Many German learners struggle with the grammatical genders. Why on earth is a sausage feminine and why a girl neuter, they wonder. The personal pronouns add to the confusion. Why would an “er” turn into an “ihn” or “ihm”? Even an “es” turns into an “ihm” sometimes and a “sie” into a “ihr” or “ihnen”. The good news is: All this confusion is finally coming to an end. Today, let’s compare German vs English.
A new Dawn
Today a brand new legislation becomes effective that over a period of 5 years will simplify the German language significantly. You’ll hear German learners worldwide sigh in relief as finally German linguists have worked out what they call a Universalgeschlechtsbezeichnungsgrundlage (literally: universal gender classification basis) which made this bold but long awaited move towards a more gender equal society possible.
Let’s be honest: English is a messy language
While the English language is still struggling with finding such a universal approach to address gender reality (In English you currently have the choice between a singular ‘they’, ‘their’ and ‘them’ or the more progressive variants ze, sie, hir, co, and ey), the Germans have made a giant leap towards user friendliness in this field.
Prof. Dr. Wortgewandt from the German Institute of Germanic Gender Legislation within the European Sector (G.I.G.G.L.E.S, I kid you not, that institute really exists) stated that the new legislation was accepted by an overwhelming majority (78,3%) of the members of the German Bundestag.
Here is an interview with Prof. Wortgewandt in which he shares his enthusiasm about the new legislation. Save it for later though as the juicy bits are just about to be unveiled.
What does that mean for current and future German learners?
If you are currently learning German you’ll have to slowly get used to the new pronouns and articles and ideally unlearn that what you have learned about grammatical genders so far. The good news is that things will become a lot (!) simpler from today onwards. Here’s what will change:
1 | Any 3rd person singular pronoun or possessive article will change only according to its case.
In nominative the following words will be replaced by “res”
Personal pronouns: er, es, sie
Possessive pronouns and articles: sein, seins, seine and ihr, ihrs, ihre Definite and indefinite articles: der, das, die and ein, eine.
In all other cases (accusative, dative and genitive) the following words will be replaced by “nis”
Personal pronouns: ihn, ihm, ihr, sie, es
Possessive pronouns and articles: seinen, seinem, seiner, seines and ihren, ihrem, ihrer, ihres
Definite and indefinite articles: das, die, den, dem, der, des and ein, einen, einem, einer, eines
Don’t worry. It looks a lot more complex than it is in practice. Take a look at a few examples:
A | Er sieht einen Hund. – He sees a dog
B | Sie sieht ihn. – She sees him.
C | Sie sieht zu ihm. – She looks towards him.
D | Die Frau sieht zu dem Hund. – The woman looks towards the dog.
Is now simply: Res sieht (zu) nis (Hund).
Translated that would be: A person, animal or thing of clear or irrelevant gender sees (looks at) another person, animal or thing of clear or irrelevant gender.
Needless to say that all other articles (e.g. mein, dein, unser, euer, ihr) lose their endings. “Wo hast du deinen Panzer geparkt?” becomes “Wo hast du dein Panzer geparkt?
Less is more
Prof. Wortgewandt explained how they got to this stunningly simple yet effective solution: “We found out that the gender in 99% of the cases was either obvious thanks to the given context or simply irrelevant. Also the differentiation between accusative and dative as well as the genitive was simply unnecessary as context usually provides us with the necessary information. So it became clear to the team of German language experts that the cases could be reduced to a two case system. And like any two party system, e.g. in politics, we can all see what benefits in efficiency and effectivity such a reduction of possibilities can yield.
Uniformity beats diversity
And wherever the opportunity arises to simplify diversity one should strive to aim for maximum uniformity. Therefore we dug deeper into those things that caused separation among language users and found that the distinction between definite and indefinite articles could simply be eliminated without a loss in understanding.
Limited by flexibility
We would have simplified the German language even further and would have loved to only use “res” for everything but unfortunately the German language is still a bit too flexible for such a radical approach. E.g. if we said: “Res liebt Res” we’d end up with a certain amount of confusion who’s loving whom which wouldn’t be any more effective than the old approach. “Res liebt nis.” though makes it crystal clear who is in love with whom.” “You can’t just assume that love is mutual, therefore you need to distinguish the agent from the patient”, added Prof. Wortgewandt.
No more discrimination anywhere
But the brains at G.I.G.G.L.E.S. didn’t stop there. The German gender can be found in a few other places like e.g. job descriptions. A female baker would be “Bäckerin”. Feminists have long criticized the fact that the female form could be easily seen as a mere add-on to the male form “Bäcker”. The “-er” ending neatly corresponded with the article “d.er” until today while the “-in” ending could not be connected to any feminine article.
With the new solution there will be no more grounds for such arguments. Take a look at the following job descriptions:
old: Fahrer + Fahrerin
“Ich bin Fahre von Beruf.” can therefore mean I’m a a driver of male, female, transgender or any other gender orientation.
old: Lehrer + Lehrerin
old: Pilot + Pilotin
old: Arzt + Ärztin
old: Schüler + Schülerin
old: Präsident + Präsidentin
Formerly there were two different kinds of plural for such job descriptions e.g. “zwei Fahrer” if at least one person identifying as a CIS male was included but “zwei Fahrer.innen” if all persons included were identifying as CIS female gender.
Transgender or other genders were simply implied which led to a lot of dismay in the LGBTQI community. Just for your information, 7.4% of the German population identify as LGBTQ or I (see stats here).
The new plural doesn’t make such a distinction as it is 100% unnecessary:
“zwei Fahrer” and “zwei Fahrerinnen” will simply be “zwei Fahren” which follows a standard rule of building the plural: if a noun ends in -e add an -n and you got the plural.
While it may seem a bit unusual at first, over 3512 test subjects have quickly adapted to the new approach within only 12 months. 93,4% of above participants felt more at ease when addressing others in German as before one could never be sure how the other would identify gender-wise. Luckily the Germans have again proven that they are outstanding engineers. But this time in the field of linguistics and interpersonal communication. Who would have thought.
All you need now is a bit of persistence and you will also quickly become familiar with this new, groundbreaking and society-changing shift in the beautiful German language. The one question that remains though is what else I’ll be able to fool you with on next year’s first of April. But until then there will be a lot of water flowing down the Rhine or as we say in German: Da fließt noch viel Wasser res Rhein runter.