6

I won't pretend to be an expert on the German language, which is of course why I'm asking a question of this kind, but this baffled me when I looked up "Mädel" (girl):

https://dict.leo.org/englisch-deutsch/m%C3%A4del

das Mädel

Das? Isn't "das" the "inanimate object" form in German, with "der" being for "male" and "die" being for "female"?

It seems like "die Mädel" is only used for the plural form, with the word "Mädel" being entirely untouched.

I thought that it was "die Mädel" for "the girl" and (for example) "die Mädeln" or something for the plural form ("the girls").

Apparently, I don't even know the very basics of German...

8

5 Answers 5

18

You simply need to accept one of the quirks of German Grammar: biological and grammatical gender aren't connected - grammatical gender is very often not what you would assume and simply needs to be memorized. In addition, all German diminuitives are of neutral gender, regardless of the gender of the noun they are derived from:

der Mann - das Männchen

die Katze - das Kätzchen

das Auto - das Autochen

This often leads to the interesting combinations of non-aligned gender in context:

So, actually, both of the following texts in German are acceptable:

Das kleine Mädchen saß auf der Mauer und baumelte mit den Beinen. Sie aß genüßlich ein Eis.

Das kleine Mädchen saß auf der Mauer und baumelte mit den Beinen. Es aß genüßlich ein Eis.

Changing between biological and grammatical gender between sentences is acceptable, but not within a sentence - Here grammar wins over context.

Very often, you will also find what German calls generisches Maskulinum. This denotes the fact that even if you use the masculine form of, for example, an occupation, the person you're applying this notion to, can, in fact, be a woman.

"Was hat euch euer Lehrer heute beigebracht?" - "Sie hat uns gezeigt, wie man multipliziert."

Here, we can safely assume the teacher is a woman, even if the grammatical gender is masculine. It must be noted, that there is also a generisches Femininum, where the gender of the word is feminine, but can denote both males and females:

die Katze

can mean both male and female cats

die Hebamme

can mean both male and female midwives.

13
  • I'm not very much convinced about the "Die Katze" (If it's male): Wouldn't most people say "Der Kater"? Also I'm not sure, but the masculine for small or young things might follow the logic that you can't easily say which gender it belongs to while young (e.g.: "das Kätzchen").
    – U. Windl
    Apr 7, 2023 at 20:24
  • 5
    It should be noted that the generic masculine, like in many other cultures, has become somewhat controversial, at least in some parts of German-speaking society. However, the problem of how to deal with gender neutrality in our fundamentally gendered language, has not been solved yet. Proposals range from "hey, it's called generic, so where's the problem?" to the unwieldy (always listing out both feminine and masculine form explicitly) to the somewhat weird looking (various forms of asterisks, slashes, colons, etc.) to the absurd (Studierende, Lehrende). Apr 7, 2023 at 22:32
  • 7
    @U.Windl Me and most people I know would indeed mention a tomcat as "die Katze", as long as the actual gender of the cat is of no specific importance (just as they would refer to a female dog as "der Hund").
    – tofro
    Apr 8, 2023 at 13:12
  • 3
    @U.Windl In most cases you see a random cat, it is hard to tell if it is male or female. In that case you would use "die Katze". Also if you are talking about about a mixed gender group (2 female and 2 male cats) you use the female version as generic. "Ich habe vier Katzen"
    – Helena
    Apr 8, 2023 at 15:32
  • 1
    As the biological-vs-grammatical gender controversy has already been mentioned in these comments, I wonder what the corresponding ``neutral proposals'' are: Kater:innen?? Katze:riche?? Apr 8, 2023 at 21:41
7

Noun gender is a grammatical property first. Inanimate objects occur in all three genders.

der Löffel, das Messer, die Gabel

Conversely, nouns referring to human beings occur in all genders.

der Gast, das Mitglied, die Kraft (as in Lehrkraft, Führungskraft)

Gender as a grammatical property manifests itself in rules like the following.

  • only masculine and neuter nouns have the ending -(e)s in the genitive singular (and all neuter nouns do): der Gast, des Gastes; das Mitglied, des Mitglieds

  • all feminine nouns, and only feminine nouns, have no ending in the genitive singular: die Kraft, der Kraft

  • only masculine and neuter nouns have plural forms on -er: das Mitglied, die Mitglieder

  • feminine nouns with the plural suffix -e or no plural suffix always have umlaut: die Kraft, die Kräfte; die Mutter, die Mütter

  • neuter nouns with the plural suffix -e or no plural suffix never have umlaut: das Pfund, die Pfunde; das Wunder, die Wunder

Finally, suffixes are just like nouns in that they have gender as well: -heit/-keit/-igkeit is feminine, the diminutives -chen, -lein, -le are neuter, -ling is masculine: die Schönheit, das Mädchen, der Schönling. Das Mädel is just a variant of das Mädchen, i.e. a diminutive.

4

Your sense of German is not so far off - you just stumble upon an exception whose origin is not immediately apparent anymore:

Mädel and Mädchen both mean girl and originate as diminuitive from the word 'die Maid' (adolescent female) or 'die Magd' (maid). Yet diminuitives are always neuter in German language - and so we end up with neuter Gender for Mädchen and Mädel.

See also the previous question and its answers.

5
  • 2
    "Yet diminuitives are always neuter in German language", so... die Brezel is wrong?!?
    – vectory
    Apr 7, 2023 at 13:06
  • 3
    @vectory Yes, at least it sounds weird to my Bavarian ears. Die Breze (or Brezn), das Brezel. (Although small brezel are rather uncommon, as snacks at best)
    – Bergi
    Apr 7, 2023 at 22:46
  • 1
    Oh, right, TIL, but it was a rhetorical question because die Brezel is fairly common, where Brez'n isn't, and so descriptively not wrong.
    – vectory
    Apr 8, 2023 at 14:06
  • 2
    @vectory Since when is Brezel a diminuitive? It is the assimilation of an Italian diminuitive, but not a German one.
    – tofro
    Apr 10, 2023 at 12:19
  • klassische Schutzbehauptung: Das ist Italienisch, damit brauchen ma uns nicht zu befassne. Es ist dies dem jenigen Vorredner doch tatsächlich egal, welcher das Wort nach dem scheinbaren Suffix beugen will. Dabei wäre es besser aus einem Aorist *-wl(H) herzuleiten, was wegen der Knotenform gleichfalls für schweizerisch Zopf'li gelten dürfte. Denn in der Region ist die Substratsprache Lombardisch eine germanische. S' wirkt dann vielleicht wie neutrum das.
    – vectory
    Apr 10, 2023 at 20:46
3

Grammatical gender is about the noun in question. Not about the object it describes. Consider der Wagen, die Karre, das Auto. They all can describe the very same car. The car doesn't have a gender. The nouns have.

It mostly depends on the nominative singular ending of the noun. But sometimes, especially for loanwords, it depends on a German noun that describes a similar thing. There are about a hundred common ending patterns in German and about a dozen exceptions for each ending.

So you have to learn the gender of the noun with each noun.

3

Situation in English

In English nouns do not have a grammatical gender at all. English has only 8 words that have gender, all of them are pronouns:

he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its

And these pronouns always refer to persons or things, and which pronoun has to be used depends on the person or thing referred to. If it is a male person, you use he, him or his. If it is a female person you use she, her or hers. Gods, ghosts and similar non-physical entities are treated like persons, also pets and android robots (if their outward appearance is suggestive of an intended gender). There are also exceptions for ships, airplanes, cars and other machineries for which female pronouns are used, and sometimes even countries are referred to with female pronouns ("her economy is booming")

The point in the usage of these 8 words is, that their correct choice depends on a property that is not part of the grammar, but part of "real life". When you want to find the correct pronoun you do not ask for any grammatical properties of other words. You ask "Is it a person?" or "Is it a ship?" In English the grammatical gender of a pronoun never depends on the word that you use to describe a person or a thing. It doesn't matter if you say "lady", "girl", "queen" or "wench". You always have to use "she".


Comparing English and German

Word type in English in German
noun has never a grammatical gender has always a fixed grammatical gender
pronoun gender depends on the thing/person to which it refers. gender is inherited from the noun to which it refers
article has never a grammatical gender gender is inherited from the noun to which it refers
adjective has never a grammatical gender gender is inherited from the noun to which it refers

Another way to see this difference is to analyze the mechanism that provides a pronoun with a gender:

  • In English:
    The pronoun refers to a noun. The noun names a thing or person. This thing or person passes its real-file-gender directly to the pronoun without influencing the noun.
  • In German:
    The pronoun refers to a noun. This noun has a grammatical gender, and this gender is inherited to the pronoun. No real-life properties are involved.

Nouns and pronouns in German

So, in German it is possible to refer to the very same thing using any grammatical gender if there exists a noun for that thing with that gender:

neuter: Das Auto ist rot. Es gehört mir.
male: Der Wagen ist rot. Er gehört mir.
female: Die Karre ist rot. Sie gehört mir.

All three sentences translate in English to:

The car is red. It is mine.

»Auto« is the standard word for cars, »Wagen« is a little bit outdated and often used for some bigger limousines, and »Karre« is a shabby car. So if you have a rusty 15 years old limousine, you can use all three words. All three words can mean the very same automobile. But they have different genders.


Grammatical gender vs. biological sexus in German

To say, "biological and grammatical gender aren't connected" in German (quote from another answer) is just wrong. Of course they are connected. Almost all German nouns that are used to name male or female persons have a grammatical gender that perfectly fits to the biological sexus of this person. There are only a few exceptions, which I will write about below, but they are not many.

In fact the link between grammatical gender and biological sexus is so strong in German, that we have a serious ethical-social problem with our language which we call »Genderproblematik«. If you want to tell the profession of a person (let's say, "teacher") you can't do that in German without revealing this person's gender. Either it is "der Lehrer" or "die Lehrerin". But that's another topic that's too big to discuss here.

So, what are these exceptions?

  • Children
    In German language children are treated like persons without biological sexus. And as a consequence the German word for child is a neuter noun. Let's assume the child is a boy and everybody knows this:

    German: Das Kind liegt in der Wiege. Es schläft.
    English: The child is lying in the cradle. He sleeps.

  • Diminutives
    Standard German has two suffixes that indicate a small form (or something that just appears to be smaller) of something normal sized (German dialects have much more such suffixes):

    • -lein
      das Kind → das Kindlein, die Stunde → das Stündlein, der Tisch → das Tischlein
    • -chen
      das Kind → das Kindchen, die Stunde → das Stündchen, der Tisch → das Tischchen

    And there are also some words that are diminutives from "normal sized" forms are have become extinct in German language:

    das Märchen, das Frettchen, das Kaninchen, das Eichhörnchen, das Plätzchen (cookie), das Veilchen

    But even if there exists no "normal" form, these words are still diminutives. And to these diminutives with nonexistent "normal" forms also belongs this very famous example:

    das Mädchen

    But the point is, that in German there is a very strict rule for the gender of diminutives: They are always neuter. Always! There is not a single exception. And this is why this is correct in German:

    Das Mädchen trägt ein Kleid. Es hat lange Zöpfe.
    The girl is wearing a dress. She has long braids.

    About 50 years ago this version was the only one that was considered to be correct. But since then more and more people begun to use the female pronoun in combination with the neuter noun "Mädchen". When I was a child (born 1965) this version was considered wrong, but today it is perfectly fine to use it:

    Das Mädchen trägt ein Kleid. Sie hat lange Zöpfe.

    This is a very rare exception from the rule, that a pronoun must always match with the gender of the noun. In this case it matches with the biological sexus of the person, which is a relatively new an rare exception. I can only think of one other neuter noun where you can use a feminine pronoun:

    Das Weib trägt ein Kleid. Sie hat wallendes Haar.

    The word Weib is a synonym for Frau (adult woman). It is a very old word. In past centuries it was the preferred noun to name female adult persons, but today it has a wicked connotation and is sometimes used pejorative. But it is a neuter noun.

    Fun fact: When you derive an adjective from the neuter noun "das Weib" you get "weiblich" which is the German adjective that means "female" or "feminine". So, in some sense there is no more female word than "das Weib" (Es gibt kein weiblicheres Wort als "Weib"). But still it is a neuter noun.

    But note, that this exception is only allowed for pronouns. Articles and adjectives still must be used in the neuter form with words like Mädchen and Weib:

    This is terribly wrong:

    WRONG!!! Die Mädchen trägt ein Kleid.
    WRONG!!! Eine kleine Mädchen trägt ein Kleid.

    Only this is correct:

    Das Mädchen trägt ein Kleid.
    Ein kleines Mädchen trägt ein Kleid.

5
  • 3
    The claim that there was a big change in the way pronouns are used 50 years ago is very strong and not backed up by any evidence (we had this discussion before, see here). – In German language children are treated like persons without biological sexus. And as a consequence the German word for child is a neuter noun. What does it mean to be "treated like persons without biological sexus"? Is it just being referred to by a neuter noun? Does the same hold for Weib, Genie, Mitglied, Oberhaupt?
    – David Vogt
    Apr 8, 2023 at 9:30
  • 1
    Endlich eine Koryphäe, die genau weiß, dass ein Femininum-Substantiv niemals eine biologisch männliche Person bezeichnen kann ... Apr 8, 2023 at 21:48
  • If that's how your counting words, then "himself", "herself", and "itself" also belong in your list. Apr 8, 2023 at 22:03
  • English also has epicene gender in they, them, theirs (as a singular pronoun).
    – CJ Dennis
    Apr 8, 2023 at 23:59
  • 1
    Das Mitglied hat einen Bart. Es rülpst, oder er rülpst? ;) Apropos "Almost all German nouns used to name male or female persons have a grammatical gender that perfectly fits to the biological sexus of this person..." - wirklich? Aufofahrer, Wähler, Esser, Handwerker, Schwimmer, Schläfer, Antragsteller, Kontoinhaber, Einwohner, Deutscher, ... und immer so weiter. Und was matcht denn das grammatikalische Geschlecht, das soziale oder das biologische, so diese auseinanderklaffen? Dass männliche Formen das Geschlecht verraten ist eine Lüge, um die Reform zu befördern. Apr 10, 2023 at 23:49

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.