platz to Plätze Verband to Verbände
Hörsall to Hörsälle Ratschlag to Rätschlage Zahn to Zähne

Plurals for second declension nouns

Second declension nouns like Kind (child) and Bär (bear) have a separate rules for forming the plural. It’s just add a -n or -en to everything. You would need to make separate lists for the second declension, but they are much simpler.

The accusative, dative, and genitive cases

The above applies mainly to the nominative case (subject of the sentence). For the accusative, dative, and genitive cases, see the next lesson.

How plural makes gender go away

You would normally think of 3 genders and 2 numbers (singular and plural) as comprising six categories, as follows:

 neuter singular       neuter plural
masculine singular masculine plural
feminine singular feminine plural

However, the plural forms all follow a common set of rules regardless of what gender they came from (this becomes more obvious when discussing adjectives and things like that). So for convienience, we can display this as:

 neuter singular
masculine singular } plural
feminine singular

And to make it simpler yet, we can display this as if there were four genders rather than three:


This is the way gender and number will be presented from now on.

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.

Lesson 4, gender

Lesson 6, case and declension