Are apples boys? Are plates girls? Of course not. But in German, there are three different kinds of nouns – masculine, feminine, and neuter. And even more strangely, German grammatical gender has nothing to do with sex at all.
So what is German grammatical gender, exactly? It might be easier to understand if we contrast German with English, which has no grammatical gender at all. In English, when we’re asked to identify an object, we say the name of the object preceded by “the.” What made that noise? “The cell phone.” “The motorcycle.” “The elephant.” If we want to describe just any old cell phone or elephant, not that particular one, we precede the noun with “a” – or we use “an” if the name of the object starts with a vowel. “A,” “an,” and “the” are called articles, and they imply no gender at all.
German is different. Some German nouns are masculine, and take the article “der” – like “der Apfel,” or the apple. Some German nouns are feminine, and take the article “die” – like “die Platte,” or the plate. And some German nouns are neuter, having neither a feminine nor a masculine gender. These nouns take the article “das,” like “das Pferd” – the horse.
But wait, you’re thinking. Horses have a gender! Some horses are male, and some are female. Aha, but here is another confusing secret about German grammatical gender: it often has nothing to do with the actual sex of the person or animal. Grammatical gender refers only to the word, not to the creature the word describes. As we’ve noted, “das Pferd,” the horse, is neuter, regardless of the gender of the horse. The words for most professions are masculine, which might be considered a patriarchal cultural bias except for the fact that “der Koch” (the cook) is masculine too.
So is there any way to predict whether a word will be masculine, feminine, or neuter? Not infallibly, although there are a few tips. As we’ve noted above, professions are often masculine: “der Arzt” (the doctor), “der Ingenieur” (the engineer), “der Buchhalter” (the accountant). All plurals are feminine; even words that are masculine or neuter become feminine in their plural form. As you learn more German, you may pick up other cues too. But by far the best way to learn German grammatical gender is to learn the appropriate article whenever you learn a new noun. This is what native German speakers do, and it’s a good tip for you too!
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