The gender of nouns is one of the most irritating problems that English-speakers face in learning German. It is as bewildering for the foreigner as it is obvious for the native speaker that the table is masculine, the window is neuter, and the door is feminine.
The problem appears all the more daunting to English-speakers, because although English has the same three genders as German, English grammatical gender almost always corresponds to biological or natural gender (except for a few oddities like referring to a ship as “she”).
Learners are usually told to simply memorize the gender of each noun as they learn it, and this is certainly good advice. However, German does not assign gender to nouns in a totally random way, and a number of rules do exist that can make gender more manageable for the foreign learner.
Problems with the Rules
There are a couple of problems with using rules to manage the German gender problem. In many cases, a rule predicts the gender of a group of nouns with complete accuracy or very few exceptions, but the group is very small.
It doesn’t help very much, especially at the beginning level, to know that forms of precipitation are always masculine or that one-syllable nouns beginning with kn- are nearly always masculine (but there are only 15 of them in the language). In other cases the rules express tendencies that are strong but not overwhelming. Is it worth learning that, of the 107 single-syllable nouns ending in a nasal plus another consonant, 70 per cent are masculine?
Moreover, so many rules can be formulated that a beginning student trying to deal with the gender problem by learning rules would soon know more rules than nouns. Finally, no set of rules that has yet been formulated explains or predicts anything like all the nouns in the language. For a fairly large number of nouns, gender cannot be explained or predicted by rules and must simply be memorized.
Nonetheless, a number of rules exist that predict gender for fairly large numbers of nouns with fairly high and sometimes perfect success rates, and they are worth learning and discussing early and throughout one’s study of German.
Types of Rules
Three basic types of gender rules can be formulated. They relate to one another in a well-defined hierarchy.
- Rules related to meaning
A number of rules related to meaning may be found in grammar books. At least one is enormously important and useful; many have high accuracy but limited scope.
- Rules related to the form or sound of a word — phonological rules
These are rules related to the sound of a word. Some are very useful.
- Morphological rules (prefixes, suffixes, etc.)
Many suffixes and some prefixes are associated very predictably with certain genders.
Hierarchy of Rules
- The “Letztes-Glied-Prinzip” or “last segment rule.” If a noun has more than one morphological segment (that is, if it is a compound word or has one or more suffixes), the last segment determines the gender. Thus the famous compound “Vierwaldstätterseedampfschifffahrtgesellschaft” is feminine, because the suffix –schaft always makes nouns feminine.
- Rules related to meaning.
- Rules related to morphology (prefixes and suffixes).
- Phonological rules affecting the end of the word.
- Phonological rules affecting the beginning of the word.
Rules for German Gender
Rules Related to Meaning
Probably the single most important rule to learn about German gender is the Natural Gender Rule: If a noun refers to a human being, or to an animal commonly kept by Europeans as a pet or farm animal, or commonly hunted by Europeans, its grammatical gender will almost always correspond to its natural biological gender. Books, teachers, and students probably tend to place too much emphasis on the few exceptions to this, creating a despairing feeling that German gender is totally arbitrary. Actually, there are very few exceptions, and these are easily explained. Words like Mädchen and Fräulein are explained by the priority of the Last Segment Rule: the suffixes -chen and -lein always make nouns neuter. Nouns designating very young humans and animals are neuter, which explains das Kind and das Baby.
Other rules related to meaning
Many grammar books give lists of meaning-based gender rules. The usefulness varies considerably. Some examples: makes of car are masculine (der Mercedes, der Porsche); makes of airplane are feminine (die Boeing, die Airbus); alcoholic beverages other than beer are masculine (der Wein, der Whiskey); musical instruments are feminine; chemical elements are neuter. A potentially useful rule is that “superordinates”–nouns designating generalized concepts–are neuter. Thus it’s die Polizei and die Post, but das Amt; der Apfel, die Birne, etc., but das Obst.
Rules Related to the Form or Sound of a Word
A large number of rules have been suggested that predict the gender of a noun based on its sound. About three appear especially useful for learners.
Final schwa or final -e.
One of the most useful of all gender rules is the “final-schwa-rule”: nouns ending in a schwa sound, the unaccented, neutral -uh sound that is usually spelled -e, are feminine 90% of the time. And there are fifteen thousand of these nouns. Of course, these numbers mean that there are 1,500 exceptions. But a very large number of the exceptions are predicatable by other rules, above all by natural gender: nationality and profession nouns ending in -e, for example, follow natural gender, in accordance with the general principle that meaning-based rules take priority over sound- and form-based rules. But a number of common nouns ending in -e are exceptions that are not easily explained: das Ende, der Käse, and so on. Despite the exceptions, which must often be memorized, the “final-schwa” or “final-e” rule is extremely helpful.
Final long /i/. Nouns ending in a long /i/ or “ee” sound are nearly always feminine (about 400 nouns, about 95% feminine). Examples: die Regie, die Dynastie.
Final –u/ür. Nouns ending in -ur or -ür are nearly always feminine (141nouns, 93% feminine). Examples: die Tuer, die Uhr.
Many suffixes determine gender. Note that many suffixes create abstract nouns; most of these are feminine, but one is masculine and one is neuter.
Masculine: -er (but -er is not always a suffix); -ig, -ling, -or, -us. Der Honig, der Motor, der Faktor, der Liebling, der Sozialismus. Most of these nouns are concrete, not abstract. Many are nouns of agent–nouns, usually derived from verbs, that name a person or thing that does something. As far as these designate human beings, they are covered by the Natural Gender Rule. -ismus is a suffix that creates abstract nouns and it is masculine; most such suffixes are feminine.
Feminine: -anz, -ei, -enz, -ie, -ik, -ion, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -tät, -ung, -ur. Die Dissonanz, die Konditorei, die Frequenz, die Demokratie, die Musik, die Religion, die Krankheit, die Landschaft, die Nationalität, die Prozedur. Most of these suffixex create abstract nouns.
Neuter: -tum; the diminutive suffixes -chen, -lein, and dialect variations such as -el/-l, -li, etc. Das Christentum; das Mädchen, das Fräulein, das Mädel.