Learning the German noun gender system can be a real headache. In this post, I’m sharing some top tips on how to remember the gender of individual words. Taken together, the tricks will stack odds of getting the gender right significantly in your favour. The info below will save you time and give you confidence as you power ahead auf Deutsch. Los geht’s!
So what is all the fuss actually about?
Why is German noun gender a challenge?
Well, there are four reasons why learning the gender of German words can be a pain.
First, there are three genders in German: masculine, feminine and neuter. That much we know. Oh, except that sometimes a noun’s gender varies according to meaning or even region….
It would be much easier, say I, if German didn’t have gender at all.
Why can’t it be like those walks-in-the-park of languages Finnish, Basque or Japanese?
Ok, ok, then, I’ll concede two genders, like French (le/la), Portuguese (“o” or “a”), or Welsh (“y” or, erm, “y”). No? Ahem.
Second, the ending of the word doesn’t provide a simple key.
In Italian or Spanish its overwhelmingly -o for a boy, -a for a girl.
Russian, like German, has three genders but this is one of those areas where Slavonic languages are easier than Deutsch.
In Russian, noun gender usually clear from the ending, give or take a few soft signs: a nice firm masculine consonant, girly “a” or non-committal neutral “o”…. but that’s a topic for a later post (Russian learners, watch this space).
Third, when it comes to German noun gender, choices have consequences.
It’s not just a matter of the grating sound (to a native) of the wrong indefinite article (“a” or “an” in English or, erm*, ein, eine, eines, einen, einem, or einer in German) or definite article (“the” in English or der, die, das, des, den or dem in German). No! The gender of a noun also has knock-on grammatical effects in the sentence.
(* that’s not one of the articles, it’s me stuttering in desperation) 😉 )
Those knock-on effects crop up because German pronouns (he, his, whose, these etc) or determiners (such as “many”, “most”, “a few”, “all”, “every”) all have endings “marked for gender”. Just to spice it up, they are, like the articles, also “marked” for case and number. That was why we had more than three German versions of “a” and “the” above.
The adjectives (descriptive words like “short”, “fat”, “hairy” that modify nouns) are at it too, with their gender, number and case-marked endings.
Even some nouns get in on the act, with endings that depend on case or whether or not the noun is singular or plural.
We’ll come back to all this grammatical declension another time.
Rest assured, it’s not nearly as frightening as it looks when you first see those intimidating grammar tables in your textbook.
If you get wise to a few key patterns, you’re 90% there.
But then, to use the system, you do have to KNOW THE GENDER.
Fourth and last, but by no means least, that standard advice to just “learn the gender when you learn the word” just doesn’t work over the longer term.
It’s particularly infuriating when it comes from a native speaker who’s never had to try it, don’t you find? 😡😡
Can’t I just ignore the gender of nouns in German?
Before we get any further, what about the argument that you can just ignore it or “they all say de“?
To those slouches among you, this is an appealing one.
Don’t ever let gender paralyse you!
You’re a foreigner after all, nobody’s expecting perfection.
Plus, in practice, you’ll rarely be misunderstood when you’re saying basic stuff.
So, yes, just get in there and speak and don’t obsess about gender.
That said, if you’re serious about progressing the language from beginner into intermediate, it’s really not such a good idea.
If you aren’t serious about it, by the way bog off from my site 😉
Here’s the thing: if you want to move into intermediate, you need to be able to express more complex ideas in longer sentences. Declension carries a lot of meaning. You’ll get confused or may, after all, be misunderstood.
If you’re upper intermediate or wannabe advanced, your gender mistakes will increasingly stick out like a sore thumb. It’s time to take your game apart again and remind yourself of some basics.
Strategies for learning the gender
As we’ve seen while some languages like Spanish have “transparent” systems of marking gender but German just doesn’t.
What, then, is a learner to do?
There are several approaches all of which you’ll probably find yourself trying.
Around 60% of Welsh words are masculine. That’s an unusually high proportion.
In German, unfortunately, the odds are much less in your favour. The German Duden gives figures of 46% feminine, 34% masculine and 20% neuter.
There are also other figures out there (Baayen, Piepenbrock, & Gulikers, 1995) suggesting masculine 43%, feminine 38% and neuter 19% are neuter. However, these figures – among other problems – don’t necessarily reflect the frequency of words.
All we can say is, if you must guess, don’t guess neuter, unless you’re applying one of the techniques and rules of thumb to help you remember the gender of German nouns that it’s now time to look at in detail.
Ways to make learning German noun gender easier: two “hacks”
Use colour coding
The method I used when I started learning German was to have flashcards with the masculine written in blue (for a boy, geddit?), the feminine in red (because I didn’t have a pink biro) and the neuter nouns in green.
This feels useful at the beginning, but I’m not sure how much it really helps longer term. It’s too passive simply to associate a word with a colour. It’s maybe just doesn’t involve enough imagination to stick in the memory and is too far away from the “procedural” recall we need in language learning (mastering a skill)
What do you think? Have you tried this method with German or another language?
Use mental images
A supercharged version of colour coding is to choose three memorable images – one neuter, one masculine, one feminine – to associate with each word of the corresponding gender.
“Die Waage” (singular) is the word for scales (modern ones like you have in a kitchen or bathroom or the traditional ones associated with justice). Imagine the word you’re learning being weighed. First try to get the measure of it in your hands (or if it’s die Kuh, put your arms under it and try to lift it up). Then place it (or winch it) onto the scales. If as your image you’ve taken the traditional scales of justice, imagine smaller versions of the same object being placed on the other pan until they balance.
“Der Hammer” (the hammer) is masculine. So, you can imagine each masculine word being smashed up with a hammer. Make the image as memorable as possible! See that hamm er wrecking that object or concept, with bits flying in all directions. Feel that masculine rage!
“Das Wasser” (the water) is neuter. Imagine objects being swept away in watery rapids, all gurgle and foam. Or take da”s Feuer” (the fire, neuter). You could image objects heating up, combusting and being slowly consumed by flames. Hear that crackle, smell that smoke.
Such memory methods can be very powerful but remember, they’re mainly good for lodging information in your short-term memory.
If you don’t then follow up with techniques like spaced recall and start to use what you’ve learned, a lot, the noun, let alone the gender, won’t find its way into your long term memory.
Look at these tricks as an initial step, then.
After thirty years of learning German and despite my C1 qualification, I have to say that I still have to check gender quite often, even the gender of very frequent words.
That’s why I’m so sceptical of the standard advice to just “learn the gender along with the noun”, however you do it. Fact is, I can now often actively remember the words, but not the gender.
Two things really help me: context and ending patterns.
Learn in context
By far the most effective method is to get down with the kids 😉 Little Germans learn their mother tongue pick up gender simply by relying on context. They always hear the word behaving according to its gender.
Here the sheer prominence of the gender system in German actually helps. Gender is flagged in a very overt way, even before the word itself due to the gendered pronouns (he, she, his, her…) articles or other determiners, so there are often multiple cues for little Hansel or Gretl.
Just because children rely on this complex context, doesn’t mean should suspend our powers of overview and reasoning, though. We have what I like to call “the adult advantage” not just relying on childlike instinct. We have the ability to do a bit of rational thinking, to see understand how gender works consciously…
So, we can supercharge the context method by “reading over” from set chunks of language we’ve learned to get the gender right in other context.
How will this work in practice?
Take the word “Arm” (Arm) as an example. I wouldn’t know whether it’s die Arm, das Arm or der Arm. Maybe, though, I’ve picked up the phrase “jemanden auf den Arm nehmen” (to pull somebody’s leg – literally, “to take somebody by the arm”).
Take chunks of language you do know and work out the gender from there.
Examples of common chunks you might become very familiar with early on – even before you start learning much German you might know snippets of German such as “Guten Tag” (i.e. ich wünsche Ihnen einen guten Tag).
The further on you get with your German, the more you’ll have to go on and the quicker you’ll be able to move on these “crutches of context”.
But you’ll only be able to do it to maximum effect if you’re all over the declension system (and you’ve learnt the endings). You need to know that “den Arm” is the masculine singular accusative.
So, in between periods of extensive German use, keep coming back to for periods of focussed study of the patterns. And practice with spoken or written exercises.
Birds of a feather? Nouns that hang out together
I was going to head this section “Group S*x” and see what that does for my site visitor numbers 😉). You see, the second approach that really helps me is to be aware of groups of nouns have the same gender.
The groups based on either FORM – the ending – on their MEANING.
This is a massively useful crutch. It isn’t foolproof because there’s always a small but noisy awkward squad of maverick gender-benders. But you can deflect their blows by treating them as the exceptions that prove the rule.
Grouped by meaning
There is no automatic correlation between grammatical gender and sex in German, although biological gender is sometimes part of the picture and people and animals do generally follow the forms you’d expect: die Frau, die Tochter, die Kuh, der Mann, der Stier. That’s a big early win in the gender wars.
Note, though, that young people and animals are often neuter: das Baby, das Kind, das Kalb. Mädchen – a girl – is neuter, too. So, yes, you would refer to your daughter as “es” if you’ve just identified her as das Mädchen. An old friend of mine did this in a speech at her 50th birthday party in Berlin a couple of weeks ago.
“It” (the teenage daughter) didn’t bat an eyelid but it still strikes my English-infused brain as a strange carry on.
That’s because in English the only bits of the full-on German-style system we had in Old English are used precisely to indicate biological gender: he, she or it; his, hers or its.
Now for some an overview of the “meaning groups” with some common examples and exceptions.
Feminine by meaning
Most trees and flowers: die Birke, die Rose.
Most rivers in Germany: die Spree, die Donau (but der Rhein – Vater Rhein, after all!). Those outside are masculine: der Jordan, der Nil, der Mississippi but die Themse).
Planes, ships and motorbikes: die Boeing (but der Airbus – because “der Bus”), die Sportster XL….
Nouns of number and size: die Eins, die Zwei, die Million (but das Hundert, das Thausand); die Länge (length), die Breite (width)).
Masculine by meaning
Days, months, seasons: der Donnerstag, der Januar, der Sommer.
Points of the compass, weather: der Norden, der Wind, der Frost (but die Brise, das Eis, and das Wetter itself).
Rocks and minerals: der Diamant (not a girl’s best friend after all?), der Sand (but die Kreide, das Mineral).
Many drinks, especially booze (der Tee, der Kaffee, der Wein, der Vodka but das Bier).
Makes of car: der BMW, de Audi, der Hillman Imp (that’s the British one that you’ll see der Trabant overtaking in the fast lane of die Autobahn).
Neuter by meaning
Towns, countries, continents: das alte Berlin, das Europa, das moderne Afrika (but die Schweitz, die Bretagne, die Riviera, der Irak, der Lebanon).
Hotels, Cafés, Restaurants and Cinemas: das Hilton, das “Ritzy” (here in Brixton 🙂 ).
Units of measurement: das Kilo, das Gramm (Liter, Meter and their compounds like Kilometer are officially neuter in Germany. They are often used as masculine nouns as well, though, and they are officially masculine in Switzerland). Also worth mentioning here are particles like das Molekül, das Atom, das Elektron, das Neutron.
Metals: das Gold, das Eisen, das Kupfer (but das Uran, das Messing (brass)).
Colours: das Rote, das Blau.
Languages: das Englisch, das Spanisch.
Letters of the alphabet: das A, das B….).
Grouped by ending
Typical feminine endings: -a (except -ma – see neuter, below); -anz/-enz (die Eleganz, die Instanz, die Intelligenz); -e (thousands but key irregulars are der Name and der Käse; das Auge, das Ende). Watch out too for the “weak” masculine nouns – the “n-Deklination”: der Bursche, der Affe and masculine or neuter adjectival nouns such as der Alte or der Blinde); -ei (die Bücherei) ;-ette (die Zigarette); -heit or -keit (die Gesundheit, die Schönheit); -ie (die Chemie); -ik (die Musik, die Physik); -in (die Freundin); -ion (die Generation, die Expedition); -schaft (die Nachbarschaft, die Gesellschaft); -sis (die Basis); -tät (die Universität); -ung (die Übung, die Bedeutung, die Zeitung); -ur (die Natur, die Figur. But der Flur).
Typical masculine endings: -ant/-ent (der Student); -ast (der Ast, der Palast); -er (when referring to people, like der Arbeiter, der Lehrer – see below for corresponding female forms); -ich (der Teppich, der Meerrettich); -ig (der Käfig, der Honig); -ling (der Lehrling, der Flüchtling); -ist (der Polizist, der Pianist); -or (der Traktor, der Motor); -us der Sozialismus and, erm, der Feminismus).
Typical neuter endings: -chen (das Mädchen); -en (infinitives used as nouns like das Gehen, das Teetrinken) das Gehen; -ett (often loan words – das Tablett); -icht (das Licht); -il (das Wohnmobil but der Stil); -ma das Thema (often loan words remember die Oma!); -it (das Dynamit); -lein (das Fräulein); -ment (often loan words like das Medikament (drug), das Appartement, das Testament but der Zement]; -o (das Büro, das Konto but TAKE GOOD NOTE – der Espresso):
Back into neutral: -tel (das Drittel); -tum (often loan words but Germanic ones too, such as das Wachstum); -um (often loanwords like das Studium, das Album. Note: der Reichtum).
The above ending groups are a more reliable guide than the meaning groups that we looked at first.
There are also endings which TEND to have a certain gender but where there are far more exceptions:
So: -el, -er, -en endings are 60% masculine, 25% feminines and 15% neuter (on the latter – see above).
Nouns with the prefix “ge-” are 90% neuter (but der Gehalt (in the sense of “salary”, der Gewinn profit, die Geburt, die Geschichte).
Nouns ending -nis and -sal are often neuter (about 70% – das Gebäude, das Gespräch, the rest feminine – die Besorgnis, die Erkenntnis).
What about words for members of a profession?
In English, to be inclusive, the preference is to ditch the old female forms. In German you do the opposite. Many masculine nouns for jobs can be made feminine by adding -in (plural – innen): Lehrer/-in; Steuerberater/-in (tax advisor), Budeskanzlerin. I presume this is because grammatical gender strengthens the association of the “root” masculine form with men (but if you know another reason, let me know in the comments!).
The gender of some words varies by meaning.
The ones I keep coming across are der Band (book or volume) and das Band (tape, band or ribbon); die See (sea) or der See (lake – remember “am Bodensee”). Others are der Kiefer (jaw) and die Kiefer (pine tree); der Leiter (leader) and die Leiter (ladder) or die Steuer (tax) und das Steuer (steering-wheel or helm of ship). The plurals are often different too.
Some words have a gender that varies by dialect, region or country: die Butter in Germany, der Butter in Austria. Das Radio in northern Germany, der Radio in the south and Austria. Mainly das Marzipan in the Federal Republic and der Marzipan in Austria. Delicious in both.
Good news: compound nouns – of which there are so many in German – almost always take the gender of the last element: die Autobahn; der Sozialversicherungsfachangestelltenauszubildender (if you don’t know the meaning – check out my survey article “Learning German: what’s hard and what’s easy?”).
Abbreviations take the gender the abbreviated substantive would have in full: “die DB” (die Deutsche Bahn – because “die Bahn”); “die BRD” (die Bundesrepublik Deutschland because “die Republik”).
What about Denglish?
There have been a flood of English words into German in the last few decades. They are 60% masculine: der Job, der Jazz. The rest are generally neuter: das Baby, das Poster. Some are feminine by analogy (die City like die Stadt, die Party like die Feier). Some are of unstable gender, for now: die/das Cola, der/die Forehand.
Keep calm and take a step back…
That’s it. Ok, I set out to help, but maybe I overwhelmed you?
Take heart! (That’ll be “das Herz”, of course.)
When you’re just starting a language, it seems like there’s such a lot to learn….and there is!
If you’re a beginner, take the practical tips from this piece and start to get a sense of the groups. Look at this post as setting the scene and as something to come back to repeatedly during the course of your progress towards fluency and beyond.
Whatever you do, don’t let Gernan noun gender get in the way of enjoying the language as you learn!
Remember, natives sometimes make mistakes or are unsure of the gender.
Usually, you’ll be understood.
As you get better, it starts to feel good to start getting the hang of the system.
Over to you!
How has German noun gender been for you so far as you grapple with the language?
Are there any tricks and tips I should add to my list?
Are there things which you’re finding particularly challenging?
Let me know in the comments below and I’ll be sure to respond.
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