Since long before Mark Twain complained about the German language, students have been grappling with German genders. The concept of grammatical gender is an especially difficult one for English-speakers to wrap their minds around at first.
What is gender?
Grammatical gender is a system of noun classification. Nouns, not objects, have genders. Germans therefore can interchangeably refer to a car as das Auto (neuter) or der Wagen (masculine) or an idea as die Idee (feminine) or der Einfall (masculine). Nouns that designate beings with a natural biological gender usually – though not always – have the same grammatical as biological gender – Frau (woman) is feminine, Bruder (brother) is masculine, for instance. But the grammatical gender of most words is a seemingly random occurrence with no relationship to the objects they designate.
Why learn noun genders?
In German, cases convey the functions of nouns in sentences, how they relate to one another and to other elements of the sentence. The markers that signify case in German are dependent on noun genders: the gender of the word determines the form of any article and/or adjective that accompanies the noun and any pronoun that substitutes for it. Beginning learners often don’t see the point of learning genders. But as they advance in their language skills and must deal with increasingly complex language structures, it becomes apparent that not knowing the genders makes it more difficult to communicate effectively and understand accurately. To become a proficient user of German, you must learn the noun genders.
Are there any shortcuts to learning genders?
Beyond rote memorization, there are some statistics and tendencies I will outline below that can aide your learning process. Please note that these are not hard-and-fast rules, as nearly every “rule” that one can conjure up has certain exceptions. They are meant as general guidelines to give you a leg up in remembering word genders. I suggest that you use them as follows: When you encounter a word that appears to belong to one of the described categories, assume it fits into the category until you have proof that it does not. Then make a special note of the gender and put it on your list of words to learn. Learning a language is all about trial and error, so why not employ that strategy when learning genders?
So without further ado, here are the tendencies:
● Approximately 45% of German nouns are masculine, 35% are feminine and 20% are neuter. So, statistically speaking, if you have to guess, don’t guess neuter.
● The majority of feminine nouns can be identified as feminine because they designate female beings or because they end in a particular suffix. Words with the following suffixes are almost always feminine: -a, -anz, -ei, -enz, -heit, -ie, -ik, -in, -keit, -schaft, -sion, -sis, -tion, tät, -unft, -ung, -ur.
● In addition, 9 of every 10 nouns ending in -e are feminine. Most of the exceptions are masculine nouns that designate male beings.
● Words that designate male beings, seasons, months, days of the week, weather phenomena, rocks and minerals and units of currency are generally masculine.
● Nouns are generally masculine when they end in -f, -tz, -g (but not -ung), -en (but not -chen or when derived from verb infinitives, both of which are neuter), -ling, -ich, -ist, -ismus.
● Words that designate young humans or animals, metals and chemicals and the names continents, countries, and cities are generally neuter.
● Nouns are generally neuter when they end in: -chen, -icht, -il, -it, -lein, -ma, -ment, -tel, -tum, -um.
● Nouns with the following endings tend to be neuter when they refer to things: -al, -an, -ar, -är, -at, -ent, -ett, -ier, -iv, -o, -on.
Are there any tips that you have found useful for learning German noun genders?
Resources consulted: Hammer’s German Grammar and Usage; Ralph W. Ewton, Jr. and Richard V. Teschner, “Gender Analysis of a German Teaching Vocabulary”, Die Unterrichtspraxis 19.1 (1986): 27-33.