Der, Die, Das – Introduction to Genders in German

In English, there is luckily only one definite article – the – and two indefinite articles – a, an – thanks to the fact that the language does not make use of grammatical genders. Whenever one talks of gender in the grammatical sense, it refers to English words with a natural origin – so man is a masculine word, woman is a feminine one, and table is neuter. This makes the entire system rather easy to be grasped.

In German, there is no such luck. Word genders fill a very different role in the language and much of it comes down to unnatural genders. The way you can determine the gender of a word in German comes down to which article it has – and you have the choice between three. Masculine, feminine, and neuter words in German all behave differently in language, meaning that taking the time to really learn how they work will benefit you long term.

Natural and Unnatural Gender

So, the biggest difference between words in English with their natural gender and German words with an unnatural, or grammatical, gender comes down to the origin of the distinction. In the first case, the gender of a word simply conveys an objective reality the word describes – a bull is masculine, a ewe is female, and a door is neither.

With languages that have words with unnatural, or grammatical, genders, this is not the case. Here, the genders of the words are simply used as a tool to group them together in certain categories – making it simply a class of noun. Now, there are different ways of assigning genders within these languages. Some, like French, only have two – masculine and feminine, some, like German, have three – adding the neuter, and some assign different genders based on whether the word is animate or inanimate.

How Is Gender in German Determined

Gendered languages use a variety of different methods to determine which particular words belongs to which gender. The easiest of those might be to let the natural gender determine the word. For people and professions, German always has two forms – der Politiker, die Politikerin, der Arzt, die Ärztin – which are the most obvious way to say which word belongs to which gender.

The other rules are, unfortunately, a lot more complicated and each also involves a number of exceptions, making the issue even more confusing. That is why we have dedicated an entire separate blog post to how to correctly determine the gender of a German word.

Gender and Cases

Unfortunately for beginners, genders play a rather important role in German grammar. Based on whether a particular noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, the differences become more pronounced when cases come into play.

There are in total four different cases in German – Nominativ, Akkusativ, Dativ, and Genitiv – which demand different declensions. And this goes for both definite and indefinite articles.

To make matters worse, German also really like incorporating articles to a lot of its everyday use. While abstract concepts in English often lose their definite article, that does not happen in German. For example, in English, you are free to say Humanity is good but, in German, the word humanity would still require an article – Die Menschheit ist gut. So, knowing how to determine a word’s gender is an important task.

Luckily, learning which articles respond to the different cases can be an easier task than determining the article itself in the first place. Learning the cases is the simple process of memorising a few tables while determining the gender in the first place requires a lot more diligence.

How to Determine the Right Article in German

Determining the right article and, thus, the gender of German nouns might be one of the most confusing aspects of this particular language. Sure, grammatical genders are definitely not an aspect of language unique to German but with this language, the three possibilities do seem to present extra challenges. While native Germans develop a certain sixth sense for knowing which noun is from which gender, even fluent non-native speakers tend to slip up with this every now and again. And who can blame them? The rules of determining the correct article in German are confusing and come with numerous exceptions, seemingly causing more confusion than certainty.

Nevertheless, we shall try to tackle this issue and provide at least a few guidelines on how to determine the gender of German nouns.

Learn New Words with the Article

Before looking at how to figure out the correct gender of a word, it might be better to find a way to limit that difficult task. That can be done by simply learning new vocabulary together with their gender.

When you’re looking to learn new words in German, just make sure to take the time to learn them together with their definite article. By treating the article as an inseparable part of the word, it’ll be easier to remember both and you have to struggle a lot less with figuring what gender a word belongs to. So, instead of learning vocabulary like Tisch, Kommode, and Fenster, take the time to incorporate the definite article – der Tisch, die Kommode, and das Fenster.

While it might be annoying to do this at first, it will definitely pay off in the long run. You will see why this strategy pays off when you start looking at how many rules there are for determining the noun genders.

Masculine Nouns

Let’s start by taking a look at the masculine gender, so all words that come with the definite article der and take an indefinite ein. Plural masculine words take the article die.

Naturally, all male animals and people take the article der. Der Vater (the father), der Brüder (the brother), der Stier (the bull). It also applies to names of professions – der Professor, der Arzt, der Bäcker – because the female versions add the suffix -in, setting a clear distinction. This might be the single most definite rule for determining the masculine gender.

For words that do not have obvious natural genders, your best chance would be to take a look at some of the suffixes. In most cases, you will find that words with suffixes like, der Aut-or, der Jüng-ling, der Kapitali-smus, der Tepp-ich, der Hon-ig are masculine.

Note, however, that these rules only apply to words that have more than one syllable and are not compound words. While you might find monosyllabic words that have the same endings and are masculine, there are many exceptions.

In addition, there are a few subjects that have mainly masculine words, although exceptions occur:

Seasons, months, days – der Sommer, der Oktober, der Freitag

Compass directions – der Nord(en), der Nordwest(en), der West(en)

Weather elements – der Schnee, der Nebel

Most rivers outside of Europe, mountains, lakes – der Mississippi, der Mont Blanc, der Baikal

Trains and cars – der IC, der Volkswagen

Most alcoholic drinks (except das Bier) – der Vodka, der Rum

Feminine Nouns

Feminine words come with the definite article die and an indefinite eine. Note that words in plural also take the article die but do not follow the same declension as singular words.

As with the masculine gender, it is easiest to determine the gender of words that are, in their essence feminine – die Mutter, die Schwester, die Kuh. When it comes to professions or roles, most feminine words take the suffix -in, making them easy to recognise: die Professorin, die Ärztin, die Bäckerin.

You can also find feminine words by suffixes like die Süßig-keit, die Stat-ion, die Ahn-ung, die Schön-heit, die Freund-schaft, die Quali-tät, die Intellig-enz, die Ignor-anz. Often, but not always, words ending in -e are also feminine – die Lampe, die Seite, die Ecke, die Ente (but also der Affe, der Junge).

The topics that have mostly feminine words are:

Most trees and flowers – die Buche, die Rose

Ships, motorbikes, aircraft – die Titanic, die Kawasaki, die Boeing 737

Most European rivers – die Donau, die Elbe

Cardinal numbers – eine Eins, eine Zwei

Neuter Nouns

The definite article for neuter words is das and the indefinite ein. Neuter words in plural still take the definite article die.

While masculine and feminine words often correspond to their respective natural genders, things get a little bit more confusing with neuter. Interestingly, many of human and animal babies are in the neuter gender – das Baby, das Kalb, das Küken (the chick).

Another easy rule is that diminutive nouns are always in neuter. Although diminutives don’t exist in English – words used to express something sweet, tiny, or cute – they are easily recognisable thanks to the suffixes -chen and -lein. This is even true if the grammatical gender doesn’t reflect the natural gender of the word – das Männlein (tiny man), das Mädchen (tiny girl), das Häuschen (cute house). Note, though, that this rule only applies to diminutives and not all words ending in -chen and -lein are neuter – der Knochen (the bone).

Additionally, you will find that nouns derived from infinitives or adjectives are also neuter. That means if you use the basic verb form or an adjective as a noun, you’ll use the article das. So, schwimmen – das Schwimmen, leben – das Leben, lesen – das Lesen, grün – das Grün, gute – das Gute. In the case of infinitives, there are a few extra confusing exceptions because sometimes nouns derived in this manner have several articles that depend on which context the noun is used in. For example, braten (to roast) – das Braten (the roasting) – der Braten (the roast).

Almost all chemical elements and metals are also of the neuter gender: das Kupfer, das Eisen, das Aluminium, das Gold. To the chemical elements rule, there are six known exceptions: der Sauerstoff, der Schwefel, der Stickstoff, der Wasserstoff, der Kohlenstoff, der Phosphor.

Some suffixes that can help you determine the neuter gender, are das Text-il, das Dynam-it, das Ultima-tum, das Aut-o. Additionally, most foreign loan words which end in -ment, or words borrowed from English with the ending -ing, are usually neuter: das Instrument, das Experiment, das Peeling, das Training. The prefix Ge- is also a good determiner of the third gender – das Gebäude, das Gebäck.

While these rules can make it easier to guess the gender of a word, exceptions exist and none can be followed with 100% certainty.

Some Confusing Exceptions

So, as you’ve by now realised, there definitely are ways to make the guessing of articles somewhat easier. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of different rules and suffixes makes the job of memorising and not messing them up rather challenging.

To make matters worse, there are also some very confusing caveats to all of these rules.

For example, not all German words have only one gender. Luckily, the number of such words is incredibly small – 1,3% have two and only 0.02% can be used with all three. This makes words like der Band (the volume), die Band (the band), das Band (the strip) an annoying rarity.

Sometimes even native Germans cannot make up their mind on what article to attach to a certain word. This mostly happens with newer loanwords, so heated arguments on whether to call it die Nutella or das Nutella are not unheard of. This also happens because there are several principles that compete with each other when words are imported from foreign languages and that can cause several articles to be accepted. The word Grappa which is of Italian origin can be grouped together with most alcoholic drinks to take the article der or retain its original Italian feminine article la to become die Grappa.

Additionally, there are also geographic differences in word genders. While the word for month is masculine in Germany, it is neuter in Austria – der Monat vs das Monat. The same goes for words like der Jogurt and das Jogurt.

Another important thing to remember is that for compound words – that is words that are made of two or more nouns pushed together – the article of the entire word corresponds to the gender of the last one. So, der Zahn+ die Bürste = die Zahnbürste, das Spiel + der Platz = der Spielplatz.

Conclusion – Rules for Determining Gender are Plentiful and Confusing

While there are numerous clues that can help you guess the gender of a particular German noun, many of them have almost as many exceptions and the corresponding suffixes can be almost impossible to learn by heart.

While getting the gender right is easy with words that have a natural gender, even those can work out in a bizarre way. For example, the word for manliness is die Männlichkeit – the word obviously does have a natural masculine gender, but it also corresponds to the rule that words with the suffix -keit are feminine.

If all else fails and you still can’t remember all the rules, there is also the option of making an educated guess. Since of the words with only one unique gender 46% are feminine, 34% masculine, and 20% neuter, it’s always best to go with die.

The good news is that even if you make a mistake and get the gender of a word wrong, nobody will misunderstand you. Even with words that can take several articles, context will help everyone understand what you mean.