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READER QUESTIONS

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

Remembering whether a noun is der, die or das can be tricky for non-natives. In the first of our series where we find answers to the burning questions that foreigners want to know, we ask a German: do you ever forget the gender of articles?

A jar of Nutella
Nutella: great for breakfast, harder to find an article for. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Tobias Hase

For lots of non-natives, speaking German is a bit like a lottery: when you are not 100 percent sure about the article of a German word, you take a guess. And you have a one in three chance of getting it right. 

But knowing whether a singular noun is der (masculine), die (feminine) or das (neutral) is key to developing your language skills in order to construct fuller sentences. Think of it like the foundations: you need to learn the gender of the word as well as the word itself so you can build the rest of your German language house. 

But do native Germans always know whether a word is der, die or das?

Berlin-based German teacher Seraphine Peries told The Local that although Germans tend to know intuitively what the article of most nouns are because they learn them while growing up, they “definitely” have doubts. 

“German native speakers make a lot of mistakes when it comes to certain words,” said Peries. “For example, the word ‘Email’ is feminine in German: die Email. But the further you go south, they use the neutral form: das Email. So there’s a bit of a discussion about that, it’s a regional thing.”

READ ALSO: From Fräulein to gender star: Germany’s language revolution

Peries said there are lots of debates on the gender of English words that been transported into German, as well as newer words.

She also said product names provoke discussion. One of the most famous is Nutella. 

“A lot of people say die Nutella because it’s like the Italian ella, but others say der Nutella because they think of the German word der Aufstrich, which. means ‘spread’. And then there are people who say das Nutella because it’s a foreign word so they say it must be das.”

Although the makers of Nutella have never revealed the gender of the word so perhaps everyone is right in this case..

A German as a foreign language dictionary.

A German as a foreign language language dictionary, which always comes in handy to find those pesky articles for nouns. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Oliver Berg

And then there are the words that change their meaning depending on the article that definitely confuse Germans (as well as foreigners, no doubt).

“A few words in German are known as Genuswechsel (gender change),” said Peries. “These are words that change their meaning when they change gender.”

Peries highlighted the word der Verdienst, which means earnings or income, and das Verdienst, which means merit or credit. 

So you could say:

Der Verdienst für die Stelle war zu niedrig.

The income for the job was too low

OR

Es ist das Verdienst der Eltern, dass das Kind so gut erzogen ist.

It is to the credit of the parents that the child is so well brought up.

TIPS

Language teachers advise students to look out for recurring themes when it comes to identifying the gender of words. 

“These patterns help you learn about 70 to 75 percent of the articles,” said Peries, citing the example of words ending in -ung being feminine, like die Rechnung (invoice/bill).

Nouns ending in -schaft-keit or -heit also use the article die. Nouns ending in -er like der Sommer (the summer) are usually masculine. While most nouns starting with Ge- are neuter, for example das Gespräch (the conversation), as well as words ending in -chen like das Kaninchen (rabbit).

“If you learn these patterns it’s easier to get a general orientation on which article to use,” she said.

Peries also recommends games.

“There are really nice apps called ‘der, die das’ where you get a word and you guess the article.

“That’s something you can play while waiting for the bus. It helps to get the routine and repetition.”

It is perhaps no surprise then that non-native speakers have a harder time memorising the gender of words. 

But don’t think that Germans are always on top of their gender game. Everyone – including the most eloquent of native speakers – can make mistakes. 

Whether it’s about bureaucracy, language, culture or something else entirely – do you have a question that you’d like to ask a German? Let us know by emailing: [email protected] or leave a comment below.

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GERMAN LANGUAGE

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

Standard German is called Hochdeutsch and is heard all over the country. But there are many regional dialects and other languages spoken in Germany.

EXPLAINED: What to know about languages and dialects in Germany

The wide-ranging dialects of Germany

There are believed to be as many as 250 dialects of German, with many tracing back to the languages of Germanic tribes.

In the north and around Berlin, many dialects have been displaced by the standard German language, however in the south, dialects are still prominent. This divide is thought to be due to the fact that the upper German south was a strongly rural region for a long time, becoming industrialised a lot later than its northern counterpart.

READ ALSO: From Moin to Tach – How to say hello around Germany

Rheinhessisch (from Rheinhessen) and Pfälzisch (from Rhineland-Palatinate) belong to a group of Rhine-Franconian dialects which are spoken across the western regions of Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and Hesse, and even in the northeastern part of France. 

Bairisch – from Bavaria – is one of the most widely spoken dialects and is more easily understood by German speakers, partly due to its prominence. 

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: "I mog di" (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019.

A balloon with the Bavarian saying: “I mog di” (I like you) written on it at Oktoberfest in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Other dialects include Schwäbisch, Kölsch, Hamburgisch and Allgäuerisch.

READ ALSO: The complete guide to dialects in Germany

But how many people actually use their dialects on a daily basis?

According to a survey by the Institute for the German Language (IDS) in Mannheim, every second German claims to be able to speak a dialect. 

However, decline in dialects has been noted by the Allensbach Institute for Public Opinion Research. In 1991 the institute found that 41 percent of Germans in the former East almost always spoke in dialect. By 2008 this number had dropped to 33 percent. In the west, this figure fell from 28 to 24 percent. 

It is also a lot more common for older generations to speak in dialect, which is contributing to its decline.

While many dialects are gradually disappearing, a so-called Regiolekt (regional dialect), which is a combination of dialect and standard language, seems to be sticking around. This is a regional, colloquial language that still maintains the grammar of High German. For example, the word “ich”, which people in Hesse and some other regions pronounce as “isch”, has been integrated into standard German.

What about other languages?

Overall, around 67 percent of the population speaks at least one foreign language, with 27 percent mastering two.

The most common second language is English, with many Germans learning English in school, especially with the emergence of bilingual kindergartens and schools. A number of businesses and start-ups in Germany use English as a working language, and even universities offer many classes or degrees in English, which further encourages teaching of the language. 

READ ALSO: ‘Lack of diversity is a problem’: What it’s like working at a Berlin tech startup

English is taught in schools in Germany.

English is taught in schools in Germany. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Marijan Murat

Learning French or Latin is also still a popular option in German high schools. If you’re living near the Western or Eastern borders, it isn’t uncommon for Dutch or Russian language classes to be offered (the latter being especially the case in former GDR or East German states). 

Due to the number of first and second-generation immigrants from Turkey, Turkish is also widely spoken in households across Germany.

Minority languages in Germany

Minority languages have long played an important part in German culture, with Germany being one of the first countries to sign the Charter for Regional or Minority Languages from the Council of Europe in 1992, aiming to preserve minority cultures in modern Europe, encouraging tolerance and diversity.

The minority languages most present in Germany include Romani (0.8 percent of the population), Danish (0.06 percent of the population) and the Frisian languages, including North Frisian and West Frisian from Schleswig-Holstein and the North Frisian islands, and Saterland Frisian spoken in Lower Saxony.

The West Slavic languages of Upper and Lower Sorbian spoken in Saxony and Brandenburg, while mostly spoken by older generations, have been given the right to protection under the Brandenburg constitution.

Low German or Plattdeutsch is closely related to Frisian, and is also spoken mainly in Northern Germany. 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Germany’s minority languages 

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