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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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READER QUESTIONS

Reader question: Is abortion illegal in Germany?

Reproductive rights are in the spotlight this week as the US debates possible landmark changes to abortion law. Here's what you need to know about abortion in Germany.

Reader question: Is abortion illegal in Germany?

A leaked document earlier this week claimed that the US Supreme Court is in favour of overturning a landmark 1973 ruling, called Roe v Wade, that made abortion legal in the USA.

The news has put a further spotlight on reproductive rights around the world. Readers of The Local have contacted us to find out about the laws on abortion in Germany. We spoke to campaigners for women’s reproductive rights to help explain what you need to know.

Is abortion illegal in Germany?

It may surprise many people to know that abortion remains technically illegal in Germany, but there are circumstances in which people can end a pregnancy without facing any legal consequences. 

The exceptions include: the abortion being performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and following mandatory counselling carried out at least three days before the procedure to terminate the pregnancy.

If there is a medical reason for an abortion, then it is not unlawful. This applies, for instance, if the pregnancy poses a danger to the life or physical and mental health of the woman. An abortion can also be carried out if tests identify that the foetus is disabled or seriously ill. Late abortions (after 12 weeks) are allowed if these special factors apply. 

Abortions are also legally possible if they are the result of a criminal act – for example if the pregnancy is the result of rape. 

The termination of a pregnancy is known as Abtreibung or Schwangerschaftsabbruch in German. Around 94,600 abortions were reported in Germany in 2021, according to official figures. 

The rate of abortions per 1,000 women in Germany stands at 6.8 – one of the lowest in Europe alongside Switzerland. The rate of abortions stands at 19 per 1,000 women in Sweden, 17 in the UK, 16 in France and 16 in the US.

People who choose to get an abortion in Germany generally have to cover the costs of the procedure themselves. 

According to the German Centre for Foreign Feminist Policy, which published information by Medical Students for Choice Berlin, abortion in Germany can cost between €200 and €650 depending on the methods involved. People can apply for financial help from their health insurance.

READ ALSO: Is abortion legal in Switzerland?

A pro-choice counter protester at the "March for Life" demo against abortion in Berlin in September 2020.

A pro-choice counter protester at the “March for Life” demo against abortion in Berlin in September 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Tell me more about abortion laws in Germany…

There has been a lot of discussion about abortion in Germany in recent years. Germany’s traffic light coalition – made up of the Social Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens – recently announced plans to scrap paragraph 219a – a controversial clause on advertising abortion that has remained largely unchanged since it was brought in by the Nazis in the 1930s.

It has meant that doctors in Germany have been unable to advertise that they carry out abortions, and detail what methods they use – and has even resulted in prosecutions, such as the high profile case of Kristina Hänel, a doctor from Giessen in western Germany.

Getting rid of this paragraph should pave the way for more accessible information on abortion in Germany.

READ ALSO: Do Germany’s planned changes on abortion go far enough?

But abortion in Germany is still regulated by paragraph 218 of the criminal code, which dates back to 1871. Although the law has been amended to allow for exceptions, pro-choice campaigners in Germany want to see abortion fully legalised. 

Dr Alicia Baier, chairwoman of campaign group Doctors for Choice, said the German coalition government’s plans to get rid of paragraph 219a were a step forward.

But she said much more action was needed – including removing abortion from the criminal code. 

“I think German abortion laws are behind the times,” Baier told The Local. “There are many European countries which regulate abortion outside the criminal law. But in Germany we still criminalise abortion, we still have the obligatory waiting period, and obligatory counselling.”

Baier said abortion didn’t belong in criminal law. “That’s not the place for abortion, it should be regulated in some other law. Like in France – they regulate it in the public health law.”

Although the coalition government has said it wants to set up a working group to look at options for regulating abortion “outside of the framework of the criminal code”, there doesn’t seem much political appetite for big change.

Earlier this year, Katrin Helling-Plahr, FDP parliamentary group spokesperson for legal policy, told The Local: “We Free Democrats are of the opinion that Paragraph 218, as the result of a long societal discussion, represents a successful compromise with regards to protecting the life of the foetus and the right to self-determination of the pregnant person.”

Campaigners at the pro-life 'March for Life' in Berlin in September 2021.

Campaigners at the pro-life ‘March for Life’ in Berlin in September 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Paul Zinken

Is it difficult for women in Germany to get an abortion in practical terms?

According to campaigners, it can be hard for people to find information on terminating pregnancy and doctors to carry it out depending on where they live.

“I think it really depends on the women themselves and where they are,” campaigner Annika Kreitlow, a research assistant with the Centre for Foreign Feminist Policy, told The Local. 

“I think in Berlin it’s okay – there are a lot of doctors in Berlin and a lot of progressive people move to Berlin. But if you live in the south of Germany, like in Bavaria for example, there are cities which don’t have any doctors who provide abortions at all.

“In the northern islands of Germany, people there also have to fly to the mainland to get an abortion – sometimes they have to travel 200 or 300km to get an abortion.”

Kreitlow also said people in Germany face additional barriers because of the mandatory counselling and three-day wait. 

“You have to be really consistent on finding a doctor who will do that before the 12th week. It depends on the region and also how much knowledge the person has on the situation,” she said. “If you’ve never come into contact with this and don’t know anyone who’s had an abortion, there’s a lot of fake information out there and fake websites.”

She said it’s more difficult for non-Germans.

“If you’re not a native German speaker and you come from somewhere else, it’s also very different to find the right information and distinguish what is real information and what is fake, who to trust and who to talk to,” Kreitlow said. “It’s a very difficult situation but a lot of circumstances make it even more difficult in Germany.”

How do the laws affect doctors?

Dr Baier said there was still a “big stigma” surrounding abortions in Germany – including in the medical profession. Although it is one of the most common gynaecological procedures, it is often hardly discussed at medical schools in Germany.

“In many universities – during six years of study – it’s not mentioned at all, or it’s mentioned in the context of medical law or medical ethics,” said Baier.

“It’s still very taboo in medicine. We wish it was acknowledged as part of medicine because it’s a medical procedure. In Germany, only doctors are allowed to perform them. If we don’t do it, people are left alone and that could cause a lot of health risks.”

Baier said the barriers for women in Germany looking to get an abortion, or for information on it, need to be urgently worked on.

“In some regions of Germany it’s catastrophic and people are treated very badly,” she said. “We have a modern health system but it doesn’t correspond to that at all in this area.”

 

Is there a large pro-life movement in Germany?

There’s a sizeable number of campaigners who are against abortion in Germany.

Pro-life events such as Marsch für das Leben (March for Life) take place every year in Berlin. In 2021 around 4,500 people attended the march, demonstrating against abortion and euthanasia laws. Counter-demonstrators from the pro-choice movement also march on the days of these events. 

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