Grammatical gender in Danish
Danish natives/linguists, how can I determine the grammatical gender of a noun? Is there a reliable way? It's quite burdensome for me, considering that I recently started learning your language. It's unquestionably lovely, but I would like to fully comprehend the "grammatical gender" until I solve new lessons. I've memorized the gender for a few basic nouns and came to the conclusion that they are predominantly common words (n-words), for example: "en pige", but it's not the case for "et menneske", which is neuter (t-word), and I'm wondering why.
Have an astounding day! Keep up the good work.
I am a native speaker of Danish who also studies languages at university (French and German). The following information is from: Lundskær-Nielsen, Tom, and Philip Holmes. 2011. "Chapter 2: Nouns," in: Danish: An Essential Grammar. Routledge.
Danish nouns have 2 genders: Common gender (en-words) and neuter (et-words). "About 75 per cent of nouns are en-words and 25 per cent et-words."
Like in other grammar books on European languages, you will typically find the general rules for identification of the gender of nouns to be based on the 2 principles below.
– The meaning of the word
– The form of the word
This is the same in Danish. Let's take the meaning of the words first.
You can identify COMMON GENDER BY MEANING (en-words) like so:
– Personal names
– Nouns referring to human beings, animals, plants, trees, festivals, months, names of rivers
You can identify NEUTER GENDER BY MEANING (et-words) like so:
– Nouns referring to substances, areas, and localities
– The letters of the alphabet
– Nouns that have been formed from other word classes
You can test the gender of proper nouns by seeing how it agrees with other words (articles, adjectives).
Exceptions: en by (a town), en ø (an island), verden (the world)
For the proper names of geographical locations, you have to think of the word that matches the type of category it has. Copenhagen is a city (en by), so it is common gender. But Denmark is a country (et land), so it is neuter.
You can identify COMMON GENDER BY FORM (en-words) like so: It depends on the suffix of the singular form. As a main rule, words ending on these suffixes are all common gender:
-else (exceptions: et spøgelse, et værelse)
You can identify NEUTER GENDER BY FORM (et-words) like so: More suffixes.
-ri (exceptions: et bageri, et batteri)
And finally, you have to know that there are some FORMS WHERE THE GENDER VARIES, again more suffixes in the singular form:
-al (en lineal; et ideal)
-ar (en bibliotekar; et eksemplar)
-at (usually neuter but et certifikat; en demokrat)
-ent (en konsulent, et departement)
-i (en industri, et parti)
-sel (en trussel, et fængsel)
-skab (en egenskab, et ægteskab)
As for COMPOUND NOUNS, where you combine 2 nouns (or more sometimes), they will "nearly always" take the gender of the second or last element in the compound:
en skole + et køkken = et skolekøkken
et køkken + en kniv = en køkkenkniv
Exceptions include et måltid, et bogstav
PS: It seems like it is very easy to find a full PDF of this book if you just search for the title in Google and add PDF. It's got 225 pages and is in English. It's not a comprehensive grammar, but it will be less technical and more useful to most users and still cover all the important bases.
"For the proper names of geographical locations, you have to think of the word that matches the type of category it has. Copenhagen is a city (en by), so it is common gender. But Denmark is a country (et land), so it is neuter."
Surely, people say "mit København", "det gamle København" and so on, using neuter grammar. I don't think I have ever heard "min København".
Dictionaries are undoubtely the best way to go. When learning new nouns, try to memorise all four forms (en pige, pigen, piger, pigerne). This will also help you deal with irregular nouns.
I think "menneske" may be an Old Norse diminutive formation, from "mánn", man, and that diminutives are always neuter. In practice, I cannot think of any other diminutives in Danish, but this is how they work in Dutch and German. It would be logical if gender specific terms were always en-words (en dreng, en pige, en mand, en kvinde) and generic terms were et-words (et barn, et menneske), but clearly this is not a consistent rule. The only real rule is that, as you say, the majority of nouns are en-words.
Yes, I find the method of memorizing all 4 forms extremely advantageous and it's almost done effortlessly, but the grammatical gender will remain burdensome until I purchase a high-quality dictionary/find a trustworthy one online. And as a person who studied German through elementary school and middle school, I, beyond doubt, agree that the grammatically specified gender terms would be much more comprehensible if they were -en words without exception.
Thank you for your assistance! Have a lovely day.
If what you are looking for is a surefire way to determine if a noun is a n or t noun without looking it up, I am sorry to break it to you, but there isn’t a system to figure this out. The only way is to look a word up in a dictionary.
My advice is definitely to find a good online dictionary because you will need it. Not just to gender nouns, but a dictionary will also give you invaluable information about how to conjugate the different verbs and many other things.
I personally really like www.ordbogen.com. It is a paid website, but you have a number of free searches per day.
Edited to remove username