U-Bahn station Potsdamer Platz

What you always wanted to know but never dared to ask: What makes the theater neuter, the stage feminine and the applause masculine? Why is the voice a gal, the head a guy and the orchestra a sexless being?

Some of the most puzzling aspects for English-speakers is the gender in the German language. There seems to be no obvious rule. A Haus is das Haus while a Maus a die Maus. It is die Hand but der Arm. Not to speak of the silverware: der Löffel, das Messer, die Gabel. It seems that all articles want a place at the plate (der Teller).

There are some rules, not many but enough to get you through the day. They have to do with categories of nouns and with word endings (suffixes).

der, ein (masculine)

Nouns have the definite article der and its indefinite ein when they end with …

-ig (Käfig = cage, Honig = honey), -er (Fehler = mistake, Kugelschreiber = pen),

-ling (Zwilling = twin, Schmetterling = butterfly), -ismus (Rassismus, Impressionismus),

-or (Motor = engine, Sensor)

Masculine are …

-… all terms of the calendar (except the week = die Woche, the year = das Jahr), thus, the days of the week, the months and the seasons: der Mittwoch, der Juni, der Winter

– … the points of the compass: der Norden, der Westen

– … terms for weather conditions: der Regen, der Schnee, der Wind.

die, eine (feminine)

Nouns have the definite article die and its indefinite eine when they end with …

-ie (Anarchie), -ei (Bäckerei = bakery), -heit (Freiheit = freedom),

-keit (Schwierigkeit = difficulty), -schaft (Herrschaft = rule of power), -ung (Dichtung = poetry)

-tät (Fakultät) -ik (Musik), -ion (Diskussion).

Most nouns ending with –e are feminine, e.g. die Bühne, die Nase, die Legende but not der Zeuge, das Ende.

Feminine are …

– … numbers: die Eins, die Hundert

– … trees and flowers: die Linde, die Rose

– … nouns, derived from adjectives that describe dimensions (height, length): die Höhe, die Länge.

das, ein (neuter)

Nouns have the definite article das and its indefinite ein when they end with …

-ment (Engagement, Appartement ) -um (Studium = study, Museum)

-ma (Dilemma, Thema = theme)

Neuter are …

– … the letters of the alphabet: das A, das Z

-… names for chemical elements: das Gold, das Silber

– … cities and most countries: das Moskau in “Krieg und Frieden”, das Deutschland, das China, but der Iran, der Irak, die Schweiz, die Türkei (ending with –ei)

– … most generic terms with the prefix Ge-: das Geräusch, das Gepäck, das Gemüse

– … nouns that are derived from verbs and adjectives (nominalized words). das Vorsingen, das Blau

– … diminutives.

Diminutives carry the endings -chen or –lein. They make things or living beings smaller and can be applied to almost all nouns. No matter what gender they represented before, they all become neuter in diminutive.

die Hand – das Händchen, das Glas – das Gläschen, das Dorf – das Dörfchen

Das Mädchen is a diminutive of die Maid, an old word for virgin, maiden or maid, and means girl. Although a girl is certainly feminine, the ending -chen makes her neuter.

We use -lein more often in the southern regions of Germany as well as in Austria. In Switzerland we often find -le as diminutive.

die Blume – Blümchen, Blümelein, das Herz – Herzchen, Herzelein, der Tisch – Tischchen, Tischlein.

Hänsel and Gretel are diminutives for Hans and Grete. Poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe calls his Grete in Faust “Gretchen”.

Next up-date: Sunday, June 23rd : There Are Many Plurals.