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Apple is Masculine, Butter is Feminine, and the American is Confused

I finally started working through Schaum’s German Grammar (Fourth Edition) on October 15th and completed Chapter 1 “The Sounds of German: A Key to German Pronunciation.” I remembered most of the alphabet pronunciation from the German classes I took in high school and recent attempts at refreshing my memory, and I recognized several of the words used as examples. Remembering how to pronounce those words made it easier to pronounce others.

As in English, the way letters are combined can affect pronunciation. The short ü in fünf (five) is pronounced differently than the long ü in kühl (cool). Several exercises provided practice on how words should be pronounced. Most of the exercises contained about 15 words with instructions to pick the 10 that fit a certain sound. I didn’t have to refer to the rules and charts as often as I had expected while completing the questions. On most questions, I either got everything right or only missed one. This was encouraging.

Apples are an all-American success story-each ...

Die Äpfel

The next day, I started Chapter 2 “Nouns and Articles.” Since it’s a 40 page chapter, I’ll only touch on the first third of it for now, which I worked through on October 17th and 18th. This first section covered the gender of nouns, which is something that English speakers don’t really have to worry about. It’s an adjustment to learn, and sometimes the gender of a noun in German seems pretty arbitrary. Why is apple (der Apfel) masculine while butter (die Butter) is feminine?

Fortunately, Schaum’s German Grammar gives a lot of guidelines to remember which gender applies in most cases. For example, most cities are neutral (das), most fruits are feminine (die), and most nouns ending in -el, -en, -er, -ig, -ich, -ling are masculine (der). Exceptions to the norms (which include der Apfel and die Butter) are provided. I don’t recall ever learning these tips in my prior German classes. We just learned words with their articles and hoped to remember them. So, it was great to learn there are rules that apply in most cases. Learning these guidelines should make it easier to remember the gender I need, or to guess when I don’t know.

The chapter also covered the formation of compound nouns, which differs in some cases from English. In English you might ask for “the red pencil,” and “red” is only an adjective modifying “pencil”. In German, adjectives can be used to form compound nouns, so “the red pencil” is der Rotstift rather than der rot Stift.

Jan van Eyck 059

Die Lesebrille

Some compound nouns can also be formed using verbs which is done by dropping the -n or -en at the end of the verb. For example lesen (reading) and die Brille (glasses) can combine to form die Lesebrille (reading glasses). One must also determine the gender of the compound noun when it’s made up from two nouns such as der Stahl (steel) and die Industrie (industry). In these cases, the last component determines the gender, so “steel industry” is die Stahlindustrie.

While I’m not very far into Schaum’s German Grammar, I am pleased with what I’m picking up so far and the way the book’s questions are set up. Most of the time, the answers are varied so one doesn’t get into a rut of writing the same answer without paying attention. Many words are repeated throughout the chapter in different ways, which helps them to stick. In cases where the same answer is required several times in a row, such as the questions immediately following a section of words that are always masculine or always feminine, the repetition is still helpful as long as one maintains focus rather than just filling in the answer without reading the full sentence.

The use of full German sentences is another thing Schaum’s German Grammar includes that makes things easier. I have picked up several words such as süße (sweet) and säure (sour) just from context clues in knowing words like der Honig (honey) and der Essig (vinegar). It also helps one to see how verbs function and change depending on the noun. Even as early as this chapter, some things came up that haven’t been covered yet such as the use of sein (to be). I knew when given Obst/sein/Frisch and being asked to form a sentence the answer is: “Das Obst ist frisch (The fruit is fresh).”

Market Fresh Fruit

Das Obst ist frisch.

When the sentence already used ist (is) and I had to change the noun to a plural, I had forgotten about changing ist (is) to sind (are) until I started to check the answers and noticed the change. I also forgot about changing the ends of verbs with plurals until I checked the answers. For example, the sentence “Der Schüler lernt (the student learns),” needed to be changed to “Die Schüler lernen (The students learn).” Anyone taking a German class may have already covered these changes. Being several years out of practice myself, they were momentarily jarring. However, being reminded of the verb tenses and plural forms is starting to bring them back.

For me, learning the gender of nouns is one of the harder parts of learning certain languages. What is the hardest part for you?

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10 Thoughts on “Apple is Masculine, Butter is Feminine, and the American is Confused

  1. Hello there.
    Are you using just books to learn german langauge? or you are attending language class?
    Me I am also depending in my books 🙂 hoping to learn faster,I wanted to go to class this Nov.but still I am not sure about it. 🙂 confident in speaking different language is so hard. 🙁 I tried many times to start up and I hope I will get better. We both..:) now I knew some german lnguage because of this article.. 🙂

    • Hi. For now I’m just using books and some online resources. I am pretty sure I get about a three day class when we get to Germany and have the option to sign up for a longer one, so I might do that. I took classes in high school, so right now I’m just refreshing my memory on the basics. Good luck if you go to the class next month. It is hard to be confident. Even when I know what people are saying I am not comfortable trying to converse. Well there ya go 🙂

      • 😀 you are right. I don’t understand why it’s so hard to gain confident in speaking different language. 🙁 Good luck to you too. We can do it.. 😀 I am also using books now,I just need to be more active and not lazy (Giggles)

        • I think it has to do with having to go back to only having limited vocabulary and trying to speak to people who have an extensive one. It’s sort of intimidating. Thank you too. Yes we can 🙂 Good. Haha get to it 🙂

  2. Wow, what a post! Giving me headaches to read how foreigners are struggling to learn German. I consider your lessons very advanced and you seem to be picking up very fast! Just thinking about the fact that you are teaching this yourself, wow!
    The Umlaute kann be confusing! I never even thought about the difference between “kuehl” and “fuenf” until you brought it up. Unfortunately I don’t have any tips on how to make this easier for you, although I really wish I did!!!
    For me the hardest part is forming sentences and essays, which I really hated in FRench and Spanish. O well, have to do it at one point in time, right??

    Best of luck to you and learning your German, but I think you’ll be fine, really!

  3. It’s the word compounding, dropping an “n” here and there and trying to figure out why pants (die Hose) are feminine and not plural that drives me crazy with learning German.

    • I thought pants were like in English where it is always plural, which is why it would have the “die” because if I remember correctly, all plurals even if they start off as masculine or neuter use the feminine article in the plural form.

  4. I know it is an pretty old blog entry, but let me give a short note on your example

    You wrote:
    “the red pencil” could be “Rotstift” rather than der rot Stift.
    But this is not correct in total!
    Rotstift is a pencil, writing in red.
    and der rote Stift is a red pencil, not necessary writing in red, only the outside color is red. 🙂

    • It has been a long time, but it’s always good to learn something new. I think the example was out of the textbook I had referred to. I didn’t realize that it would only be “Rotstift” if it wrote in red and not just if the outside of it was red and don’t think they made it clear in the book, but it makes sense.

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