Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Very Brief and Not Particularly Helpful German Lesson, Lektüre 3

Today's lesson is over a subject that has plagued speakers of the German language since the dawn of time (or, you know, since the dawn of the German language).

The Article

For those of you not familiar with the different parts of speech, there are two different types of articles: the indefinite article: in English, a/an and the definite article: The. In German, there are also definite and indefinite articles, but we are going to focus only on the former.

In their most basic form, there are 3 definite articles in German:

The feminine 
(pronounced "dee")
The masculine 
(pronounced "dair")
and the neuter
(pronounced "doss")

So there are a couple more than the English the, surely that can't be too hard to keep track of? True, it wouldn't be, if the rules regulating which articles are assigned to which nouns weren't completely arbitrary.

This means when you learn new vocabulary in German, you must also commit the correct article - or gender - to memory.
Luckily, there are a couple tricks to help remember some articles for those of us not lucky enough to grow up with it ingrained in our brains.

As might have already been implied, the gender of a noun can sometimes depend on the actual gender of the subject. For example: man is DER Mann, woman is DIE Frau, boy is DER Junge and girl is DAS Mädchen. Wait... what?! 
Poor girls get the neuter article, but don't feel too bad for them, it has to do with that "chen" on the end of the word and not their actual ambiguous sexuality, but we'll get to that later.

But what about the other 95% of nouns that don't have an actual biological gender to [sometimes] help determine the grammatical gender? Are they all just neutral, like in English when we refer to everything non-human as "it"? No no no, there's no need to make this too simple. But sometimes, just sometimes, parts of a word can give clues to what article it needs.

Let's start with the feminine words:
-all words ending in "-ung," "-heit," "-keit," and "-schaft": DIE Einladung (invitation), DIE Freiheit (freedom), DIE Wirklichkeit (reality), DIE Freundschaft (friendship). I have yet to find an exception, but I'm learning and forgetting and relearning articles everyday.

-Words ending in "-e": DIE Ecke (corner), DIE Grenze (border), DER Name... what, what?! ok, so this one actually has quite a few exceptions (der Deutsche, der Junge, and der Friede, to name a few), but when in doubt, it's a good starting point for a solid guess.

-Words ending in "-ie": DIE Geographie (geography), DIE Industrie (industry), DIE Ironie (irony)
-words ending in "-chen" or "-lein" (in German, these are diminutives, so, theoretically, you can add them to any noun, thereby also changing the gender to neuter): DAS Mädchen (girl), DAS Fräulein (unmarried woman, "Miss" in English).

-words ending in "-o": DAS Auto (car), DAS Konto (account), DAS Radio (radio), DIE Disko... what?!! that's right, more exceptions! Be careful with words such as DIE Avocado or DER Euro.

-words ending in "-ismus": DER Journalismus (journalism), DER Capitalismus (capitalism)

-Days and Months: DER Montag (Monday), DER April (April).

...Are you still with me? Good, we're only just getting started.

Now, there is one more little trick to help simplify things (if that's even possible at this point). German is a language that is all about compound words. One word I've seen pop up again and again with a certain notoriety is this 63 letter monster:


How in the world are you supposed to get an article for that?! well, we could break it down. It's one long word, but it's actually made up of 7 very clear words: 
das Rindfleisch 
die Etikettierung 
die Überwachung
die Aufgaben
die Übertragung
das Gesetz

That's 2 das-words and 5 die-words. Does that mean we go for die since it is the best represented? No, it's actually much simpler. In the case of compound words, the new word takes the gender of the last word-part. Therefore, because of "das Gesetz," we know that it is DAS Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz

This trick works about 98% of the time. For example, we have DER Tag (day), from that we can make DER Sonntag (Sunday) or DER Feiertag (holiday) or DER Geburtstag (birthday).

Of course, there's always my favorite exception: DAS Wort (word), DAS Vorwort (preface)... so far so good, until... DIE Antwort (answer). Well, damn.

here's a nice one for you though - the plural article is DIE. 
Always. For every plural word. no matter what the gender of the singular word. But don't get too cozy, this is not the same DIE as the feminine article. "How can you possibly tell the difference, then?" you might possibly be asking. That comes in when we get to the different cases.

No, I'm not going to even try to explain the different cases of the German language (that would take many chapters of a text book...). Just know that there are 4: Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive.

Take a look at this chart to see what happens to each of our four articles (feminine, masculine, neuter, and plural) when used in each case.
So now our 4 articles have turned into 16. Sure, you see a lot of der's and a few den's, but that doesn't make them the same article. It's always important to know the difference between a dative feminine "der" and a masculine nominative "der." I could explain why, but again with the chapters in texts books thing. So I'm just going to ask you to take my word on this one.

Unfortunately, all the tips in the world can't beat the truest method of learning articles: Memorization. plain and simple.

Whenever my students ask me if I think German is difficult to learn, my go to answer is:
In English, we say "The." In German, you say "der, die, das, die, den, dem, des, die, der, der, das, dem des, die, den, and der."


Anonymous said...

Emily, ich habe lange überlegt und habe zwei Worte gefunden, die auf
"-ung" enden, der Artikel jedoch "DER" lautet!

Der UrsprUNG (origin)
Der VorsprUNG (advance)


Alex Butts said...

Seriously just pinned this. I sadly didn't even realize nouns had articles when I first started doing flashcardsso I learned so many without and it's just painful. I just say what sounds like "duh" half the time. Blah! Thanks!

Bekah said...

So, i am late to this party but here are my two thoughts:

1. words that end in -ik (Musik, Physik, Mathematik, Logik...) are also DIE
2. I have a very complicated chart somewhere with ALL of the helpful guidelines of masculine, feminine and neuter (see tip #1) and i showed it to a german friend whose jaw basically hit the floor and he said "THIS is how people learn german?!?!? I'm so glad I'm a native speaker!!" yeah. thanks for rubbing it in.

I love your german lessons and i'm pretty sure my students would rather have you as an english teacher than me!

Liana said...

Hi Emily,

My name is Liana and I am one of the Fulbright grantees to Germany for 2012-2013. I read through a large part of your blog and really enjoyed your insights and commentary. I looked for an email address to contact you at but didn't find one so I thought I'd post here to ask if you had any advice for this year's grantees. Any response would be helpful!



emily g. said...

hey Liana! Congrats on getting a Fulbright. I've gotten a lot of emails from future grantees, so I am working on getting a post up of suggestions, but of course you can email me any questions you have! just use the comment box in the about me section and I'll try my best to get back to you quickly! :D

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