This is definitely a post for the language lovers out there.
We’re very lucky in English to not have genders for words. Whenever I ask Germans what they find easy about English, 9 times out of 10 I’m told it’s because you don’t need to worry about remembering what gender words have.
In German, you have three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. That means every noun has a gender, which means you don’t only have to remember what the word is, but you also have to remember which form of “the” or “a” you have to put with it (and let’s not get into the four different cases… that’s a story for another day).
Now, some are easy. Here are some examples:
“Mann” (man) is a masculine word, quite obviously.
“Frau” (woman) is feminine. Also obvious.
“Vater” (father) is masculine.
“Mutter” (mother) is feminine.
“Sohn” (son) is masculine.
“Tochter” (daughter) is feminine.
“Junge” (boy) is masculine.
“Mädchen” (girl) is… nope, it’s not feminine. It’s neuter. If you were to speak in correct German, you would say: “Look at that girl over there! It is holding some flowers!” Not too polite, huh?
I started learning German when I started school at the age of eleven, so around 13 years ago. So luckily, I’ve got over rules like the ones above. I now know off by heart that a table is masculine, a pub is feminine and a glass is neuter. I know that your head, stomach and feet are masculine, whereas your hands, nose and eyebrows are feminine (regardless of what gender you actually are yourself). It was extremely difficult to get my head around all of that at first, and I most certainly still make mistakes, but generally, having used German every day for over two years now, I’m doing OK.
There are rules that you can learn. Most of which do have exceptions (like any language rule), but you have things like “All words that end in -keit or -heit are feminine” and “All words that end in -chen (a diminutive form) are neuter” – hence the rule about the girl above. You also get rules like “Around 80% of words that have two syllables and end in -e are feminine” (like the word for cup (Tasse) and flower (Blume), but that doesn’t apply to words like boy (Junge) and lion (Löwe), both of which are masculine).
But (there’s always a but)… there are certain things that still bewilder me when it comes to German genders which I’ll put into a list. Let the rant begin!
German misses out on rules that could have been. One example is: Knife, fork, spoon. Messer, Gabel, Löffel. You have three words that are linked, so you’d think German would make your life easier and give them all the same gender. Ha! Of course not. German sees three words and so it uses one gender for each item. A knife in German is neuter, a fork is feminine and a spoon is masculine. I have no idea how I got round to learning that in the end, but it most certainly took a long while.
There seems to be no rules for game consoles. Recently I asked what gender the word Playstation has (which Germans also say due to it being a name). I was told it’s feminine. “A, ha!”, I thought to myself, “that must mean that all consoles are feminine”. Of course, I was wrong. Nintendo 3DS, in German, is masculine. As is Nintendo Gamecube and Nintendo 64. But the Nintendo Wii is feminine. Oh, and Gameboy is, of course, masculine. But the new console coming next year, Nintendo Switch, is feminine (or at least I think after a quick Google). I’m just glad I don’t have an Xbox to confuse matters even more.
There seems to be no rules for technological items in general. One good example is the use of genders for Apple products. An iPhone and iPad are neuter, whereas an iPod is masculine. If you say Macbook Pro, you have to use a neuter pronoun. If you just say Mac, you use a masculine pronoun. What?
There are some genders Germans can’t actually agree on. A good example (and every German I’ve ever met has an opinion on it) is Nutella. Some argue it’s feminine, others say it should be neuter. As a non-native who learnt German from scratch, I sway towards feminine, because it flows better off the tongue (Die Nutella instead of Das Nutella), but I’ll no doubt find a fair few people who disagree. Apparently it was once announced that Nutella has, in fact, no gender, and should never be referred to as “the Nutella”, rather just “Can you pass me Nutella?”, which is just downright weird. Apparently, an E-Mail can be feminine or neuter, depending on where you’re from (I’d definitely say it’s feminine).
Getting the gender of a word wrong can completely change its meaning. Generally, if you get a gender wrong, it’s really not the end of the world – the Germans still understand. However, there are some words that have a completely different meaning depending on what gender you give them. A good example is the German word Band. If you make it masculine, you’re talking about a volume, such as a volume of books. If you make it feminine, you’re talking about a musical band. If you make it neuter, you’re talking about a ribbon, such as for wrapping a present. Now, of course it’s not the end of the world if you say you went to see a great ribbon at a concert last night, as from the context it’s obvious, but there are some situations where it’s not so clear. If, for example, you make the German word for knife, Messer, masculine instead of neuter, you’re actually talking about a measuring device – not too easy to eat with one of those.
Sometimes words and their genders are identical, even though the actual meanings of the words are completely different. We have that in English, too (such as light, which could mean not heavy but also not dark), but the genders make it that little bit more difficult. Obviously the context and situation helps, but there’s a chance that, for example, if you finally remember that the word for pigeon, Taube, is feminine, someone still may understand you as having said “Look at the deaf woman up there!” (Thankfully that’s never happened to me.)
Despite all of these being a right pain in the backside, I can’t help but see it as a huge daily challenge, in a positive sense. It keeps you on your toes and really gets your brain ticking every time you have to speak or write in German.
I never seem to stop learning the genders for words, even the most simplest ones: I remember, for example, being told during my year abroad the word for “sheet of paper”, Blatt, is actually neuter, and not masculine as I thought it was for about 9 years. Oh, and Blatt also means “leaf”, also neuter. Because, German.