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?
  • Thanks @ApoY2k, I kind of had that impression but I wanted to be sure, and I totally forgot about "Der Junge"!
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 25, 2011 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  • For male children, until recently, "der Knabe" was equally used, but is now considered outdated.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
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 8:41

3 Answers 3


"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", ...)

  • @Jan: if you could find some references for that "Mägdchen" it would be fantastic! :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 8:34
  • @Alenanno: added wiktionary link, and my hunch was right :-)
    – Jan
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 8:39
  • @Alenanno: cheers, much appreciated :-)
    – Jan
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 8:50
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    @Jan -- Diminutives are one of the few things you can count on, they are always neutral. Commented May 25, 2011 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
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 9:37

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.

  • Thanks, I upvoted your answer for your grammar indications! :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 25, 2011 at 8:50
  • Don't forget "das Knäbchen" when you discuss "das Mädchen".
    – hakre
    Commented Apr 8, 2023 at 20:44

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. Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 6:47
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    Maybe I should add that many will find this memory hook offensive. Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 8:06
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    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
    Commented Jun 11, 2011 at 14:17
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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
    Commented Jun 12, 2011 at 12:46
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    @Tom, see ladybug's answer: "Mädchen" is neuter since all the diminutives ending with "-chen" are neuter. I claim (but can't prove) that it is not the word but your memory hook that was created by people who thought that way at that time. (I didn't think you thought that way :-)) Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 15:28

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