A Guide to Determining the Gender of German Nouns
One of the biggest differences between German grammar and English grammar is a noun’s gender.
What are genders?
German nouns can be one of three genders:
- Masculine: der Mann – the man
- Feminine: die Frau – the woman
- Neuter: das Kind – the child
The following are the articles that go in front of the nouns. They all correspond to the English article the.
In German the assignation of gender is unnatural. The gender of a word is usually not related to the gender of the concept it denotes, but rather to the word itself.
This way a cat is a she and a dog is a he.
|die Katze, der Hund|
A phone is an it but a coat is a he.
|das Handy, der Mantel|
A sister is a she but a girl is an it.
|die Schwester, das Mädchen|
How to know the gender?
So how can you tell the gender whenever you see a new word?
There are two possible ways to know the gender of a noun: you either have memorized it beforehand along with the noun or you can try and make it out from the grammar rules.
1. Memorizing the gender of every noun
Studying the gender with every new noun you learn is the most common and recommended option. Many students use colors to help them.
You can assign each gender a color (i.e. pink for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neuter). You could write the nouns in their respective color or write on colored paper. Another option is imagining the object, animal, person or concept in its respective color. A green telephone. A pink newspaper.
2. Learning the rules
This can seem like a daunting task as these rules are plenty and not very intuitive. We will focus on the most important ones. For a complete list please visit this blog post.
Whereas the gender of English nouns is based upon the noun being male, female, or an inanimate object (girl is feminine, boy is masculine and phone is neuter), this is only partly true for German genders.
Only nouns that refer to males or females are masculine or feminine respectively (woman being feminine and man being masculine). The rest of the nouns don’t follow a natural order.
German genders are for the most part unnatural and may appear arbitrary. German noun’s genders don’t refer to their meaning but to the word itself. That is why we can determine the gender by examining their structure.
There are certain elements that can serve as clues to determining gender.
We can identify masculine nouns by the following characteristics:
- Nouns that refer to males: der Mann (man), der Bruder (brother)
Many nouns that end in -er, -en, and -el: der Arbeiter (worker), der Wagen (car), der Apfel (apple)
- Days of the week, months, and seasons: der Sonntag (Sunday), der Februar (February), der Sommer (summer)
- Nouns formed from an infinitive minus the -en ending: der Schlaf (schlafen) (sleep), der Einkauf (einkaufen) (purchase)
- Many nouns that form their plural by (umlaut) + e: der Stift (die Stifte) (pen), der Satz (die Sätze) (sentence)
- Nouns ending in -ich, -ig, -ismus, -ist, -ling, and -us: der Teppich (carpet), der Honig (honey), der Feminismus (feminism), der Sozialist (socialist), der Liebling (darling), der Zirkus (circus)
Feminine nouns can be identified by the following characteristics:
- Nouns that refer to females: die Frau (woman) die Tochter (daughter) Names of numerals: die Eins, die Dreissig (one, thirty)
Names of many rivers: die Donau, die Elbe (the Elbe, the Danube)
- Many nouns ending in -e: die Karte (card), die Reise (journey)
- Nouns ending in -in that identify females in professions: die Köchin (cook), die Lehrerin (teacher)
- Many nouns ending in -a: die Gala (gala), die Firma (company)
- Many nouns that form their plural by -(e)n: die Decke (die Decken) (blanket), die Pflanze (die Pflanzen) (plant)
- Nouns that end in -ei, -heit, -keit, -ie, -ik, -nz, -schaft, -ion, -tät, -ung, and -ur: die Wäscherei (laundry), die Mehrheit (majority), die Müdigkeit (tiredness), die Astrologie (astrology), die Musik (music), die Toleranz (tolerance), die Landschaft (landscape), die Position (position), die Kreativität (creativity), die Bedeutung (meaning), die Frisur (hairstyle)
Neuter nouns can be identified by the following characteristics:
- Diminutive nouns that end in -chen or -lein: das Märchen (fairy tale), das Männlein (little man)
- Nouns formed from an infinitive: das Essen (food). These nouns do not have a plural form.
- Most nouns that end in -nis: das Ergebnis (result) Many nouns with the prefix Ge-: das Gebet (prayer)
- Nouns that refer to metals: das Silber (silver)
- Nouns that end in -ment: das Instrument (instrument)
- Most nouns that form their plural by (umlaut) + er: das Tuch (die Tücher) (cloth), das Kind (die Kinder) (child)
- Nouns that end in -um: das Zentrum (centre)
There is a third option but it doesn’t count as a method. It’s more of an emergency trick that comes in handy once you find yourself in the situation of needing to use the word and not being able to look it up.
Whenever you don’t know the gender by heart, go with masculine. It’s just a question of probability as there are more masculine nouns.
- Try to memorize the gender along with every new noun.
- Male people, professions and animals are usually masculine and female people, professions and animals are female.
- Words ending in -er are masculine.
- Words ending in -e, -ie, -heit, -keit, -ion, -ung, are usually female
- Words ending in -chen and -o are usually neuter.
- If none of these apply go with der.
As you can imagine there are many nouns in the German language and there is no perfect way to study them. Ideally, you will find your own way that suits your learning style, one that is effective and won’t make you lose too much time by applying a mix of the techniques mentioned.