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Cultural questions about gender nouns

I was wondering about children born and raised around the German language. Do they often misuse der, die, and das initially?

If I say "der Madchen" vs. "das Madchen" in Germany, do people simply chalk that up to inexperience? Are they likely to correct me?

How would a new word get assigned a gender? Let's say someone invents something completely new. How is it determined to be either der, die, or das?

July 29, 2012



You're asking very interesting questions :)

  1. "If I say 'der Madchen' vs. 'das Madchen' in Germany, do people simply chalk that up to inexperience? Are they likely to correct me?"

That depends. Native German speakers immediately notice these kinds of mistakes, just like native English speakers would if I said something like "I go to house and talk to man". Whether or not people would actually correct you depends on their personality, the situation, how well they know you, etc. Just like in any other country.

  1. "How would a new word get assigned a gender?"

This happens all the time as there are an increasing number of English loan words in German. When people use a new word for the first time, they have to assign a gender to it, even if they are unsure about which one to choose. It would be impossible to use the word in a sentence otherwise. There are a number of sometimes conflicting principles about the gender of foreign words: the gender of the noun in its original language, phonological or semantic similarity to already existing German nouns or the gender of an already existing German translation. You can read more about it here: http://www.canoo.net/services/OnlineGrammar/Wort/Nomen/Genus/Fremdwort.html?lang=en Sometimes it can take a long time before there is general consensus about the correct gender. This process is influenced by the media, dictionaries, etc.

  1. "I was wondering about children born and raised around the German language. Do they often misuse der, die, and das initially?"

I have a recording of myself as a very small child in which I sing a song and make a gender mistake. :) So yes, young children sometimes make mistakes during the first stages of language acquisition. However, from what I've read, the correct gender is acquired very quickly. According to a study, children as young as three already use 90 % of the genders correctly.


I think children learn the gender together the word, because they always hear them in context. It is a fault of Duolingo that it does not emphasise learning the gender together the noun. A noun should never be displayed without its gender. (e.g. in "your new words are", etc).


@Katherle: any chances you'll make that recording publicly available? ;-)


@wataya: as far as I remember, it's still somewhere hidden in the attic of my parents' house. And it's on something as archaic as a cassette. So I don't think it will be available to the general public anytime soon. ;-)

On the recording, I use the sentence "sonst wird dich der Jäger holen mit DER Schießgewehr". So not only the wrong gender, but also the wrong case (shudder)! On some of the other recordings, I also consistently say "er gang" instead of "er ging". :)


@Katherle: I'd pretend I meant the gender of 'Schießgewehr' to be feminine, then the case is right ;-)


Completely off-topic, but I just stumbled upon Lucy Crane's translation of 'Der Wolf und die sieben Geißlein': http://www.archive.org/stream/householdstories00grimrich#page/40/mode/2up Notice anything wrong here? ;-) I wonder whether this - quite famous - translation is still used today...


@wataya: ROFL, I suppose that can only happen if the original text isn't illustrated. :) About the "Schießgewehr" thing - actually, I think you might be on to something there. Maybe I assumed it was feminine. I never thought about it that way.


@Katherle: Yes. I guess, Lucy Crane's translation of the book partly has become so famous because of the beautiful illustrations by - I think - her brother Walter Crane.


"The" doesn't have genders in English (as far as I know), but children in English speaking cultures make plenty of mistakes with cases and forms of verbs, as they learn to talk.

I was wondering about subtle nuances of meaning that could be communicated by playing with these genders and forms in German, that a non-native speaker would miss.

I'm sure you know, Katherle, that there is technology available to get cassette recordings converted into MP3 files. So perhaps one day we'll be able to hear your little song :-)

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