In English, there is luckily only one definite article – the – and two indefinite articles – a, an – thanks to the fact that the language does not make use of grammatical genders. Whenever one talks of gender in the grammatical sense, it refers to English words with a natural origin – so man is a masculine word, woman is a feminine one, and table is neuter. This makes the entire system rather easy to be grasped.
In German, there is no such luck. Word genders fill a very different role in the language and much of it comes down to unnatural genders. The way you can determine the gender of a word in German comes down to which article it has – and you have the choice between three. Masculine, feminine, and neuter words in German all behave differently in language, meaning that taking the time to really learn how they work will benefit you long term.
Natural and Unnatural Gender
So, the biggest difference between words in English with their natural gender and German words with an unnatural, or grammatical, gender comes down to the origin of the distinction. In the first case, the gender of a word simply conveys an objective reality the word describes – a bull is masculine, a ewe is female, and a door is neither.
With languages that have words with unnatural, or grammatical, genders, this is not the case. Here, the genders of the words are simply used as a tool to group them together in certain categories – making it simply a class of noun. Now, there are different ways of assigning genders within these languages. Some, like French, only have two – masculine and feminine, some, like German, have three – adding the neuter, and some assign different genders based on whether the word is animate or inanimate.
How Is Gender in German Determined
Gendered languages use a variety of different methods to determine which particular words belongs to which gender. The easiest of those might be to let the natural gender determine the word. For people and professions, German always has two forms – der Politiker, die Politikerin, der Arzt, die Ärztin – which are the most obvious way to say which word belongs to which gender.
The other rules are, unfortunately, a lot more complicated and each also involves a number of exceptions, making the issue even more confusing. That is why we have dedicated an entire separate blog post to how to correctly determine the gender of a German word.
Gender and Cases
Unfortunately for beginners, genders play a rather important role in German grammar. Based on whether a particular noun is masculine, feminine, or neuter, the differences become more pronounced when cases come into play.
There are in total four different cases in German – Nominativ, Akkusativ, Dativ, and Genitiv – which demand different declensions. And this goes for both definite and indefinite articles.
To make matters worse, German also really like incorporating articles to a lot of its everyday use. While abstract concepts in English often lose their definite article, that does not happen in German. For example, in English, you are free to say Humanity is good but, in German, the word humanity would still require an article – Die Menschheit ist gut. So, knowing how to determine a word’s gender is an important task.
Luckily, learning which articles respond to the different cases can be an easier task than determining the article itself in the first place. Learning the cases is the simple process of memorising a few tables while determining the gender in the first place requires a lot more diligence.
Read our guide on how to start figuring out genders in German nouns here.