German's Weak Nouns - Explanation
Hello everyone! Just now, I ended up making a huge explanation of German's weak nouns on one of the lessons and decided that I might as well paste it in the forum as well, in the hopes that more people may find it useful.
Some masculine nouns and one neuter noun take on weak declension, which is different from the strong declension we're all used to (-(e)s in genitive singular; -n in dative plural). In the weak declension, a noun generally takes an -(e)n suffix in not only the plural (on the right of table below), but also the singular (left of table) except in the nominative. Like so:
- Nominative: der Junge - die Jungen
- Accusative: den Jungen - die Jungen
- Dative: dem Jungen - den Jungen
- Genitive: des Jungen - der Jungen
Note on when to use -n and -en: If you're dealing with a weak noun ending on -e, then the suffix will be a bare -n; if it ends on a consonant, it will take the suffix -en (exceptions: Bauer - Bauern, Nachbar - Nachbarn, Bayer - Bayern, Ungar - Ungarn, Herr - Herrn/Herren [former is for singular, latter plural])
So how does one know if a noun is weak?
Masculine nouns that end in -e are almost always weak. The only notable exceptions are der Käse and the ones ending with ee like der See, der Schnee, der Kaffee and der Tee and some foreign nouns that don't pronounce the -e, like der Service and der Store.
- der Junge (boy)
- der Däne (Dane)
- der Experte (expert)
- der Riese (giant)
- der Rabe (raven)
- der Name (name)
- der Löwe (lion)
and so forth...
Masculine nouns with Latin (or Greek) endings (especially referring to people or professions) are weak. This one is a bit more confusing since one may not know what a Latin ending is, but I assure you that after some getting-used-to, you'll be able to tell easily.
- der Doktorand (doctorand)
- der Praktikant (intern)
- der Automat (vending machine)
- der Assistent (assistant)
- der Obelisk (obelisk)
- der Astronaut (astronaut)
- der Athlet (athlete)
- der Vagabund (vagabond)
- der Ökonom (economist)
- der Philosoph (philosopher)
- der Fotograf (photographer)
- der Chirurg (surgeon)
- der Monarch (monarch)
- der Soldat (soldier)
- der Kamarad (comrade)
- der Architekt (architect)
- der Idiot (idiot)
- der Rebell (rebel)
- der Satellit (satellite)
and so forth...
Then, we have some exceptions that don't really fit into either category, but are weak anyway. Many nouns in this category have a tendency to be strong in casual speech as I will point out in the examples.
- der Ahn (ancestor; strong and weak both standard)
- der Bär (bear; only weak is standard; colloquially often strong)
- der Bauer (farmer; only weak is standard; colloquially often strong)
- der Bayer (Bavarian)
- der Depp (dork; strong and weak both standard)
- der Fink (finch; only weak is standard; colloquially mostly strong)
- der Fürst (sovereign prince)
- der Geck (dandy)
- der Graf (count)
- der Greif (griffin; strong and weak both standard)
- der Held (hero)
- der Herr (gentleman)
- der Hirt (herdsman)
- der Leopard (leopard; strong and weak both standard; genitive is weak)
- der Leu (lion)
- der Magyar (Magyar)
- der Mensch (human; only weak is standard; colloquially often strong)
- der Mohr (blackamoor)
- der Nachbar (neighbour; strong and weak both standard; colloquially often strong)
- der Narr (jester)
- der Oberst (colonel; strong and weak both standard)
- der Prinz (prince; only weak is standard; colloquially often strong)
- der Schenk (cupbearer)
- der Spatz (sparrow; strong and weak both standard; colloquially mostly strong)
- der Tor (fool)
- der Typ (guy/type; when meaning type, declension is never weak; when meaning guy, declension is sometimes weak (strong is just as common))
- der Tyrann (tyrant)
- der Ungar (Hungarian)
- der Untertan (subject; strong and weak both standard)
- der Vorfahr (forebear)
- der Zar (tsar; only weak is standard; colloquially often strong)
and so forth... (these are most of them (including all common ones), but yes, there are indeed more exceptions. If I were you, I wouldn't concern myself very much - most of them are often treated as strong, anyway)
A small handful of inanimate weak nouns with an -e ending takes -ns in the genitive singular instead of simply -n. Like so:
- Nominative: der Name - die Namen
- Accusative: den Namen - die Namen
- Dative: dem Namen - den Namen
- Genitive: des Namens - der Namen
- der Buchstabe (letter)
- der Name (name)
- der Gedanke (thought)
- der Same (seed)
- der Friede (peace)
- der Wille (will)
- der Funke (spark)
- der Glaube (belief)
Note that many of these nouns are "strengthening" in that their nominative singulars are taking on the -n suffix as well. For example, der Frieden is now more common than der Friede. Even der Bogen (bow) was once weak, but has now fully strengthened. The days of this group may be numbered.
Remember way earlier when I said there was one neuter noun that takes on weak declension? No? Well I did. This noun is Herz (heart). It is actually an irregularly declined noun so it's best to simply learn its unique declension:
- Nominative: das Herz - die Herzen
- Accusative: das Herz - die Herzen
- Dative: dem Herzen - den Herzen
- Genitive: des Herzens - der Herzen
Note: In casual speech, the bare form Herz is also used in the dative singular, but not in certain fixed turns of phrase, like mit halbem Herzen or im Herzen.
Finally, I would like to say that if you forget that a noun is weak, it really isn't anything to write home about. It is no barrier to communication and even Germans themselves make mistakes (especially with words like Bär as noted previously but also sometimes with words like Student).
Congratulations! You now know pretty much everything there is to know about German's weak nouns! I hope you found this helpful.
P.S. If you notice any mistake - please let me know. I triple-checked but I still might've missed something small.
I had three pages in my notebook about German declensions and now I've had to write another one! Languages with so much grammar shouldn't be allowed exceptions and I'll be writing to Ms Merkel about it in terrible German.
puh!! Toll, welche Mühe Du Dir gibst, das zu erklären.
Als Deutschsrpachiger denke ich natürlich über diese Grammatikfeinheiten nie nach, man hat's eben gelernt und im Gefühl. Wir haben diese Grammatiksache sicher in der Schule irgendwann auch gelernt, aber ich täte mir verdammt schwer, das wem mit "Regeln" und Ausnahmen zu erklären.
I think the reason why they haven't made notes (or a skill) on it is because it's probably not worth confusing beginner learners who can honestly go without it for now. Anyway, this post itself is more aimed at intermediate learners. Even so, they start showing examples of weak declension in the middle of the tree which is probably quite silly without any notice or explanation.
If I were to decide, I'd have a short grammar skill on weak noun declension near the end of the tree. However, that may just be my little weak noun obsession talking :)
Well done, and very interesting! Thanks!
I wonder whether you want to mention "der Drache(n)"? I imagine that this was also a weak noun which got strengthened (similar to "der Friede(n)", "der "Glaube(n)") but in the process, it split, so you have "der Drache" = the dragon and "der Drachen" = the kite (that flies in the sky). The other cases are obviously identical.
Well, Drache just fits into the weak -e category, and for practical purposes, Drachen is a seperate word. Although, it's an interesting example of a strengthening that may have happened here.
Edit: Thanks for the correction!
Great exposition. I love it how you put it so easily and laid out so many examples. Here are my two cents, I think we used very different ways to explain this subject and I'd like to know if I got something wrong, or maybe if I missed something important.
If even Germans sometimes don't bother using them, i wonder if the language as a whole is slowly phasing them out. Like in a couple hundred years, it'll be seen as archaic as "thou" or "thine" are in English.
This is a topic that always confused me. Thank you so much TrioLinguist for posting it and making it comprehensible.
An example of lack of use of weak declination in even native speakers is in the song "Jan Pillemann Otze" where the singer stated "Dieses Leid habe ich für einen Freund von mir entwickelt haben, der 'nen sehr lustigen Name hatte" even though 'Namen' would be more correct.
Everywhere I looked for lyrics to that, it showed einen sehr lustigen Namen, even though the person singing doesn't articulate it.
The same thing happens in "Haus am See" (click here: https://youtu.be/KshznN292U0?t=1m32s). -n suffixes in German seem to be very freely "swallowed" (not literally), where the m and final n in Namen seem to combine, especially in music that is going for a certain number of syllables. Even so, everyone writes einen Namen simply because einen Name would be wrong.
Edit: To add to that, you may notice that they're not even pronouncing Name, but instead Nam.
Re-edit: In colloquial German, you may often hear ham instead of haben.
I never saw the transcript so I can't say about that but I have heard the song many times and can't hear an "n" ending at all. Your explanation of swallowing the n is likely but on the other hand when I hear Rammstein's "Mutter" I can hear the n ending very well in "niemand gab mir einen Namen".
I definitely agree with you, it's not to be heard. I find the same thing with einen, where very often, it's almost indistinguishable from ein.
Though I think there may be a very subtle difference: "ein" is definitely one syllable "einen" is sort of one-and-a-half syllables, with "ei-" in one syllable and "-n" as an extra sylable or half-syllable. (A syllabic -n like some have in e.g. "button" if they say "butt'n".)
Similarly with "sing!" vs. "singen" - one is "sing", the other "si-ng". Or "Lehm" vs. "leben" - one is "Lehm", the other "Leh-mm".
Thank you for taking the time to think about others (so many on this site are amazing that way!) I appreciate you doing this, considering the time it must have taken you. This was quite helpful.
Cyber cookies for you! (They taste better than lingots.) ~frankiebluej
i despair of ever understanding all of this grammar but once again a very sincere thanks to everyone for the helpful info...
Thank u so much,Im afraid have one question. Why when we say "vor einem jahr" we dont sea any change for "jahr" but when we say "vor zwei jahren" a "en" adds to it?if its is weak noun and in dative place so why it doesnt come as "vor einem jahren"?