Das Geschlecht – etymology by adriana psaltis

1 March 2015

I love German, but when I found out I that I may have to study and learn to speak the language on exchange this semester my brain went into “No, no, please no!” mode. I’m. Scared. Of. German. No, I’m terrified. Why? Well, being a linguistics student, I just can’t be satisfied learning a language without nailing every aspect of its grammar, and the systemless plight of German grammar haunts me therefore.

Like many of the world’s languages, German uses an odd and arbitrary grammatical function called ‘gender’. The gender category is meant to function as a way of categorising nouns.  However, because the concept of gender is so salient in society, language learners must continuously refer back to societal concepts of gender when learning these grammatical categories and their differences.

As a first language English speaker, deciding whether a table is more feminine or more masculine is difficult enough. However, German introduces a twist by throwing in a third gender category called ‘neuter’. Neuter is used to describe a word that is neither feminine nor masculine.

An example of a neuter word that relatively makes sense is das Baby, which means baby. I can reason with das Babyand give German points for labelling baby a neuter, because babies are without any fixed gender identity. However, most other examples just baffle me. Words such as the future, die Zukunft, and the past, die Vergangenheit, are both strictly feminine; yet das Fräulein, which means young lady, is just neuter. Another strange example is that der Rassismus, meaning racism, is masculine, but das Patriarchat, which means patriarchy, is not.

At the end of the day German, you’ve been fun so far. However, an innocent language-learner like me is still left feeling a little confused by you!

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