Posted By on August 4, 2008


.: Last spring I decided to complete my second semester of German in summer school. That decision was the culmination of two unrelated mistakes, and they are these: 1) waiting until my senior to finish my language requirements and 2) choosing German to fulfill my language requirements.

.: I rationalized my second decision by noting my previous experience with German in high school (two years with nothing grasped but “ich bin, du bist, er/sie/es ist, wir sind, ihr seid, Sie sind”) and remarking, “German is the second most popular language in the technical literature!” While it may be true that German follows English in terms of prevalence in journals, I should also note that after English the drop off approaches near-negligible numbers.

.: Now I am two semesters in, and I will have to take two more consecutive semesters if I wish to graduate. Speaking as someone whose local grocer sells goods with nutrition labels printed in both English and Spanish, I’ve made a foolish decision. I speak additionally as someone whose good friend and two roommates for the previous two years have all spoken Spanish since their childhoods.

.: Since starting my first German class in college, I’ve consulted Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language at least three times. I share many of his grievances with the language, but I wish to expand upon a specific complaint: grammatical gender.

.: Grammatical gender is a worthless, capricious, pointless, pain-in-the-ass idea that ought to have been cruelly mocked and banished long ago. There is no sense to it, for it serves not to clarify intent but only to confuse the initiate. Here’s what Twain had to say about it:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

.: The trouble this causes students of German becomes apparent when they begin to learn the four German cases. To explain why this is, we must take a somewhat lengthy digression to explain what I mean by the four German cases.

.: Take the definite article “the”; in the nominative case it is der, as in, “Der Hund beißt mich.” “The dog bites me.” In this case, der refers to the subject, the dog. If I want the dog to be the object that receives the action of the verb, I would refer to it with the accusative article, den: “Ich beiße den Hund.” “I bite the dog.” Simple enough?

.: If, however, I want to do something for the dog but not directly to it, I’d employ the dative form, dem: “Ich erteile dem Hund den Knochen.” “I give the dog the bone.” And if I want to perform an action on something that belongs to the dog, I’d use the genitive form, des: “Ich nehme den Knochen des Hund.” “I take the bone of the dog.”

.: Theoretically, this system has its advantages over English. Whereas we suffice with an all-purpose “the”, having these distinctions allows for greater flexibility in word order. You understand me perfectly when I say, “I give the dog the bone,” but you’d likely scratch your head if I say, “I give the bone the dog.” That kind of ambiguity disappears in German.’s German page explains it thusly:

Der Hund beißt den Mann. The dog bites the man.
Den Mann beißt der Hund. The dog bites the man.

Since English does not have the same case markers (der/den), it must depend on word order. If you say “Man bites dog” in English, rather than “Dog bites man,” you change the meaning. In German the word order can be changed for emphasis (as above)—without altering the basic meaning.

.: And yet, any usefulness this arrangement might effect is utterly undermined by the use of gender. For while those examples above were rather straightforward, they apply only to the masculine form of the definite article. There are still the feminine, neuter, and plural forms to contend with.

.: Die, for example, is both the nominative and accusative form of the feminine definite article. This gives us sentences like, “Die Katze beißt die Frau.” “The cat bites the woman.” All of a sudden word order is important again, despite the language possessing tools which obviate it. (The same lack of change applies in the nominative and accusative cases for neuter, which uses das, and plural, which can’t afford its own definite article and has to borrow die.)

.: To further confuse matters, dem is both the masculine and neuter dative form, while der fills in for the feminine dative form in addition to its duties as the masculine nominative form. (Der also operates as the feminine and plural genitive forms, but it doesn’t bother with plural dative — that role is filled by den, which was previously the masculine accusative form.)

.: So, instead of having nicely delineated parts of speech which are instantly recognizable regardless of position or order, we’re left with an ambiguous mess with no logical method of deciphering meaning. You cannot, for instance, look at an sentence full of unfamiliar words and glean a basic understanding; instead, you have to know the gender of every noun before you can begin to comprehend who’s doing what to whom. And as I already mentioned before, there is no method to gender-affiliation. A noun is what it is by custom and custom alone.

.: There are some rules of thumb. A –chen ending, for instance, always signifies a neuter noun. But this leads to absurdities like das Mädchen, or “the girl” — something which is most assuredly feminine in nature (outside of the Guevedoces).

.: Grammatical gender is, to me, the most significant hindrance to learning German. Very little makes sense until you memorize (by rote) a good portion of the language’s vocabulary. I cannot tell you how often I’ve run across an unfamiliar German word in a sentence and correctly guessed its meaning only to have to consult a dictionary anyway to look up its gender. For there can be no guessing when it comes to gender, only frustration — which is quickly replaced by relief once class ends and antecedents with no proper gender can once again be referenced by the all-purposeful “it”.

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3 Responses to “German”

  1. Steve says:

    Deutschland über alles! Niemals vergessen!

  2. jac says:

    hey mate,

    my girlfriend is currently learning german in germany with me (i happen to be german) struggling to explain the accusative, dative, etc. to hear in a concise way.

    cheers for that.

    and always remember: it could be worse, latin has 5 cases, finnish 7, i think, serbian more and others countless more. so, after all, we’re not that bad.

  3. Zeno says:

    I took German for fun at the college where I teach, but the instructor was a right Nazi. It was fortunate that nothing depended on the outcome of the course. Besides, my only use for German is in listening to operas by Wagner or Strauss.

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