The article – a neverending story

Posted on: 2. September 2009

I am a German native speaker, which means German articles (as in „Das Mädchen“) don’t faze me – it rarely happens that I forget what article goes with which word. However, every person that tries to learn German will tell you one thing – the way articles are defined (or defy definition) in German is very hard to learn!

Let me back up a bit – an article that denominates a, well, noun, is an article – this is extremely basic, and you all have seen and used articles. In English, you have articles that are genderless – the and a. In German, the three genders all have their own articles (der, die, das for male, female and neutral respectively) – I’m not even going plural here, because then you’d have double that amount.

Now, if German were to simply follow grammatical logic, you’d think that a „die“ article is linked to a ‚female‘ noun. For instance – „the girl.“ should be, following that logic, be translated into „Die Mädchen.“, because a girl is inherently female.

But that’s not how German works. Most of the time that logic applies, but there are alot of examples where it completely fails you, and then you will look like an utter fool for saying „die Mädchen“. Now, some exceptions to rules have their own little rules so you can remember when there’s an exception. However, there isn’t one with this exception – every article relates to some shift in usage in the past, which might explain a few of the oddities in article usage, but it is impossible to collect a comprehensive list of every German noun and why the specific article is used for it – most of it doesn’t follow logic, since language itself doesn’t necessarily follows logic – we try to systemize it so we can learn it easier, but languages are not planned out and created like that – oddities happen.


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1 Response to "The article – a neverending story"

Great little article! I must admit that having learned Russian at school, and gotten used to the idea that the gender of a word is generally dictated by its ending (they have no articles), German struck me as rather haphazard. Every time I figured out a vague kind of rule for myself, I almost instantly found another word which contradicted it.

That’s not to say there aren’t any rules, of course, nor that in principle the rules originally made more than just grammatical sense. I can imagine, for example, that the idea that every diminutive being of neutral gender arose because in the biological world, the small and young are less likely to be differentiated on the basis of gender. Baby animals (as much as baby humans?) are more likely to be referred to simply as young animals, rather than young male/female animals, which might go some way to explaining why words with -chen, -ling, -le etc. are all ‚das‘.

Whether one considers it unfortunate or not, languages evolve, and rules that had their origins in a seemingly regular source soon develop irregularities as they meander through time. As you pointed out, we foreigners have a tendency of making ourselves look foolish when we refer mistakenly to ‚die Mädchen‘, a perfect example of how those deep-seated grammatical rules in our brains can overrule logic.

I once read about a brilliant example of how such once logical rules of grammar can be corrupted and twisted over time. The exact details failed me, but it was about an aboriginal Australian language which featured genders including ‚edible‘ and ‚inedible‘ (how many genders there were in total I’m not sure). Presumably since there was little contact with the outside world, and scant trade or technological change, the language remained fairly static and the ‚laws‘ of edible/inedible objects were still correct by the time European explorers arrived. With their influence, new objects and items entered the societies of those speaking this language, in particular the idea of using canoes and boats, of course made out of wood. As the trees sourced for the wood had presumably been used as a food source by the peoples speaking this language, the ‚edible‘ gender was thus taken for their words for boat, canoe, and indeed other modes of transport in general. The little anecdote I read ended there, suffice to say, it provides a wonderfully clear example of how logical, grammatical constructions can lose their original sense over time, whilst remaining regular rules in lingual terms.

Just a quick question for you, but I’ve often wondered about to what extent articles differ from region to region. There are a few examples I’ve come across, such as arguments over der/das Joghurt, der/die/das Butter, der/die/das Sieb etc. but it’s difficult for me as an English speaker to imagine how striking these differences are. Could you for example place where someone was from just based on the articles they used, disregarding any accent?

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