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Why are German Articles so Important?

I'm learning German right now, and genuinely enjoying it, but my curiosity has suddenly kicked in, and I would like to know, if any native German-speakers can answer: Why are the gender of articles so important. I mean, does it become difficult to understand what people are talking about if they use the wrong gender. To be clear, I'm really not criticizing anything. I'm just really intrigued, and probably overly analytical.

April 28, 2013



I'm not a native German speaker, but I'll try to answer.

The genders and cases are by no means absolutely necessary: English does quite well without genders of articles and without a complex system of cases. However, the presence of cases allows for more flexibility in the word order. You can't say in English "The apple eats the kid" instead of "The kid eats the apple" without changing the meaning, can you? But in German you can change the places of the subject and object: Das Kind isst den Apfel - Den Apfel isst das Kind, and if you use the cases correctly, you will be perfectly understood. Also, cases make it possible to use some indirect objects without prepositions: die Länder Europas - the countries of Europe.

There is no definite answer to your "why". That's the way languages are. German has 3 genders and 4 cases for the articles, French has 2 genders but no cases, Russian does not have articles at all (you see, articles are not absolutely necessary either) but has 3 genders and 6 cases for nouns and adjectives. No native speaker finds the cases difficult and in most situations you will be understood even if you use your nouns without articles and your verbs in the infinitive. But of course this will sound weird :-)


Wow. Thanks a lot. Your response makes sense. I think I have a pretty good grasp of the reason for cases, but your explanation was a nice refresher.


Olimo's response is very good. I could add the following from personal experience (non-native speaker living in Germany):

  • Getting the articles right is mostly important if you want to be able to write formal things. (I.e. some job and other opportunities may be easier to get if you don't put small errors black on white every other sentence.)
  • Otherwise I would say that it comes down to personal taste. In my four years in Germany I've only witnessed one misunderstanding due to case and that's with a lot of friends that don't give a crap about it. (I.e. the meaning will almost always be clear from the context.)
  • However, learning to get the grammar right did improve my confidence in German, and I do find it slightly embarrassing and sometimes annoying that my girlfriend who has lived here for seven years still makes a lot of errors.


My two cents being a native German speaker: I just read in some book about linguistics, English has "progressed" with double the speed over the course of the last 1000 years compared to German. All these difficulties learners of German find in our language are due to the fact that German still has many of the very old characteristics that seem to disappear over time. Listening to somebody who makes a lot of mistakes of course is a bit irritating because it takes ones attention off the subject. But then it also can be quite "nice" (and sometimes amusing of course) to listen to a tourist talk. Probably no difference to when I try to order stuff in a French restaurant. But all in all you will get what you want even with just using the neutral for all subjects and objects - people probably might correct you though - I hope you don't mind. :-)


Thanks! That makes sense, I think. It's not that I have a lot of trouble with the genders of things. I mess up sometimes, but generally I get them. I just suddenly became super curious after one mistake, so I decided I might as well ask. Your explanation is insightful and encouraging. :)


That makes sense. Thanks. :)

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