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GERMAN LANGUAGE

How to remember the gender of German words

One of the biggest problems that German language learners face is figuring out whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter. We spoke to an expert and put together some useful tips to help you remember.

Refugees from Afghanistan practice reading German words at the state library in Potsdam in 2016.
Refugees from Afghanistan practice reading German words at the state library in Potsdam in 2016. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Bernd Settnik

Is it der, die, or das? This question is the bane of many German-language learners’ lives, as learning the gender of words can feel like an endless, uphill struggle.

Berlin-based German teacher and German language specialist, Dirk Nordhoff told The Local: “It’s difficult as there are always three possibilities for nouns. I recommend my learners to always learn new nouns with articles.”

But there are some rules that can help you remember the gender of German words.

Masculine words

In German, masculine words are preceded by the article der in the nominative case (becoming den, dem and des in the other cases), and there are certain categories of German words that are always masculine. These are:

– Male people e.g. der Mann (man), der Vater (father), der Arzt (male doctor)

– Days of the week, e.g. der Montag (Monday), der Dienstag (Tuesday)

– Months of the year, e.g. der Januar (January), der Februar (February)

– Seasons, e.g. der Sommer (summer), der Frühling (spring), der Herbst (autumn)

A field of gladioli in spring in Hessen. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hannes P Albert

– Types of precipitation, e.g. der Regen (rain), der Schnee (snow), der Hagel (hail)

There are also certain word endings that indicate that the word needs a der. These are:

– Nouns which come from a verb and don’t end in -en e.g. der Lauf (race/course), der Sitz (seat/domicile)

– Words ending in -ig or -ich e.g. der Teppich (rug), der Honig (honey) 

READ ALSO: Ask a German: Do you ever forget the gender of words?

Feminine nouns

Feminine nouns in German take the article die in the nominative and accusative cases and der in the dative and genitive cases. The following categories of words are always feminine:

– Names of female people, e.g. die Mutter (mother), die Ärztin (the female doctor), die Lehrerin (female teacher)

– Numbers used as nouns e.g. die Eins, die Zwei, die Drei

A pair of die show two number twos. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

– Nouns which come from verbs ending in -t, e.g. die Fahrt (the trip), die Hast (the rush)

Language teacher Dirk gave us a tip of his – if in doubt, use the feminine article. “Statistically die is the most common article”, he said.

With feminine nouns the word ending can often give a clue that a word belongs to this category, as the following endings are always feminine:

– Words ending in -ness, -keit, -ik, -schaft, -ur, -ität, -ung, e.g., die Freiheit (freedom), die Möglichkeit (possibility), die Kritik (criticism), die Gesellschaft (community), die Zensur (censorship), die Identität (identity), die Hoffnung (hope)

Words ending in -e, -ei, -enz, -ie, -ion, -anz, are also often feminine. Some examples are, die Lampe (lamp), die Partei (party), die Intelligenz (intelligence), die Kopie (copy), die Religion (religion), and die Arroganz (arrogance). There are numerous exceptions to this rule, however, but if you’re not sure – try with the feminine. 

Neuter nouns

In German, the neuter gender takes the article das in the accusative and nominative and dem and des in the other cases. The following categories of words are always neuter in German:

– Diminutives (words ending in -chen and -lein), e.g., das Mädchen (girl), das Büchlein (booklet)

– Colours, e.g. das Rot (red), das Gelb (yellow), das Blau (blue)

– Nouns taken from the infinitive which have the same spelling, e.g. das Essen (food), das Leben (life) 

– Nouns that come from adjectives, e.g., das Gute (good), das Böse (evil)

READ ALSO: Kätzchen and Büchlein: How to make German words smaller

The following words are usually neuter:

– Words taken from other languages, e.g., das Baby (baby), das Niveau (the level)

Replica gold bars photographed in Potsdam, 2014. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Ralf Hirschberger

– Names of metals and chemical elements, e.g. das Gold (gold), das Eisen (iron), das Aluminium (aluminium)

Word endings can also be helpful when detecting neuter nouns. The following endings usually indicate this gender:

– Words ending in -ment, -nis, -o, -um, -tum, e.g. das Instrument (instrument), das Gedächtnis (memory), das Auto (car), das Museum (museum), das Eigentum (property), though again, there are of course exceptions. 

With the gender of words, it never hurts to try – and don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t get it right. 

Dirk told us: “German native speakers don’t perceive it as stupid when foreigners make a mistake with the gender of words. We notice it, but if the pronunciation and vocabulary are good, it’s not a big deal for me and many others.”

Member comments

  1. Der, die, das has driven me crazy, thanks for the clarification. This will assist me greatly in the study of the German language.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

Freudenfreude: Why we should all embrace this made-up German word

The term 'Freudenfreude' was recently identified by mistake as a German word. Here's why that is not such a bad thing.

Freudenfreude: Why we should all embrace this made-up German word

The German word Schadenfreude – or joy at another person’s misfortune – is widely used in the English-speaking world, where it was adopted over 150 years ago. But its opposite, Freudenfreude, is a new, and somewhat accidental, invention.

On November 25th, a San Francisco-based psychologist penned an article for the New York Times on how we need more Freudenfreude – a supposedly commonly used German word meaning joy at the happiness of another person, even if we don’t share that same happiness ourselves. 

A few international media outlets then heralded the “German“ concept, until the word got out (quite literally) in Germany. Some scorned the author’s mistake, while others praised her for inadvertently enriching die deutsche Sprache

“Since language is something that’s very much alive, you can always be happy when a new word appears somewhere,“ wrote the Süddeutsche Zeitung. 

The Munich-based newspaper pointed out how other now-popular German words “took a while until they were finally widely used” – and then were often incorporated into other languages’ vernaculars when they lacked a similar word.

READ ALSO: ‘6 German words I now use in English’

Let’s face it: sometimes to sum up a concept in English (or Spanish or Slovenian or whatever our language) we need a word in German, even if it doesn’t exist yet. 

The now ubiquitous Wanderlust, a desire for travel, or Zeitgeist, spirit of the times, were also once made-up words that could only be neatly described by placing two German nouns together.

The same goes for Freudenfreude. Sure, we have “empathy”, but that also could mean feeling someone‘s pain during a sad moment, not just their joy during good times. Otherwise, we could say we’re happy for someone, but why use three words when it can be so neatly summed up in one?

We still don’t have a single, snappy word that describes when your good friend passes the important test you failed a week ago, and you still feel proud that she’s making progress. Or that feeling that even though life is not going right for you right now, someone else’s success shows that it still can.

A few days after the New York Times article was published, the newspaper ran a correction on the article that Freudenfreude is not a German word.

But by that point, it was already on the path to becoming one.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that English should adopt

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