A Dingbat Guide to Noun Gender in German
This article comes from Language Gym based in Berlin. We teach grammar in English and tell our stories in German.
DE has three genders
Mostly people say that when you learn a new word, you should also remember it’s gender. Well, how exactly?
Let’s take the German word for cheese — Käse. It’s masculine. So, it’s der Käse. Should you then remember that it’s der with Kase? Well, maybe, except it could be den Käse or even dem Käse because it depends on how you use it in the sentence.
Oh. So what do you do?
One day a guy told me that to remember that Käse is masculine, I should view in my minds eye an image of Superman (or whatever) that I very much associated with ‘masculine’.
“Hmmm, OK. So how would that work?”
“OK, so imagine Superman flying through the air carrying a big lump of cheese. Then when you want to say ‘cheese’ you’ll immediately see an image of superman and you’ll know it’s masculine.”
Really he wanted me to try it. So I tried it. Then I though it was stupid and I stopped. Why? Because what am I going to do imagine for every word I learn a scenario with Superman in it?
OK, it is weird. I mean what image would I have in my mind for neuter then? A castrated cat? Or for feminine? A bra?
And how much time do I want to spend on this? If it’s an average of 7 seconds for each word, … well, you do the math.
So how about just guessing? You might think that if you guess, you’ll have a 33% chance of getting the gender right. That’s not that good.
But according to sources, German has way more feminine nouns than the other two combined. That’s right. So, let’s say that 55% of all the nouns are feminine. Well, that’s already better than 33% but it’s not that great.
And then you find out that there are more masculine nouns than neuter. That’s significant. So to optimize your guessing choose neuter last. (Even though people love choosing neuter — because nobody really understands neuter. In fact, it’s hard to apply any logic to noun gender at all. Like why is girl neuter? Why is the moon masculine but the sun is feminine, when in every other language it’s the other way around? OK, we agree we have to leave logic out of it.)
So you google it right? ‘How to tell noun gender in German?’ and you get a lot of information about suffixes (a suffix means the letters at the end of a word. You can guess what a prefix is).
I assembled all these ‘rules’ which are sometimes rules (i.e. 100% all of the time right) and some are heuristics. What’s a heuristic. (Think of a heuristic as a crappy rule. It’s a kind of rule). So I start going through them.
OK, let’s take a look at the suffixes (and a few prefixes)
It ends in ‘e’. Everybody knows that. And it’s pretty good and pretty useful because lots and lots of words end in ‘e’.
But they are not all feminine, but most are, so that’s fine. But not these ones:
And not doubt there others too. It’s enough to know there are exceptions and to learn the common ones.
So you take the results of the google search and you find out that words that end with
… are feminine. And then you start to get excited. Until you ask yourself the question, ‘well, what kind of works have these endings? Are they common?’
And then it gets interesting.
It has one of these endings it’s always feminine (so I’m claiming here…)
ade: Marmelade, Limonade, Schokolade
ei: Datei/file, Polizei/police, Bäckerei/bakery
ie: Geografie, Garantie, Fantasie
heit: Freiheit, Sicherheit, Neuheit/novelty, Fremdheit/unfamiliarity, Gelegenheit/opportunity
keit: Langsamkeit/slowness, Höflichkeit/politeness, Gefährlichkeit/danger
schaft: Freundschaft/friendship, Gemeinschaft/community, Wirtschaft/economy, business,
ung: Zeitung/newspaper, Dichtung/poetry, Empfehlung/recommendation, Abholung/collection
ur: Kultur, Natur, Skulptur, Signatur — but not Saboteur ’cause that’s a person…
tion: Produktion, Funktion, Abstraktion, Affirmation
sis: Empahsis, Diagnosis, Synopsis, Kartharsis
tät: Realität, Universität, Qualität, Naivität, Utilität, Pubertät
Naja, well, not exactly everyday kind of words are they? I mean good to know, but not really answering the big question. If you want to and find it difficult to remember these you could try making a stupid sentence that uses words that sound the same.
Make up some stupid sentences that stick in your head.
My sister sung in the Tate. […sis, …ung, …tät]
Attention! Attention! The shaft’s height lets me fly my kite […tion…schaft, …heit, …keit]
Why is girl neuter. Because it ends in ‘chen’. Meaning words that end in ‘chen’ are always neuter. Well, that is an answer. But ‘chen’ is really a diminutive thing. It takes real words and makes them cute and fuzzy.
But in the case of girl, there’s no such work as Mad, but we can see where the word Maid came from (and it’s not pretty really is it?)
This one’s OK though. -nis
But… it’s die Erkenntnis: insight
OK, it’s good to know, but easy to forget and these words are hardly household names that you’re going to use everyday.
And that’s the problem with neuter suffixes. They give you words that are pretty super obscure. That rather defeats the whole point doesn’t it. Why put time into learning rules, that you’ll probably forget when the benefits are hard to see.
Do you think words that have these endings are common in German? No. Do you want to find out for yourself. Sure, you do. OK, use this cool German cross word puzzle tool and you can see for yourself. Try it out. Do you recognise any of the words? Probably not.
Use this tool to find your own examples
If I want to find words that end in ‘il’
I enter ‘*il’. The ‘*’ means any number of letters before ‘il’
This search returns over 869 words. If that’s too many I can reduce it with:
‘?????il’ which will return words that have only 5 letters before ‘il’. But I still don’t need them.
This one’s good though. Words that end in ‘o’ are rare but they’re always neuter. So, Kino, Radio, Auto.
People say that if the word came into the language from another language then it’s neuter. Well, maybe. It explains ‘ing’ suffixes. das Meeting, das Training. And it’s true for das Restaurant and das Cafe, das Croissant and das Känguru.
But we have die Universität and a famous filmstar is der/die Star
The prefix ‘Ge…’ often tells us the word is neuter (often!). That’s information I can use, because there are a lot of words that start with ‘Ge’.
These are neuter
But what about ‘Geschichte’? No that’s feminine. If it’s not neuter, then it’s feminine, but it’s not masculine.
Lots of common real world things are neuter.
The problem with masculine suffixes is they refer also to obscure words.
But I like ‘ich’ because then I can remember that carpet/rug is masculine
And it’s useful to know that most words that end in ‘er’ are masculine and in the plural they don’t change. But not
And the plural of ‘er’ ending words that are feminine takes an ’n’. Go figure? Die Schultern.
Now basically using sets of things to figure out gender doesn’t work very well. It kind of works best for masculine. The problem of course is trying to figure out what’s in the set and what isn’t. Sometimes this is easy enough.
If the thing kind of resembles a penis, the chances are really good that it’s masculine. This should come as no surprise.
der Baum: tree
der Finger: finger
der Schläger: bat
But we also have:
das Rohr: pipe
die Wurst: sausage
Given a word and you want to guess its gender. Start by assuming it’s feminine. Run through the feminine tests. These are easy to remember and reliable. Anything ending in ‘e’ is probably feminine and that’s many, many words.
If the word isn’t caught by the feminine tests, then scan the neuter tests. There aren’t many. Does it end in ‘chen’ or ‘o’, does it start with ‘Ge’. Is it a household word you definitely know like ‘Wasser’. Is it a foreign word (but not one with a Latin suffix — see feminine). Choose neuter.
If none of the above then choose masculine.
Your chances will be significantly improved by doing so. Just whatever you do, stop choosing neuter by default!
Now let’s see again how well we can predict gender. Here’s a test.
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