Tag Archives: lock

Double trouble

Riegel, Regal and Regel. “Lock,” “Shelf” and “Rule.”

Riegel, Regale and Regeln. “Locks,” “Shelves” and “Rules.”

Three words, three ways of forming the plural. Sadly, this is three of eleven ways of forming the plural (many books give only five, some give eight, and a few of them count foreign words which have a variety of plural forms). Luckily, given these many options, the definite article for all plurals is die. Equally luckily, while all the forms below are possible, the most common forms are (1) for masculine and neuter nouns to form their plurals with “e” or nothing (and nothing is likely when there is a non-final “e” in the final syllable, e.g., “el”) and (2) for masculine nouns that end in “e” to form their plurals with “n” (3) for feminine nouns to form their plurals with “en” or just an “n” if the final syllable contains a non-final “e.” However, since you will meet all eleven of them in your early experiences in learning German, here they are in all their glory!

Option 1: Do nothing
This is what happens with der Riegel, it becomes die Riegel. Recall that is one of the popular forms.

Option 2: Add an umlaut, but no ending
This is what happens with der Apfel (“the apple”), it becomes die Äpfel.

Option 3:  Add an “e”
This is what happens with das Regal, it becomes die Regale. This is another one of the popular forms.

Option 4: Add an umlaut and an “e”
This is what happens with der Baum (“the tree”), it becomes die Bäume.

Option 5: Add an “n”
This is what happens with die Regel, it becomes die Regeln. This is yet another popular option.

Option 6: Add an “en”
This is what happens with die Frau (“the woman”), it becomes die Frauen. Again quite popular, some consider this equivalent to Option 5.

Option 7: Add an “nen”
This is what happens with die Lehrerin (“the female teacher”), it becomes die Lehrerinnen.

Option 8: Add an “er”
This is what happens with das Kind (“the child”), it becomes die Kinder.

Option 9: Add an “er” and an umlaut
This is what happens with das Fahrrad (“the bike”), it becomes die Fahrräder.

Option 10: Add an “s”
This what happens with das Auto (“the car”), it becomes die Autos.

Option 11: Add an “se”
This is what happens with das Erlebnis (“the experience”), it becomes die Erlebnisse.

Possibly we could make an Option 12 for the renegades, most of which brought their style of plural formation with them when they came into German, for example: das Museum (“the museum”) and die Museen and das Lexikon (“the encyclopedia”) and die Lexika.

Not all foreign words have such distinctive plurals. Many use “s” and in some cases this can be downright confusing for the English speaker: das Baby becomes die Babys, das Party becomes die Partys  and our friend das Handy becomes die Handys, all of which violate the rules of English plural formation. We have “parties” for “babies” and snap photos with “handies” (if we had happened to use this word for “mobile/cellular phones” – see Does That Ring a Bell?).

In addition, the learner can run aground on words where there is a mismatch between German and English in terms of whether there is a plural. For example, in English when we use the word “information” without the definite article “the,” we have to qualify with a quantity term like “some” or “a piece” rather than saying “*an information.” And whatever quantity it comes in, unlike German which has die Informationen, it is never “*informations.”  Similarly, we don’t say “*a furniture” – ein Möbel – or “*the furnitures” – die Möbel.

Hopefully you now have a sense how having to always memorize a noun’s singular and plural forms can lead to informations overload!

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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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