Der Tor or das Tor? It Depends.


Yes, no, this, that – who does not hate ambivalence (except one’s own)? There are people who say one thing but mean another. There are words, too, that have two meanings, which one depends on the article (der, die, das). My friend Jutta Paaßen pointed this out last week after she read my entry “Mendelssohn: Auf den Flügeln des Gesanges.”

Jutta has Argusaugen. The word Argusaugen stems from Argus, a giant in Greek mythology who has hundred eyes. Jutta has two-hundred and is a giant in proof-reading. She catches every mistake in the German language, also those I have been making – and subsequently correcting – here in this blog. Last week when I presented an analysis of the lyrics she found one of those words: Flur. Its ambivalence had slipped into the vocabulary list of the first stanza.

I wrote, “der Flur = meadow.” In reality der Flur (maskuline) means “corridor.” What I meant was die Flur (feminine).

This type of word is called polysemous, a word with several meanings. Here are some examples:

das Tor = gate, der Tor = fool.
Das Brandenburger Tor is the famous landmark in Berlin while der Brandenburger Tor is a fool from Brandenburg. You might find both at the same time in the same spot.

der See = lake, die See = ocean

das Steuer = steering wheel, die Steuer = tax

das Gehalt = salery, der Gehalt = content

das Schild = sign, der Schild = shield

der Kiefer = jaw, die Kiefer = pine tree

The word Band has even three meanings:
das Band = ribbon, der Band = book volume, die Band = music band

Some words do not change the article but only the plural reveals their different meaning:

die Bank, plural: die Bänke = benches, die Banken = banks

Important for singers: der Ton, plural: die Töne = notes, die Tone = clays

Jutta, hast du wieder etwas gefunden?


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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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