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In row-1 and row-2, we see feminine and plural share the same article. In row-3 and row-4, masculine and neutral share the same article In row-4, feminine and plural share the same articles.

Is there a reason why there are common articles for different gender of noun in German?

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    @Shegit Brahm: English speakers usually use the NADG order of cases because that's the order in which they're usually taught. I know native German speakers traditionally use NGDA. I don't think one is more 'correct' than the other, but the NADG order makes sense when you're teaching German grammar to people who don't already speak German.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 7:19

5 Answers 5

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The identity of masculine and neuter forms for cases other than the nominative and accusative is a common Indo-European feature, seen also in e.g. Latin or Ancient Greek.

The identity of the feminine singular and of the plural in the nominative and accusative cases seems to have developed since Old High German. In Old High German the feminine definite article had different forms for nominative case and accusative case, and the plural definite article had the same form in the nominative and accusative cases but different forms by gender for masculine, feminine, and neuter. While there was some possible overlap (e.g., it looks like diu could be feminine nominative singular or neuter nominative/accusative plural), the feminine singular forms were not always identical to all of the plural forms of the same case.

Here is a paper that discusses the development of shared forms between feminine and plural in the nominative and accusative: Case Syncretism in German Feminines: Typological, Functional and Structural Aspects, by Manfred Krifka

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  • Talking about Latin and Greek, it is remarkable that the "typical" marker for plurals is -a for neuter nouns (also in Slavic languages) – identical to the feminine marker. I once read somewhere that feminine nouns which – despite their name – describe mostly abstract, inanimate concepts, developed out of neuter plurals. Could this have influenced the construction of German articles even though it happened much later?
    – Albjenow
    Commented Dec 7, 2021 at 15:56
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A basic axiom of modern linguistics is that signs are arbitrary: there is no inherent relationship between a signifier and the signified thing. (You can see this easily by observing that different languages call the same things completely different names.)

However, at the same time there is a very general trend in natural languages that when one form fulfills a particular function, it is somewhat more likely than chance would have it to also fulfill another function in the same language. For instance, the German feminine definite article also does duty as the generic plural definite article.

It's not quite clear why this would be so, since it directly contradicts the idea of arbitrariness. It could be nothing more than the fact that a language's phonetic inventory biases the formation of words and morphemes in a particular direction. So as usual, the answer to "Is there a reason for <phenomenon> in language X?" is "We don't really know."

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    Arbitrariness of the sign doesn't really enter into it, as the question is about word forms and not lexemes (i.e. there is only one sign in the above table, which is the definite article).
    – David Vogt
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 9:22
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Yes, there is a reason for it.

It is thought that in Proto Indo European (PIE) languages people made a difference only between animated and non-animated nouns. (Animated: people, animals, gods, ghosts, etc. Non-animated: tools, buildings, vegetation, etc.). So, there where only 2 noun classes thousands of years ago.

But they also had 8 different grammatical cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, instrumental, dative, ablative, genitive, locative). Maybe in some regions even a ninth case (allative) was in use, which is a topic of discussion among linguists.

But it is wrong to believe that PIE was one langugage. Even modern German is not one language. Germany, Austria and Switzerland have defined three different standards and there still are many very vivid and vital German dialects which exhibit such a huge variety, that some of them are discussed to be distinct languages (for example Low German and Bavarian).

PIE was a mixture of many different dialects spoken in a very large geographic area at a time where people needed weeks and month to travel distances for which we today need just a few hours. So, the dialects of different regions developed in many different ways and did influence each other with a very low impact. As a consequence at each point in time there always existed dozens of different variations within a cluster of Proto Germanic languages. And there were huge differences in all kinds of grammatical properties among these variations.

At some time, and in some regions people also used different grammatical numbers: singular, dual and plural. It is unclear if these three numbers developed from just one number, or if they have been there already "all the time". But also other grammatical numbers were in use: trial, paukal, distributive, etc. Some of them are still alive in rudimentary forms as exceptions of the standard usage of singular and plural.

So, there were noun classes for animated and non-animated things and for one thing, two things and many things. And these noun classes differed from each other. Over a period of many centuries dual and plural merged together, although in Bavarian Dialect there still are rudimentary forms of dual (in salutations) and in other languages and dialects too, even today in 21th century.

But even plural existed in two different forms, so there were also two different plural noun classes which survived in a few German words (Mann: Männer - Mannen, Tuch: Tücher - Tuche, Land: Länder - Lande, Wort: Wörter - Worte, etc.)

Some Germanic languages still have the noun classes described above: Swedish has two singular noun classes: utrum and neutrum which strongly correspond to animated and non-animated ("utrum" is Latin and means "both" and is here used in the sense of "both biological genders"; neutrum means "non of both"), but in plural Swedish use only one noun class which is true for all modern Germanic languages (with some exceptions mentioned above).

In other modern Germanic languages there is a close relationship between animated and masculine on one side and non-animated and neuter on the other side. (The word neuter derived form Latin neutrum = non of both) So, masculine and neuter are the oldest noun classes, and this is the reason, why they differ most in modern German.

Btw: The close relationship between masculine and animated is also the reason for the existence of generic masculine in German language. This means the fact, that the noun class for nouns which describe single persons of who you don't know the biological gender is the masculine noun class. So, for example, the masculine noun Bürger (Engl: citizen, resident) was (and still is) the standard form for any citicen, may it be a woman or a man. This is now a big sociopolitical problem in the aim of turning German into a language that respects all biological genders equally.

At a later point in time (but still thousands of years ago) a third singular noun class derived from one of the plural noun class. For some reason people started to use one of the plural forms when they talked about single women, girls and female animals. And this lead to the creation of a third singular noun class which became the feminine noun class. And because it developed from a plural form there still is a close relationship between the feminine noun class and the plural noun class in most Germanic languages. And because the feminine noun class is the youngest of all existing noun classes, its relation to the plural noun class is still very apparent.

So, all in all we have these grammatical noun classes in modern Germanic languages:

  • utrum
  • neutrum = neuter
  • masculine
  • feminine
  • plural

Plural exists in all Germanic language, and in each Germanic language there is always only one plural noun class (with some minor exceptions mentioned above). Every modern language that developed from PIE that uses masculine also uses feminine (and vice versa) which both are incompatible with utrum. So, we have these possible combinations:

  • neuter + plural (English)
  • utrum + neutrum + plural (Swedish)
  • masculine + feminine + plural (Italian)
  • masculine + feminine + neuter + plural (German)

sidenote 1:

What has been said above is only true for languages that derived from the PIE language cluster. For other languages this can be different:

Japanese languages has no noun classes. Japanese nouns are always the same, even when used in singular or plural.

In African Bantu languages there are 22 noun classes. Not all Bantu languages use all noun classes, but each uses at least 10 different noun classes. Swahili for example uses 15 different noun classes (6 singular classes, 5 plural classes, one class for infinite nouns and three classes for different kinds of places).


sidenote 2:

In textbooks about German grammar which are written in German language for German pupils you always will find these order of grammatical cases together with these ordinal names:

  1. Nominativ (»Erster Fall« = first case)
  2. Genitiv (»Zweiter Fall« = second case)
  3. Dativ (»Dritter Fall« = third case)
  4. Akkusativ (»Vierter Fall« = fourth case)

So also here:

As far as I know only textbooks written in English language use an alternative order which is confusing to all German native speakers who learned a different order together with ordinal names that don't match with the order in English textbooks.

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  • And because it developed from a plural form there still is a close relationship between the feminine noun class and the plural noun class in most Germanic languages. The question is about the definite article, not about nouns. Furthermore, in OHG, the feminine singular and (feminine) plural forms of the definite article had less syncretism than they have in MHG.
    – David Vogt
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 10:23
  • (For MHG read NHG.)
    – David Vogt
    Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 11:44
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    While there's a lot of useful information in your answer, I do feel you may be cutting some corners and implying connections that aren't really supported, like between the common–neuter gender system in modern Swedish and Danish and that reconstructed for early PIE based on the Anatolian languages. Given that there's over 2000 years between them, and that Old Norse is well known to have had three genders exactly like modern German, the "regression" is surely just coincidental. Commented Dec 6, 2021 at 14:17
  • It strikes me that perhaps the animate/inanimate genders of PIE still exist in the interrogative pronouns wer (animate) and was (inanimate). Is it a coincidence that wer rhymes with der and was rhymes with das? It seems likely that that gender changes weren't random but the result of contact with other languages, now long extinct and lost to history. But I suppose that's unprovable one way or the other.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 8:44
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If it helps, Old English had similar patterns for it's definite article, see the table here. The difference is that while English has lost these inflections, German has kept them. In any case, for a learner the question of why makes little difference. I'm sure there are students of Proto-Indo-European who can give you the history of each inflection, but this information won't help when you're learning them for Modern German.

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  • Oh god. So utterly stupid of me. I literally had the same thought question again and I forgot I had got an answer. :Facepalm:
    – Babu
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 13:24
  • @Buraian: We all have facepalm moments, but with the internet they're now being recorded for posterity :)
    – RDBury
    Commented Jan 25, 2022 at 14:31
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Kilian Foth already has a good answer on arbitraryness. In this specific case, I know of a work to actually explain the why question, although through rather unorthodox means: agent-based simulation of speakers applying construction grammar. That may not be a satisfactory answer, but at least argues how practical effects of communicative needs influence these arbitrary choices (an invisible hand, somewhat).

This is the abstract:

The German definite article paradigm, which is notorious for its case syncretism, is widely considered to be the accidental byproduct of diachronic changes. This paper argues instead that the evolution of the paradigm has been motivated by the needs and constraints of language usage. This hypothesis is supported by experiments that compare the current paradigm to its Old High German ancestor (OHG; 900–1100 AD) in terms of linguistic assessment criteria such as cue reliability, processing efficiency and ease of articulation. Such a comparison has been made possible by “bringing back alive” the OHG system through a computational recon- struction in the form of a processing model. The experiments demonstrate that syncretism has made the New High German system more efficient for processing, pronunciation and percep- tion than its historical predecessor, without harming the language’s strength at disambiguating utterances.

van Trijp, R. (2013). Linguistic Assessment Criteria for Explaining Language Change: A Case Study on Syncretism in German Definite Articles. Language Dynamics and Change, 3(1), 105–132. https://doi.org/10.1163/22105832-13030106

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