Foreign Service Institute German Basic Course

Unit 1: Part 2


Notes on Grammar (not recorded)
(For Home Study)

A. The German Noun-Classification ('Gender') System.

I. The three classes of nouns.
Der Wein ist nicht gut. The wine isn't good.
Das Bier ist gut. The beer is good.
Die Milch ist auch gut. The milk is good too.

1. German has three words for 'the': der, das and die; and German nouns can be divided into three classes according to which of the three words for 'the' they go with. Wein goes only with der, never with das, never with die. Bier goes only with das, and so on.

2. We will refer to these three classes of nouns, for obvious reasons, as der-nouns, das-nouns and die-nouns. ('Wein is a der-noun.' 'Hotel is a das-noun.')

3. The traditional statement about this phenomenon is: 'German nouns have three genders--masculine, feminine, and neuter.' We will not use this terminology because it tends to mislead English-speaking students by suggesting that the German noun classification has something to do with sex differentiation. It doesn't. See paragraph III.

4. Insofar as the basic stock of German nouns is concerned (nouns like house, grass, sky, wine, beer, milk), there is absolutely no sense or rationale to the classification system; there is no way at all of anticipating which class any given noun belongs to. You must simply learn the word for 'the' as a part of the noun: the German word for "wine" is der Wein. And you must practice saying der Wein often enough so that das Wein or die Wein sounds as wrong to you as "The father of his country - Henry Washington."

5. Now, Henry Washington is a perfectly good name; but it's wrong, and every American knows it's wrong. By the same token, das Wein is a perfectly good form; but it's wrong, and every German knows it's wrong. In time, you will too.

6. With derivative nouns (that is, nouns made from other words, like our happi-ness, brother-hood) your problem is easier. The classification of German derivative nouns is fairly orderly and consistent. Nouns ending in -ung, for example, are always die-nouns: die Verzeihung 'the forgiveness, the pardon.' And nouns ending with the diminutive suffixes -lein and -chen are always das-nouns: das Fräulein 'the miss, waitress,' das Mädchen 'the little girl.’ We will deal with the formation of the various kinds of derivative nouns as we go along through the units.

7. But if the classification of derivative nouns is orderly and consistent, the classification of the basic stock of German nouns remains virtually chaotic. There really is no system at all for guessing which class a noun belongs to; it's not something you can reason out or get the knack of. It is not the same as our he-she-it system, as we'll see in a minute. There is absolutely nothing in English like it. Your only solution is to use the nouns until you know them as well as you know 'George Washington.'

II. Pronouns Corresponding to the Three Classes of Nouns.

Wo ist der Bahnhof? Er ist dort. Where is the station? It's there.
Wo ist das Hotel? Es ist dort. Where is the hotel? It's there.
Wo ist die Botschaft? Sie ist dort. Where is the embassy? It's there.

1. As these examples show, there is a special pronoun for each of the three classes of nouns. Notice the correspondence in the final sounds of the pairs der-er, das-es, and die—sie. This is no coincidence.

III. Contrast between German and English Pronoun Usage.

Wo ist der Bahnhof? Er ist dort. Where’s the station? It's there.
Wo ist der Mann? Er ist dort. Where's the man? It's there.

Wo ist das Hotel? Es ist dort. Where's the hotel? It's there.
Wo ist das Kind ? Es ist dort. Where's the child? It‘s there. or She's there.

Wo ist die Botschaft? Sie ist dort. Where's the embassy? It's there.
Wo ist die Frau? Sie ist dort. Where's the woman? She's there.

1. These examples show that the German pronouns er, sie, and es do not match up with the English pronouns 'he‘, 'she', and 'it'. The English he-she-it system has an entirely different foundation from the German noun-classification ('gender') system. In the English system, the choice of pronoun depends upon the sex (male, female, or sexless) of some non-linguistic entity--a man ('he'), a woman ('she'), or a table ('it'). In the German system, on the other hand, the choice of pronoun depends upon the linguistic classification of the noun you are replacing, except in reference to human beings.

IV. Pronouns Referring to People.

Wo ist das Fräulein? Where is the waitress?
Sie ist dort. She's there.

1. Since all German nouns referring to men are der-nouns and virtually all German nouns referring to women are die-nouns, er and sie correspond to 'he' and 'she‘ -- when they refer to human beings. Consequently, one says sie when referring to das Fräulein, who is, after all, die junge Dame 'the young lady', die Tochter 'the daughter', die Schwester 'the sister', and so on, as well as das Fraulein.

V. No classification in the Plural.

Wo sind die Bahnhöfe? Sie sind hier. Where are the stations? They're here.
Wo sind die Hotels? Sie sind hier. Where are the hotels? They're here.
Wo sind die Frauen? Sie sind hier. Where are the women? They're here.

1. As these examples show, the three-fold classification we've been discussing applies only to nouns in the singular. In the plural, there is only one word for 'the', and only one pronoun.

B. The Pointing-Word das

Das ist der Bahnhof, nicht wahr? This is the station, isn't it?
Ja, das ist er. Yes, that's it.

Ist das die Milch? Is that the milk?
Das ist Wasser. This is water.

Sind das die Streichhölzer? Are these the matches?
Das sind die Zigarren. Those are the cigars.

1. The pointing-word das (often accompanied by a pointing gesture) is used to call any object or group of objects to the hearer's attention, without any reference to noun classification or to the number of objects.

2. The pointing-word das is an entirely different entity from the das of das Hotel. The English equivalents of the pointing-word das are 'this‘, 'that', 'these', and 'those'.


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