Keep your arms inside the car

Last night I was at my first Irish set dance event in Hamburg (yes, those lower legs are a bit achey today) and was intrigued but not completely surprised to find that the dances were called using the English names for the moves – House, Ladies’ Chain, Advance-Retire, etc. Proper names are for the most part quite arbitrary and translating them may create more problems that it solves, however, as German nouns require a gender or genus (das Geschlecht namely männlich, weiblich and sächlich otherwise known as “masculine,” “feminine” and “neuter”), some conversion is inevitable. Unfortunately in trying to keep up with dances I haven’t done in over a year, I didn’t collect any examples of gender assignment. Therefore, here are some examples from my good friend of the (informal) principles by which a genus is conferred.

Principle 1
When the source language has grammatical genders that map onto German, use them.
der Boulevard French “le boulevard”
die Allee French “une allée”
der Pueblo Spanish “el pueblo”
der Cappuccino Italian “il cappuccino”

Principle 2
Use the gender of a German word with the same ending because endings are a clue to the genus (e.g., –er goes with der, –ung goes with die and –chen goes with das).
die Garage like die Blamagedie Passage (contrast French “le garage”)
die Zigarre like die Gitarre an many more in –e (contrast French “le cigare”)
das Duett like das Tablettdas Amulett (contrast Italian “il duetto”)
der Computer like all nouns derived from verbs that end in –er : der Arbeiterder Rechner (no contrast as English has no genders)

Principle 3
Translate the word and then use the genus of its German equivalent.
der Star via der Stern
das Training
via das Trainieren (likewise das Coaching and other English “-ing” words)
der Trafalgar Square via der Platz

Principle 4
Use the genus of other foreign words from the same semantic field, assuming that there is some commonality among the members of this group.
das Marihuana like das Heroindas Kokain and das Gras

These principles sound good in principle, however, what’s one to do when several of them clash?! For example, how should we award a genus to “grappa” when it comes from a feminine Italian noun but other foreign and native members of this family already take the masculine? This is how we come to find both die Grappa, gendered like the Italian “la grappa,” and der Grappa, gendered like der Whiskyder Cognac and der Schnaps.

Finally, in keeping with the general flexibility needed to cope with a new language, there are occasionally different options in German for expressing the same foreign concept and these do not necessarily have the same genus. Because this blog often focuses on the ups and downs of the language learner, I’m delighted to report that one pair is DER Rollercoaster (on  the basis of Principle 2, see the last entry above) and DIE Achterbahn (on the basis of Principle 3 above), and furthermore, the equivalent of the figurative use of “roller coaster” is DAS [ständigesAuf und Ab, giving us that third genus!


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