Learning German? You’re going to notice one major difference between English and German grammar right away: German noun genders.
All German nouns are one of three genders: masculine, feminine or neutral.
For someone who is just starting out with German, this can be really confusing – especially as the genders don’t necessarily seem logical.
Take cutlery for example. You have die Gabel (the fork), der Löffel (the spoon) and das Messer (the knife). A fork is feminine, a spoon masculine and a knife neutral. All you can do is sit there and scratch your head. How does that make sense? Who made these decisions to begin with?!
Although they don’t always make sense, they are something you have to learn. Just as there’s no rainbow without rain, there’s no German noun without its article. That’s because in German, the gender of a noun is part of its identity. If you say or write a German word without the article that dictates gender, you won’t be using the noun correctly.
Why Does the German Language Have Genders?
When you’re learning German, it’s important to remember that the word, not the thing, has a gender.
English words have genders too – they just tend to be obvious. That’s because in English, gender refers to the actual gender of the noun being referenced. Girl is a feminine word, boy is masculine, and table is neutral. This makes sense. A girl is female, a boy is male, and a table is an inanimate object. How could a table have a gender?
Note: Some objects, such as boats, have a gender in English.
German is different. In German, gender is defined not by the gender of the noun, but by the meaning and the form of the word. Genders in German were originally intended to signify three grammatical categories that words could be grouped into.
The three categories were:
- endings that indicated that a word was of neutral origin.
- endings that indicated a group of people or things. These became feminine.
- nouns that had no ending. These remained masculine.
This is what we’re left with today, in a rather convoluted way! You can see at least, how we can then make the distinction between words being grouped together for their intended gender, rather than the gender of an object itself.
Rather than arguing over whether a table should be masculine, feminine or neutral (for the record, it’s masculine – Der Tisch), we can begin to understand why this is the case. And you can argue the why of it until you’re blue in the face, but the fact is – gender is something you’re going to have to learn.
My best advice is this: don’t worry too much about the whys of gender in German. Instead, focus on the best ways to remember word genders.
With that in mind, let’s see how learning German genders can be made simple.
Shortcuts to Work Out German Noun Genders
Although some words require you to learn the gender by heart, there are many cases where you can look at the ending of a word to work out the gender.
In this section, I refer to definite articles and indefinite articles. Der, die and das are definite articles, and replace the English word “the”, while ein and eine are the indefinite articles for “a”/“an”. These articles are used to identify the gender of the noun they go with.
How to Identify Masculine Nouns in German (der/ein)
Masculine German nouns take the definite article der (the) and indefinite ein (a/an).
To figure out whether a word is masculine, look for the following word endings:
-er, -el, -ling, -ich, -ig, -ner, -ismus, -or, -us, -eich, -ant
Following this rule, you’ll be correct around 80% of the time.
Also, anything to do with calendar dates tends to be masculine – days, months and seasons fall under this category.
Finally, male animals and weather elements are usually masculine.
From this, you can deduce that the following words are masculine:
- der Autor (author)
- der Vater (father)
- der Mittwoch (Wednesday)
- der Regen (rain)*
How to Recognise Feminine Nouns in German (die/eine)
Feminine German nouns use the definite article die (the) and indefinite article eine (a/an).
As with masculine nouns, the easiest way to identify a feminine noun is to look at the word ending. Look out for the following word endings:
-e (mostly, as the exception is male persons or animals, such as der Löwe (the lion)), -ie, -heit, -ei, -in, -ik, -keit, – schaft, -ung, -tät, -ur, -tion
Funnily enough, things that would normally be associated with femininity are usually feminine too – like flowers and trees, along with female animals and people.
- die Blume (flower)
- die Familie (family)
- die Mannschaft (team)
How to Identify Neutral Nouns in German (das/ein)
Neutral German nouns take the definite article das (the) and indefinite article ein (a/an).
To spot neutral nouns, look out for the following word endings:
-chen, -o, -lein, -en, -il, -ma, -tel, -ment, -nis, -tum, -um
Most inanimate objects do fall under the category of neutral. Also, most metals, as well as babies (both human and animal) tend to have neutral genders.
Let’s look at some examples.
- das Kind (child)
- das Fragment (fragment)
- das Gold (gold)
What About Plurals in German?
When German nouns become plural, they adopt the feminine definite article of die. So, der/die/das become die/die/die. For example, der Mann becomes die Männer. This is not because they are changing gender – it is because the indefinite article is (technically) dropped.
What are the Exceptions to the Der/Die/Das Rules?
Unfortunately, not all German nouns can be neatly grouped into the categories I outlined above. You’re going to stumble into the odd word that seems to play by its own rules.
Some countries fall into this category. For example, Switzerland is feminine (die Schweiz) and the USA is plural (die USA).
How do you get around this?
Your best bet with these words is to focus on memorising the gender, rather than figuring it out on the fly. I recommend creating a deck of flashcards for the words whose genders you must remember. Anki is my favourite tool for this.
Another memory tool you can use here is association – also known as letting your imagination run wild. Let’s say you wanted to learn the gender for strawberry, Die Erdbeeren. You create an association in your mind by imagining your mother giving you some strawberries – they’re feminine and so is she.
What about der Fremdling, the stranger? Imagine encountering a male stranger on the street. Food (das Essen), meanwhile, is neutral, so you could think of a bland meal. You’ll be surprised by how easy it is to remember articles by creating these images in your mind.
Finally, don’t let these unusual cases hold you back. If you find yourself mid-conversation, and you’re unsure of the gender of a noun, just guess. You’ve got a one in three chance of getting it right. Not bad odds. And most Germans will correct you on the spot if you’re wrong, so you can learn as you go.
The Best Way to Learn German Noun Genders
My top tip for language learners is always to speak from day one. Speaking a language from the first day you start learning it helps you get over your fear of being “wrong” – because you will make mistakes, and you’ll learn that making mistakes is okay. Someone who puts themselves out there is ten times more likely to have success in language learning than those who don’t.
After all, what’s the worst that can happen? If you get it wrong, chances are someone will correct you (especially in Germany) and you’ll know how to say it right the next time you need to use that particular word. Native German speakers are notoriously direct and will be more than happy to help you out!
On top of using German genders in real conversations, here are my top tips for making them fun to learn. Be warned – there’s lots of gender stereotyping ahead!
- Pick some Post-It notes – maybe pink for feminine words, blue for masculine words and yellow for neutral. Label objects around the house, according to the gender of each noun.
- Buy some of those sparkly gel pens and use different colours to group gendered words together. You’ll be surprised by what colour association can do for your memory.
*Stand in front of your mirror and practise saying nouns in different voices. Pitch low for masculine nouns, high for feminine and use your normal voice for practising neutral.
Of course these are just a few suggestions to get you started. You can stick to methods that are a little bit more conventional or go completely crazy with colour coding ALL THE NOUNS. It’s completely up to you!
Is Gender Really Necessary?
If you’re approaching language learning with the goal of becoming a polyglot at some point in the future, then it is really important that you take the time to learn and understand gendered nouns.
Many languages, particularly in Europe, have gendered nouns. As hard as it may be to make sense of them when you’re starting out, I promise you that it will get easier with the next language you learn. And any that you may choose to study after that.
Over to You
Who knows – maybe in time the German language will simplify and gendered nouns will become redundant.
Until then, you’ll have to learn genders. So keep at it!