Learning German: Sexist Gender Articles

In an inspired burst, I signed up for a seminar this weekend on German articles. Because there’s no better way to spend a sunny November Saturday than by trying to discern the centuries-old logic that categorized German words into masculine, feminine, and neutral.

It’s appropriate timing for the course, I suppose, seeing as Germany just added the option to check “intersex” on birth certificates, so gender’s all over the news. And after eight years here, I may very well soon need to validate my love for the country by testing my linguistic abilities. It was one of my goals for the year — to stop speaking toddler German and start speaking like a real, live Deutscher, and one of the reasons I sound like a two-year-old is because I say Das Tisch instead of Der Tisch (who knew a table could be masculine? I certainly didn’t).

Because I learned German in a roundabout way, I missed the first, very important vocabulary-building lessons and have acquired all my nouns haphazardly, so I was really hoping this weekend would be a great way to gain that knowledge back. You know, learn tricks like “when it ends in -e, it’s likely going to be die”, i.e., die Lampe. And I did learn that. The teacher was very nice and passed around photocopies from a Duden grammar book and we learned all the endings that have definite rules about gender.

And then he said, “But that’s only like 10 percent of German nouns. The rest you just have to try and figure out on your own. I suggest pasting notecards up around the house.”

Oh fuck that noise. Taping postcards up in my house? What am I, a teenager?

I’ll admit, I’m a horrible student. Most teachers are. I very nearly got up and walked out after that first 15 minute introduction. But I held my breath and made a mental note to oversleep for class on Sunday (I did and skipped five of the seminar’s eight hours, and getting a blessedly long night of rest).

Needless to say, I didn’t learn much, but I did gain some insight into German ways of thinking. Because, as the teacher explained, assigning gender to an object comes from the centuries-old conception of what’s masculine and what’s feminine. That’s why, he says, the sun is feminine in German. “Here in the north, we welcome the sun because it makes us warm. In Spain, though, where the sun can be deadly with its heat, it’s masculine.” Um, ok? So anything not cuddly or sweet is masculine?

By this logic, he explained, people refer to cats consistently in the feminine form. Back in the day, he said, cats were domestic and useful, just like women. That’s also why dogs are referred to in their masculine form: because they’re volatile and aggressive, just like men.

Right.

That’s why schnapps and whiskey and vodka and everything is masculine? But what about beer? Why is beer neutral? Because it’s neither deadly nor cuddly?

Fuck this language and its nonsense. Imma gonna keep talking like a toddler, slurring my way past the articles. Because it’s just too much to think, “Hmmm, would a 16th century sexist think this chair is sturdy like a woman or since it can hold a lot of weight more like a man,” every damn time I open my mouth.

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5 thoughts on “Learning German: Sexist Gender Articles

  1. Riayn November 10, 2013 / 10:32 pm

    I have to admit that none of my teachers never told me this sexist crap to explain why some words are male and others are female or neuter. Thank god for that.
    I have to thank my teachers for telling us that the word has the gender, not the object.

  2. Christian (@interchris) November 11, 2013 / 5:46 pm

    Yeah, don’t listen to this sexist explanation. There just is NO explanation to it. Just like with most linguistic things. You cannot explain most things because they just are! Example: English spelling.

    Learning a language (or not learning it) shows how much you can and want to empathise with its speakers.

    • Milly November 18, 2013 / 12:02 am

      Oh I know. The guy was just so ridiculous it was laughable. I know I have to just learn this all rote… which means I won’t.

  3. cliff1976 November 12, 2013 / 5:36 pm

    Ugh to the teacher’s explanations. I like what Riayn said about the word having the gender, not the object.

    I lean a lot on those “-e” → die, “-er” → der rules, but have gradually come to mistrust them, particularly for words like “Leiter” (the male head of a department, or feminine-gendered household device for reaching the lightbulbs on the ceiling) and “Fenster.” Another such rule which has led me astray: “-nis,” as in das Erlebnis, das Verhältnis, das Ereignis, das Verzeichnis. I thought it was consistently neuter until I learned the phrase “zur Kenntnis nehmen.” And therein lies my crutch: I try to internalize not just the noun, not just its article, but the turns of prepositional phrases, because if they’re accusative in anyway or dative + feminine, you’ve got a ringer.

  4. Michael Schmitz (smarter german) December 19, 2015 / 12:52 am

    That teacher of yours was a lunatic. If your German was at C1 level you could enjoy this video which explains the creation and “meaning” or origin of genders http://www.belleslettres.eu/artikel/der-oder-das-blog_genus.php (just 84mins).
    Roughly: there is no or at least very little sex involved in the German language. And it’s PG and PC-free.

    Learning the article is a piece of cake by the way, just a lot of such pieces. So I hope you excuse that I do a bit of self-advertising here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TrUNyXfnf9Q.

    That teacher of yours should certainly switch sides with his students. He might be able to learn a thing or two from them.

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