To begin with, articles are probably the most difficult thing about the German language. As in many related Indo-European languages, nouns in German have grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. But it is widely known that German isn’t the easiest language. Nouns always begin with a capital letter in German, and they are preceded by an article, depending on the case.
The three genders in German correspond to the following article forms: der (masculine), die (feminine), and das (neuter). Furthermore, articles change depending on:
- gender (masculine, feminine, neuter)
- number (singular or plural)
- and case (nominative, genitive, dative and accusative).
Therefore, besides the above-mentioned articles, other different forms can be: des, dem and den, depending on gender, number and case. For this reason, learning the gender of nouns is quite difficult in German.
Basically, one must retain three things for each noun: the gender or the noun article, the noun itself, and its plural form (most are irregular). Grammatical gender does not follow a logical set of rules, but there are some noun endings which give us a hint. However, this doesn’t always work!
Thus, for certain noun endings such as -ling (der Flüchtling – spring), -ist (der Spezialist – the specialist), -or (der Humor – the humor), -ismus (der Tourismus – tourism), -er (der Hörer – the receiver), we always know theyare for masculine gender. For feminine, we have –keit (die Fähigkeit – the ability), -ion (die Region – the region), -schaft (die Wissenschaft – science), -heit (die Schönheit – beauty), -enz (die Tendenz – the tendency), -tät (die Spezialität – the speciality), -ung (die Abteilung – the department), and for neuter there are -nis (das Erlebnis – the experience), -ment (das Dokument – the document), -lein/-chen (das Buch / das Büchlein – the booklet).
One problem comes from compound words. In this case, the gender of compound words matches the gender of the last word (e.g., der Wind + die Mühle = die Windmühle – the windmill).
A good general rule for learning German vocabulary is to treat the article of a noun as an integral part of the word. Don’t just learn Garten (garden), learn der Garten. Not knowing a word’s gender can lead to all sorts of other problems: das Tor is the gate or portal; der Tor is the fool.
Exceptions include the nouns Mädchen – girland Fräulein – miss. These nouns that are conceptually feminine, are actually neuter for German speakers: das Mädchen, das Fräulein. Moreover, there are three different German words for ‘ocean’ or ‘sea’, all having different genders: der Ozean, das Meer, die See! And gender does not transfer well from one language to another. The word for ‘sun’ is masculine in Spanish (el sol) but feminine in German (die Sonne). A German moon is masculine (der Mond), while a Spanish moon is feminine (la luna).
In German, there are certain situations where the article can be omitted. It is often omitted when the noun is used at the beginning of utterances, in telegrams, titles, or when it expresses an abstract notion.
But…which gender is most common? 98.7 % of German nouns have a single gender. Just under 1.3% can be used with two genders, and 0.2% can be used with all three genders. Less than 0.1% of nouns have no gender at all (e.g. AIDS, Allerheiligen – a holiday). Of the nouns with unique gender, 46% are feminine, 34% masculine, and 20% neuter.