Tag Archives: das

“Tiny” words that get no bigger

Yesterday I was discussing how to form the plural of das Kaninchen – “rabbit.” This discussion began because this word, and a picture of a rabbit, appears on the cover of the Pixi book Unsere Tiere: Ein Bestimmungsbuch – Our Animals: A Field (Classification) Guide – and unfortunately for German learners, the cover is the only place where the definite article appears. (This seems a bit ironic given the book’s title includes a compound with die Bestimmung, a word from the same family as the adjective bestimmt, since the “definite article” is a bestimmter Artikel.) Bob joked that we would simply have to use the definite plural – die – all the time which got us wondering how the plural for –chen words was formed.

A quick check with dict.cc showed that several sample –chen words (that we’d been discussing on another day because of their pronunciations) – das Stäbchen and das Mädchen (“chopstick” and “girl”) – had null plurals. Immediately, a new hypothesis came to mind, perhaps both of the major diminutive forms –chen and –lein – have null plurals? I investigated this with das Buchlein and das Fräulein (“booklet” and “unmarried woman”) and it appeared to hold true. A quick search today led me to this page on the German for English Speakers site. It shared two facts that I already knew about the two big German diminutives (pun intended): they take das as a definite article and they often trigger an umlaut during conversion. It also confirmed the new idea that their singular and plural forms are identical.

I have to say I love a rule that tells you to do absolutely nothing to signal a grammatical change, such rules seem rather few and far between in German!

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Anniversary Week 10

The word das Erdbeben is a compound word, putting together the word “earth” – die Erde – and das Beben (from beben – “to quake,” “to shiver” or “to shake”) – “tremor,” “quake” or “shaking.” One of the lovely things about words which were originally verbs in the infinitive and have become nouns, is that all of them take das. For example, we have das Essen, das Kochen and das Spielen: “food,” “cooking” and “playing.” When you want to create a noun that describes the outcome of the action described by the verb, then you must add the ending –ung and as a result, this new noun always takes die, for example, die Entscheidung, die Leistung and die Hoffnung: “the decision,” the performance” and “the hope.”

Both of these sorts of conversions feel relatively comfortable and clear, however there are some more confusing verb-noun conversions. For example, there are two nouns formed from arbeiten “to work,” das Arbeiten, which fits one of the above patterns, and die Arbeit which does notDas Arbeiten means “pursuit” or “works.” Die Arbeit means “work,” “labor” or “job.”  Luckily, according to canoo.net, there are only 119 of these die words to keep the language learner busy, although perhaps this is still enough to take time away from our “work” on other “pursuits.”

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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 canoo.net 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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The Keys to The Kingdom

Just recently, I was listening to a German language CD and heard the word die Schüssel – “the bowl.” That’s the word that was said anyway, what I heard was der Schlüssel – “the key.” Keen observers will notice right away that like Dorothy and her ruby slippers, I had the key to unlocking this misunderstanding with me all along: “bowl” is a die word and “key” is a der word. But as David Bergmann so elegantly and succinctly captures in the title of his book about wrestling with the German tongue – Der, Die, Was? (or in his own English translation “Take Me to Your Umlauts”) – we don’t have grammatical genders in English (although see my thoughts on at least one occasion where we do have intuitions about gender) and thus this useful key to correct word recognition is one we fail to take advantage of all too often!

Those of you who know about some of my past experiences will know that the main impact I had on the world of experimental psychology was to show that the earlier you learn something, the easier that something is to retrieve from memory and in many cases the more likely you are to continue to be able to retrieve it following a stroke or other event that compromises your cognitive abilities. This suggests that the later you learn about grammatical gender, the slower you will be retrieve it. Thus, the downside of not having learned about grammatical gender early in life is that even when I do know a word’s gender (as I feel do with der Schlüssel), it is relatively hard to retrieve and thus it can be hard to make use of this information to help me understand what I am reading or hearing. The upside is that unlike a speaker of French, or many other languages, I don’t need to displace the le from chat when I learn die Katze – “the cat” – as I don’t have any competing gender designations to distract me. An additional implication of the earliest things being easiest to retrieve is that early learned words within a language can compete with each other. As I learned der Schlüssel quite a long time ago (when I was first learning German in 1989), it competes very effectively with die Schüssel which I only learned the other day. In the struggle to make any meaning from what I read and hear, the early learned words simply come into mind unbidden with a minimum amount of evidence to support their presence.

And don’t get me started on the competition that arises in my head between different meanings for the same word, for example das Schloss (“the palace” and “the lock”), or I may have to be locked away!

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Is it Mother Sun in your mother tongue?

We don’t have grammatical genders in English – we say “the” for all of our nouns (at least the countable ones) – but even where there is no obvious connection to gender, there are some words with gender-based associations .  For example, “the sun” and “the moon.”  Although we have the expression “the man in the moon,” I would suggest that the common association for the moon itself is with the feminine and for the sun it is the masculine. In learning German, though, one has to go against this and learn der Mond and die Sonne. Even worse, if you also know a bit of Spanish, Italian, Portugese or French, all of which do have grammatical genders, you have a further challenge as “moon” takes a feminine and “sun” a masculine pronoun in each of these languages! And in my limited understanding of Chinese symbolism, I believe that the moon is associated with the feminine/yin/dark and the sun is associated with the masculine/yang/light.

Indeed, there is enough interest in the gender associated with the moon and sun that when you type [sun masculine] into Google, one completion it provides is [moon feminine]. The story that resonated most with me was that the further north you went, the more the sun came to be associated with giving life by giving light and thus with the feminine through the connection with giving birth. Now since arbitrary things are hard to learn, and most of the relationships between German nouns and their grammatical genders are arbitrary (or even misleading, to give the famous examples of das Mädchen – “the girl” or “the maiden” – and das Fräulein -“young lady” or “miss” – where the nouns follow the rule that diminutives with –chen and –lein take das), having a somewhat meaning cue for sun and moon feels helpful.

Therefore while Die Sonne scheint still doesn’t sound quite right to me (and not just because it seems such a rare event here in Hamburg), some light has been shed!

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