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In German we say der Mann/die Frau, but then we say das Kind/das Mädchen, so I got two questions:

  1. Are there particular historic and/or etymological reasons for this?
  2. "Das Mädchen" refers to a female child, but does "Das Kind" refer only to male children? What is the exact distinction?
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While I can't tell you something about the etymology of it, but "Das Kind" is not gender-specific. It can refer to both male and female children. "Das Mädchen" is only for female children, while the male version is actually "Der Junge" - which is even more confusing. –  Florian Peschka May 25 '11 at 8:28
    
Thanks @ApoY2k, I kind of had that impression but I wanted to be sure, and I totally forgot about "Der Junge"! –  Alenanno May 25 '11 at 8:35
    
For male children, until recently, "der Knabe" was equally used, but is now considered outdated. Initially, "der Junge" was probably just a shortening of something like "der junge Mann". –  Jan May 25 '11 at 8:41
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3 Answers 3

up vote 21 down vote accepted

"Das Kind" is "the child", regardless of the child's gender.

"Das Mädchen" has started its life as a diminutive ("Mägdchen", little maiden) and then became the standard word for a female child.

Diminutives are always of neutral gender, and they can be identified by their suffix, which in written German is "-chen" or "-lein".

Dialects bring a whole new list of diminutive suffixes to the table ("-le", "-li", "-ing", ...)

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@Jan: if you could find some references for that "Mägdchen" it would be fantastic! :D –  Alenanno May 25 '11 at 8:34
    
@Alenanno: added wiktionary link, and my hunch was right :-) –  Jan May 25 '11 at 8:39
    
@Jan: Very nice! +1 and accepted answer. –  Alenanno May 25 '11 at 8:47
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@Jan -- Diminutives are one of the few things you can count on, they are always neutral. –  Glen Wheeler May 25 '11 at 9:09
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Also, "chen" is suffix for the small size of something and are always of natural gender. E.g. Brot -> Brötchen –  user128 May 25 '11 at 9:37
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My (very old fashioned) German teacher used to say, "Ein Maedchen is neuter until she gets married--at which time she becomes feminine!"

A similar ethos may refer for to "ein Kind" generally, at least pre-adolescence.

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Well, that's more a memory hook ("Eselsbrücke") than an explanation. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 11 '11 at 6:47
    
Maybe I should add that many will find this memory hook offensive. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 11 '11 at 8:06
    
I believe that's how people "used" to think in the "old days." Which may have to do with the origins of the language. Most moderns (like ourselves) find it "offensive." But please don't "shoot the messenger" for reporting his personal experience with what WAS. –  Tom Au Jun 11 '11 at 14:17
    
@Tom: I surely didn't want to shoot the messenger :-) just wanted to point this out to those who don't see it themselves. –  Hendrik Vogt Jun 11 '11 at 21:45
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@hendrik: I owe you an explanation. What matters is what people thought at the time the language was created. Moderns like us don't see "Maedchen" that way. But I'm pretty sure the (older) people who created the language, did. Which is why I used the anecdote. –  Tom Au Jun 12 '11 at 12:46
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The distinction is pretty easy. "Das Mädchen" simply means girl (=female child), "das Kind" means child (= neutral), and for a male child or boy you would use "der Junge" (old-fashioned "der Knabe", southern dialects as well "der Bub(e)").

As far as I can see, the neutral gender for "girl" comes from the ending "-chen". This is a diminutive and always requires the word to have neutral grammatical gender. The origin of "das Mädchen" is "die Maid" (equal to maiden, meaning an adolescent), which is of female gender.

However, I once read in a grammer book that there is a difference in German between grammatical gender and real gender.

So it is correct to say:

"Da, das Mädchen! Es hat eine Schleife im Haar!" as well as "Da, das Mädchen! Sie hat eine Schleife im Haar".

This also works with some fairy tales characters like "das Rotkäppchen" (this is a girl, too):

"Rotkäppchen ging seine Großmutter besuchen." or "Rotkäppchen ging ihre Großmutter besuchen."

In spoken language, there is no real distinction when to use which. As a rough rule of thumb, you can go for the age: the older the girl, the more likely you will use the female gender instead of the neutral one. E.g., the first sentence of the "Schleife im Haar"-example builds up the picture of a girl around 4-5 in my head, while I rather picture a girl around 10-11 with the second one.

Also, as I just realized when building the sentences above ^^, it also depends on the actual form of the neutral pronoun. In many cases, the neutral pronoun equals the male one (like above the relative pronoun "seine" - means "its" or "his"). Then, it usually sounds somehow weird if you're talking about a girl (like in the Rotkäppchen example) or even a bit old-fashioned. Although it's not wrong, I would recommend to use the female pronouns in those cases.

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Thanks, I upvoted your answer for your grammar indications! :) –  Alenanno May 25 '11 at 8:50
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