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There are two translations for toe that both are equally used. Both are pronounced almost the same but they have a different gender:

der Zeh, m

die Zehe, f

What is the origin of this difference?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 9 down vote accepted

I don't know why there are two forms of this word. According to Wictionary people from northern Germany tend to use Zeh while Zehe is more common in central and southern regions.

There is a difference when referring to "Knoblauch" (garlic) though. You'll have to use "Zehe": die Knoblauchzehe ("clove of garlic").

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In the (admittedly obscure, southern ;) ) dialect I speak, only "Zeh" is used, pronounced as "der Zeach". It's similar to "Butter": m in parts of South Germany/Austria and f in the rest of the world. ;) –  splattne May 25 '11 at 11:04
    
It's le beurre, m in France - that's why the once french occupied south of Germany still uses it. –  Takkat May 25 '11 at 13:54
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@Takkat Interesting, but do you have a reference for this? I doubt it because the word butter surely predates any french occupation. Or am I wrong? –  splattne May 25 '11 at 13:59
    
sorry no reference but "Butter" stems from Latin butyrum (neuter to further complicate things). –  Takkat May 25 '11 at 15:02
    
Berlin has - I think - lots of french influences, but Butter is feminine here. –  fzwo Nov 21 '11 at 15:21

It's a regional difference. "der Zeh" is used in the Northern regions of Germany, whereas "die Zehe" is used in the Southern regions.

Both are correct, and there is no difference in meaning. Just an example about the inconsistency of a living language.

My Duden (1986 -- I know!!) allows both:

Zehe, die; -, -n, (auch:) Zeh, der; -s, -en; die kleine, große Zehe, der kleine, große Zeh

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Interesting! Beware that "Zehe" is used for garlic pieces (as splattne mentioned already), so you might get some laughs in the north for "Zehe". Also, I've never heard "Meine große Zehe" for "Mein großer Zeh", while "Meine kleine Zehe" sounds fine to me. Don't come from the south, though. –  ladybug May 25 '11 at 10:55
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Just describing, not committing :-) I was raised in the Rhine area and "Meine grosse Zehe" would never make it across my lips. "Meine kleine Zehe" neither. Lang lebe der Zeh! –  teylyn May 25 '11 at 11:03
    
I like to say "der Knoblauchzeh". But I also refer to pieces of an Orange as "eine Orangenzehe", because I don't know what they're called, and I like strange humor. –  fzwo Nov 21 '11 at 15:25

I'm going to take an educated guess:

According to the Duden, Zehe comes from zēhe and zēha. Dropping of the final e is something that is not uncommon in many dialects (Wehe and Weh, Gabe and Gab). Why exactly Zeh permeated I don't know.

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It happens more often that two words with this difference in morphology and gender exist, even more so in regional dialects, usually the longer word is the more formally correct word.

(I think that this is also the reason that French loanwords ending in -age are female because they are felt to be an -e expansion of the male French prononciation).

Examples:

der Schaumspitz, die Spitze

der Dreizack, die Zacke

der Heuschreck, die Heuschrecke

der Zeck, die Zecke

In the first two cases, the shorter male version is mostly used in composita, so I gave them as example, in the other two examples, the male vesion are regional variants.

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