Grammatical gender in German

Gender is an important part of German grammar, thus making it imperative to grasp gender assignment for accuracy. Understanding the language will be difficult if gender is misused or misunderstood. Gender assignment to the German language must be done with a purpose as the argument in linguistics has posed whether or not pairing gender with nouns is stored in the mental lexicon. Essentially, researchers are curious to know if the human mind has the ability to remember to combine gender with words for retrieval. One question that has been posed is if gender should be memorized alongside with lexical terms or if gender can be learned by using the German language's rules and regulations when learning the German language.[1]

The use of gendered nouns in language has led many to ask whether or not grammatical gender influences the way one processes and experiences what is around them. Although many studies have shown that the use gendered nouns do affect the way people perceive and link things together, the German language has proved harder to show a direct effect. One of the speculations as to why gendered nouns in German seem to affect the thought process less is that German uses three gendered nouns (feminine, masculine, and neuter) instead of two gendered nouns. Despite the less obvious link, at a closer look German gendered nouns are still found to have an effect (albeit a more general effect) on the cognitive process.[2]

Every noun in German is considered to be feminine (die), masculine (der), or neuter (das).[3]

Masculine (männlich)

This gender receives the article der. In general, this is used referring to male people (der Mann = the man), their jobs (der Präsident = the president), and male animals (der Stier = the steer). The masculine gender article der is also used when referring to seasons (der Sommer = the summer), months (der Januar = the January), days of the week (der Montag = the Monday), and most weather (der Regen = the rain). Additionally, nouns ending in -en, -el, -ling, -ismus, -ner, -ig, -ich, or -er will also be considered masculine (männlich). Lastly, the masculine is used when referring to most instruments (der Kugelschreiber = the pen), points on a compass ("der Norden" = the north), makes of cars ("der Volvo" = the Volvo), and most non-German rivers ("der Mississippi" = the Mississippi).[4][5][6]

Feminine (feminin)

The feminine gender marker of nominative words in German is die. It is used when speaking of a female person (die Frau = "the woman"), or a female animal (die Gans = the goose), ships and airplanes (die Boeing) and numbers/counting (die Eins = "the one"). Die is also commonly employed in all nouns that end in the following ways: -ung, -schaft, -ion, -heit, -keit, -tat, -age, -enz, -esse, -euse, -ur and -ik. -e is mostly used for feminine words, but can also be used for several specific masculine words. Unlike the masculine der that is used to describe non-German rivers, the feminine die is used when referencing rivers within Germany (die Mosel, die Elbe, die Weser).[3][4][6][7]

Neuter (sächlich)

This can be referred to as one of the three genders in German as well as many other Proto-Indo-European languages that can be used to describe people and inanimate objects. Understanding neuter is very much similar to learning masculine and feminine as it a requirement for proficiency in the German language. By creating neuter this allowed grammatical gender to be linked to familiar or ideal concepts of sex. Typically, neuter will be in contrast with feminine and masculine, and while the nouns may be the same across all three genders, the endings will change. For the word "the" this will be "Das" in the German neuter language while it will become "Der" in masculine and "Die" in feminine. While feminine and masculine describe female- and male-gendered words, neuter often describes an inanimate or non-living item or object like a table or a couch. The purpose of learning neuter is very much similar to learning masculine and feminine as this affects the other elements of the language.[1][8]

Cognition and memory

Some ways that gendered nouns affect the cognitive process is through memory. In the book Language In Mind by Dedre Gentner and Susan Goldin-Meadow, it is mentioned that those whose languages have gendered nouns are more likely to remember said noun when it is given a proper name that corresponds to the gender they sort it under, such as an apple being named Patrick. This memory device would be useful for children who are just starting to learn a language. In addition, gendered nouns also affect the cognitive process by categorization. For instance, in the German language, the word "key" is masculine, and German people would associate this word with adjectives such as "jagged", "rough", "hard", etc. On the other hand, they would categorize a feminine noun with adjectives such as "little", "shiny", or "tiny".

Grammatical gender is also linked to cognition and memory. For instance, the article "der" in the German language is only associated with male nouns, people, or places. According to studies done on the topic, this has a significant effect on cognition. A study was done with a group of Spanish and German speakers (who were also fluent in English) with the intentions of finding out whether or not grammatical gender could influence speakers' cognitive processes when they were speaking another language entirely.[9] The results of the study showed that object gender influenced the participants' judgements when told to describe an object that had differing grammatical genders in Spanish and German. For instance, a "bridge", which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, garnered adjectives from the German speakers such as "beautiful" and "elegant" while Spanish speakers referred to it as "dangerous" and "sturdy".[9]

However, it actually makes sense to have grammatical gender for many reasons. For one, utilizing grammatical gender influences memory in a positive way. One of the studies in the book Language in Mind states that when Spanish and German speakers were given an item that was given a proper name (e.g. "Patrick" for an apple), the German speakers were much more likely to remember the name because in their language an apple is masculine. The Spanish speakers were more likely to forget the name Patrick, but would have likely remembered it if it was a feminine name like Patricia (Gentner and Goldin-Meadow). This study further illustrates just how much grammatical gender influences the memory process.[9]


  1. 1 2 Arzt, Jessica; Kost, Claudia (March 2016). "Effect of Different Teaching Techniques on the Acquisition of Grammatical Gender by Beginning German Second Language Learners". Die Unterrichtspraxis/Teaching German. 49 (1): 1–23. doi:10.1111/tger.10207.
  2. Sedlmeier P, Tipandjan A, Jänchen A (2016). "How Persistent are Grammatical Gender Effects? The Case of German and Tamil". J Psycholinguist Res. 45 (2): 317–36. doi:10.1007/s10936-015-9350-x. PMID 25669752.
  3. 1 2 "Some Hints on How to Guess Gender". University of Michigan.
  4. 1 2 "German Articles (Gender of Nouns)". University of Houston. Archived from the original on May 15, 2003.
  5. "Feminine". University of Michigan.
  6. 1 2 "Gender". Lingolia German.
  7. "The Gender of German Nouns (das Genus)". Dartmouth College.
  8. Banta, F. G. (1981). "Teaching German vocabulary: The use of English cognates and common loan words". The Modern Language Journal. 65 (2): 129–136. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4781.1981.tb00962.x.
  9. 1 2 3 Steven B. Jackson (September 21, 2012). "Masculine or Feminine? (And Why It Matters)". Psychology Today.
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