German Nouns

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German Nouns

First of all, in case you are wondering ‘What is a noun?’ Quite simply, a noun is the name of a place, person, animal, idea or thing. For example, the ‘house’, a ‘cow’, the ‘garden’, a ‘table’. As you see, nouns normally appear after such words as ‘the’ and ‘a’. Unlike in English, all nouns in German have a gender – yep, just like you and I! That is, German nouns are either masculine, feminine or – and this may be a new word for you – neuter. Neuter nouns are generally – but not exclusively – related to inanimate objects (i.e. neither female nor male). This concept of nouns having genders is not actually too difficult to understand. It does, however, sound odd to our English ears as there is hardly any notion of this anymore in modern English. You will not be able to avoid this ‘gender’ issue if you are serious about learning German, so, my tip, get used to learning nouns together with their ‘definite articles’ – the equivalent of ‘the’ in English – straight away. Why? Because the ‘definite article’ will indicate the noun’s gender. And, yes, you might have already guessed it, this means there is more than one word for ‘the’ in German. German Language Classses Here are the German ‘definite articles’ – the different ways to say ‘the’ in German – in the ‘nominative case’ with some noun examples: (You will find a link to German cases at the end of this lesson, but don’t worry too much about ‘cases’ at the moment particularly if you are a complete beginner.) 1.) Masculine German nouns take the definite article: ‘der’. For example, der Tisch (the table) 2.) Feminine German nouns take the definite article: ‘die’. For example, die Musik (the music) 3.) Neuter German nouns take the definite article: ‘das’.  For example, das Kind (the child) Therefore, do not just learn the word for ‘table’ (Tisch) in German, learn its ‘definite article’ as well, for example ‘the table’ (der Tisch). Need some more examples? Listed below you will find a sample of German nouns listed according to gender. Make sure you learn these useful German nouns together with their respective ‘definite article’.
Masculine Nouns Feminine Nouns Neuter Nouns
der Tag (day) die Zeit (time) das Wasser (water)
der Mensch (person) die Liebe (love) das Kind (child)
der Stadtplan (map) die Welt (world) das Buch (book)
der Computer (computer) die Bank (bank) das Jahr (year)
der Geruch (smell) die Regierung (government) das Leben (life)
der Anzug (suit) die Musik (music) das Geld (money)
der Berg (mountain) die Sonne (sun) das Tier (animal)
der Wind (wind) die Stadt (city) das Land (country)
der Stoff (material) die Zahl (number) das Handy (mobile phone)
der Mann (man) die Frau (woman) das Unternehmen (company)
Gender Guidelines You will be glad to hear there are some guidelines as to which gender a noun will take. But never forget there are always exceptions to the rules, particularly when it comes to the gender of a German noun! German German German German nouns are likely to be… 1.) …masculine and take ‘der’ if:- – referring to male human beings and the male of an animal species.* – referring to the days of the week, months, seasons as well as directions. – the noun ends with ‘ling’. 2.) …feminine and take ‘die’ if:- – the noun ends with any of the following: ‘ei’, ‘heit’, ‘keit’, ‘ung’, ‘schaft’. For example: die Freundschaft – friendship. – the noun denotes a female being – and sometimes female animal. For example: die Frau – the woman.* 3.) …neuter and take ‘das’ if:- – the noun ends in ‘chen’, ‘lein’, ‘icht’, ‘tum’, ‘ett’, ‘ium’, ‘ment’.   – referring to the names of towns, cities, countries as well as continents. *Be aware: Many German nouns are classified, however, as being masculine, feminine or neuter even though they are not referring to males, females or inanimate objects. For example: das Mädchen. This means girl in German and takes ‘neuter’, but a girl is clearly a female being. Slightly confusing, I know! Plural This lesson so far has focused on nouns and their respective definite articles in the singular form (i.e. one unit: the house), rather than the plural form (i.e. several units: the houses). The ‘definite article’ for all plural nouns in German is ‘die’. In English, it is of course still ‘the’. Easy to remember, huh? In English, the noun itself becomes plural in the majority of cases by adding an ‘s’ at the end (houses for example). In German, however, here is where it gets a little more complicated. While a few plural nouns will end in ‘s’ (e.g. die Hotels), the majority form plurals in a variety of different ways. The only way to be sure of the noun in the plural is to check in a dictionary. (By the way, a really great free online English-German dictionary is Over time you will remember the plural forms and just start to get a feeling for them. But if you are curious as to some of these patterns and you feel ready to digest more information, I have listed a few just below (if you’re not ready, jump straight to ‘Wrap-up’ below): Masculine nouns: Nouns ending in ‘en’, ‘el or ‘er’ may not have an ending at all. Therefore, the word will remain exactly the same. You will only be ableto tell the noun is referring to several teachers for example, rather than one, purely by the plural definite article: der Lehrer (singular), die Lehrer (plural). Speak German Other masculine nouns may add an ‘umlaut’ to the vowel in the word. For example: der Mantel, die Mäntel (the coat, the coats) and others will have an additional ‘e’ or umlaut plus an ‘e’. For example: der Weg, die Wege (the path, the paths) and der Busbahnhof, die Busbahnhöfe (the bus station, the bus stations). Feminine nouns: The majority of feminine plural nouns will end in ‘(e)n’. For example, die Rose, die Rosen (the rose, the roses) and die Zahl, die Zahlen (the number, the numbers). Nouns ending in ‘in’ will have an added ‘nen’ in the plural. For example: die Lehrerin, die Lehrerinnen (the teacher, the teachers – female). Neuter nouns: Nouns ending in ‘lein’ or ‘chen’ do not change. Once again, only the definite article will indicate if the noun is referring to several girls for example, or just one girl: das Mädchen (singular), die Mädchen (plural).

Some Rules of Noun Formation

Nouns that describe an occupation or a type of person are usually masculine. Many of them are formed by attaching an er ending to a verb or noun. These er nouns have no change in the plural:
die Musik music der Musiker (male) musician die Musiker multiple (male) musicians
lehren to teach der Lehrer (male) teacher die Lehrer multiple (male) teachers
Even the ones that don’t fit the er pattern tend to be masculine. But their plural forms can vary:
der Arzt (male) doctor die Ärzte multiple (male) doctors
der Matrose sailor die Matrosen multiple (male) sailors
The feminine version is formed by adding an in, and it always has the same plural. With the non-“er” forms, they often add an umlaut:
die Musikerin female musician die Musikerinnen multiple female musicians
die Lehrerin female teacher die Lehrerinnen multiple female teachers
die Ärztin female doctor die Ärztinnen multiple female doctors
die Matrosin female sailor die Matrosinnen multiple female sailors
Like many other languages, German is struggling a little to create modern gender-neutral noun forms; a construction like “Lehrer/in” is a common approach, but it doesn’t always work: you can’t say “Arzt/in,” because you’d be leaving out the umlaut on the feminine form. Sometimes you’ll also see the present participle, Lehrende: “[those who are] teaching.” Another particular problem in German is that there’s no single form for a mixed-gender group: for example, speeches in East Germany often began with the awkward Liebe Genossen und Genossinnen (“Dear male comrades and female comrades”). There are many other standard noun formations, but for now we’ll just cover two of the most common. The first is the ung ending, which converts a verb to a noun. These nouns are always feminine, they all have the same en plural, and they include some of the most common words in German:
wohnen to live die Wohnung home, apartment/flat die Wohnungen homes, apartments
zahlen to pay die Zahlung payment die Zahlungen payments
regieren to rule, govern die Regierung government die Regierungen governments
impfen to vaccinate die Impfung vaccination die Impfungen vaccinations
This looks like the English “ing” ending, but as you can see above, it rarely translates that way. And in the other direction, “-ing” verb forms in English (walking, talking) generally do not translate to “ung” nouns in German. Finally, there are the endings heit and keit, which convert an adjective into a noun and roughly correspond to the English “ness.” As with ung, these endings always make the noun feminine and always take an en plural:
krank sick, ill die Krankheit sickness, illness die Krankheiten illnesses
möglich possible die Möglichkeit possibility die Möglichkeiten possibilities
schwierig difficult die Schwierigkeit difficulty die Schwierigkeiten difficulties

Diminutive Endings

Diminutive noun endings in German are used for a smaller version of something, or just to communicate cuteness, informality or affection. We don’t have many diminutive endings in English, and the ones we do have are usually just a matter of size, without the other connotations: for example, let as in “piglet” or “booklet.” There are many different diminutive endings in regional German dialects, some of which you’ve already heard — like the li in muesli cereal or the el in Hansel & Gretel. But there are only two in standard German: chen and lein. You need to remember three main things about chen and lein:
  • they always make the noun neuter;
  • they never change in the plural; and
  • they usually add an umlaut to the base word when they can
Here are a few examples:
der Tisch table das Tischlein small table die Tischleinsmall tables
die Mausmouse das Mäuschen (cute) little mouse die Mäuschen(cute) little mice
das Brot bread das Brötchen bread roll die Brötchenbread rolls
There are a few common diminutives in German where the base word has fallen out of use, but they still follow the above rules. Two examples are das Märchen (fairy tale, “little story”) anddas Mädchen (girl, “little maid”). It’s possible to take things too far: even some native speakers find expressions like Hallöchen (for Hallo) or Alles Klärchen (for Alles Klar, “understood”) to be overly cute or ditzy. Some nouns can take either chen or lein, but for others, one is more standard than the other. There’s no clear rule for this, but you shouldn’t be making up your own diminutives anyway. It’s more a matter of recognizing them when you see or hear them.

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