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March 9, 2014 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Is it acceptable, in the name of practicality, to ignore gender while speaking German?

I am trying to learn German using Duolingo.com and while I'm have little trouble recalling the nouns themselves, remembering their respective genders is a task of increasing complexity. A lot of the comments sections on the Duolingo confirm that memorizing the genders of nouns is something that comes with immersion and exposure, and I'll probably never reach the proficiency of a person for whom it is their mother tongue.

I did a little bit of Googling on the subject and arrived at this article which I found interesting. The article seems to imply that a gender-neutral form of German is a relatively new and deviant concept.

But for practical purposes I'd like to know if it's acceptable to use gender neutral articles for everything except things that are specifically male or female. I know that if I were to go to Germany, I would at the very least immediately out myself as a non-native speaker, but I was also wondering if this would also be a major cultural faux pas that would be excessively off-putting.
posted by triceryclops to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
It's really not acceptable, in my experience (exchange student for a year, have traveled extensively in Germany). The article is as much a part of the word as the word. Nobody's going to kill you for flubbing an article, but not to bother learning them at all seems something else entirely.

That said, there are a few handy-ish hints for figuring out the article here.
posted by mynameisluka at 12:23 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Remembering the genders, especially if you're a native English speaker, is definitely hard. It helped me to sort of just think of the gender+noun as one word when I'd visualize it when learning (e.g., my mind will flash dieWohnung at me). It also helps your guessing to memorize some of the suffixes that indicated gender pretty consistently, (e.g., -heit is usually feminine).

In my experience, getting the gender wrong will of course reveal you as a non-native speaker, but short of mis-gendering a person, it shouldn't be a big deal. Even native Germans can get things wrong, if it's a word borrowed from English or another language (I remember 20 years ago even my native speaker prof wondered about what the gender of "Fax" would be if you didn't make it "Fax-geraet" and attach it to a word you already knew the gender of...).

It's also fine, in casual conversations, to pause and ask the other person: "Ich habe mein--der/die/das Jacke?--meine Jacke verloren..." or whatever. At any rate, I've done this a ton while traveling and never had anyone take offense.
posted by TwoStride at 12:23 PM on March 9, 2014

No one minds if you get it wrong every now and then, but using gender neutral articles for pretty much everything is not acceptable. It's a part of learning German, and you can't really expect to skip it and still speak halfway decent German. Sorry!
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:27 PM on March 9, 2014 [4 favorites]

If your goal is to simply get your point across you can certainly get by. It is really best to memorize the gender along with the nouns and practice them that way. If you default everything to 'das' you are going to get into trouble when you encounter more advanced grammar structures which assume that you already have a grasp on this. Noun gender affects more than just which version of 'the' to put in front of things.

For emphasis, the theme song from the German version of Sesame Street's refrain is:

Der, Die, Das, wer, wie, was,
Wieso, weshalb, warum
Wer nicht fragt bleibt dumm
posted by TeknoKid at 12:28 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, the article is not really relevant. That is only about words for people, not words for everything else.
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:30 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If it helps you lose the excuse (oh, mice aren't always girls!), remember that "gender" is a construct by grammarians and pedagogues. It's just 'group one,' 'group two,' and 'group three' that everyone just happens to label feminine, masculine, and neuter for convenience.

Furthermore, I've been admonished that female and male are biological terms, whereas feminine and masculine are grammatical (so "mice aren't always female!" becomes a totally irrelevant statement because it's biological, not grammatical).

(this is all handed down by my dear Latin teacher.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 12:34 PM on March 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

The article you linked to has to do with using gender-neutral terms for people, which is actually an issue in English too, though to a lesser extent. For example, using the word "actor" to refer to both male and female performers (as opposed to making a distinction between "actor" and "actress"), or "salesperson" in favor of "salesman" or "saleswoman." The idea is that the generic "masculine" form of these titles implies that, by definition, they cannot be referring to a woman.

However, apart from titles, grammatical gender has nothing to do with this - there is nothing inherently sexist about der Stuhl being masculine, or die Brücke being feminine - nor is it implying that das Mädchen is sexless. It's simply the way different classes of nouns are inflected. There are certain rules, e.g. "-e" nouns are often feminine, "-chen" is always neuter, but that's beyond the scope of this question.

As to whether it is acceptable or not, you would obviously be speaking the language incorrectly, but you could make yourself understood. It isn't a faux-pas so much as speaking a language poorly. For example, if someone spoke English without using "a, an, the" and didn't inflect verbs, e.g. "I is doctor", "You is friend", they would be understood, but everyone would agree they spoke English poorly.
posted by pravit at 12:36 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

but I was also wondering if this would also be a major cultural faux pas that would be excessively off-putting.

If it seems like you're not even trying, then possibly, yes. Do your best to memorize the most common ones/ones you're most likely to be using, and ask when you're not sure.

I was never native-born-proficient in French (my second language), but through drills and practice practice practice I got good at the gendered noun thing.
posted by rtha at 12:36 PM on March 9, 2014

Yes, people are going to be put off by this. I've been living in Germany for 2 years, and I've come across a couple of Americans who have decided the same thing that you have and just use "das" for everything. The most common German reaction to this seems to be: what an idiot. And that makes sense to me. When you are learning a new language, you can't just pick and choose the parts that make sense to you and the parts that don't. Or if you do, you have to accept that you're not actually speaking the language you are trying to learn, you're speaking a gobbedly-gook version of it.

On the other hand, I've been speaking imperfect German to Germans for a couple of years now, and no one has ever seemed offended when I get an article wrong, and I do it relatively frequently. I think my German friends have even gotten used to the way I interrupt myself in the middle of a conversation to ask about the article, so frequently my conversations go like this:

"Ich habe zu Hause ein Ofen (einen Ofen? eine Ofen?)."
"Einen Ofen."
"Ok. Einen Ofen, und er ist..."

So, based on my experience, you foster ill-will by refusing to even try to get the article right, and you don't lose anything by at least trying. So why not try?
posted by colfax at 12:37 PM on March 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

The gender can change the meaning of what you're talking about. For instance, the difference in gender usage for der Schild and das Schild changes the meaning of the noun from a medieval battle shield to a license plate on a car. Use memorization tricks so that you remember the right genders for the meaning of the words you're trying to communicate.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:38 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

IANALinguist (or German speaker, for that matter) etc etc

Look at it this way: noun gender is roughly as superfluous as the plural 's' in English. Most of the time we qualify plural nouns with a number or quantity that makes the addition of the 's' to the noun redundant - yet we leave it in there as a rule.

Example: "I have 3 apples" in everyday conversation means the same as "I have 3 apple"

Now imagine how silly you would sound if you used only the singular form of nouns, rather than the plural form (with the 's'), whenever you qualified it with a number or quantity - perhaps arrogantly thinking: "well, it means the same, anyway".

This how silly you sound to a native German speaker when you use the same gender for every noun. Do you want to sound that silly?
posted by I_read_somewhere_that_. . . at 12:39 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

It seems like you're confusing gender-neutral language, and the intention behind it, with grammar.
This article is about an inherent bias in the language. The German language uses gender-specific words for most professions, and the feminine form is derived from the masculine form. So instead to say teacher to both (fe)male educators , it is Lehrer (der) and Lehrerin (die). There is a debate about changing the language, and how to achieve such change. But note that this is one University, far from the entire country. Even if it were the whole country, no one is advocating to switch all the articles to the gender neutral "das". It will always be die Sonne and der Himmel.
posted by travelwithcats at 12:48 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

That article doesn't mean what you think it means. You are confusing gender in grammar and gender in real life. Those overlap to some extent in German, and it is those cases that the article is talking about: the idea is to avoid having the bias of having the male form of a human-related noun be the default in many situations or to have to use lengthy constructs - "Professorinnen und Professoren" - in all non-gender-specific circumstances. And yes, many of the workarounds people have come up with, like a default feminine or neuter form or orthographic alternatives, are not wide-spread. However: these workarounds are still only for places where human gender intersects with gender in grammar. (The equivalent of replacing "policeman" with "police officer" and "fireman" with "firefighter".) They generally do not propose to replace every single article with a neuter article. (And indeed, that article only suggests getting rid of feminine noun suffixes and adding a neuter form for cases where gender is unknown/not relevant.)

So, focusing on gender in grammar, which does NOT necessarily correspond to being physically male or female except (often but not always) in nouns about humans: the problem is that gendered articles don't exist in a vacuum. They are conjugated in ways that indicate what case the noun is - what roles it plays in a sentence. German can be a little more flexible than English in some ways, when it comes to word order, because the articles and not just the word order tell you what is going on. Furthermore, noun gender also affects what endings the noun gets in different cases. Ignoring the noun gender also means you will be putting the wrong endings on nouns. (Additionally, there are also cases where gender is all that distinguishes two very different meanings for a word!) So it's not just that you will immediately out yourself as a non-native and non-fluent speaker. Your sentences will be less clear, occasionally even as if you were randomly swapping nouns around in an English sentence ("man bites dog" vs. "dog bites man") and at the very least will sound awful (a possible analogy might be someone choosing to ignore irregular verbs and putting "-ed" on the end of every present-tense English noun as a way to generate the past tense - "I buyed a coffee and sitted down at a table" sounds awful, even if everything else is perfect.) Not a faux pas, quite, but not really helpful, communication-wise - and it might start to grate on interlocutors when it becomes clear that you're not just screwing up articles occasionally (as every learner does!), you've actively chosen to learn the language incorrectly.

I strongly suggest that you try to memorize the article as part of the word - you don't memorize gender and noun separately, you memorize them as a unit - "die Tür", not "Tür is door" and "Tür is feminine." Furthermore, learn some of the patterns behind articles. (Things ending in -heit or -keit, for example, tend to be feminine.) Yeah, you'll pick up articles to some extent as you read more, but it's better to try to actively learn things correctly as you go - you'll only cause yourself problems later when you have to re-learn things. It may be difficult for you to reach native speaker levels when it comes to remembering gender, sure, but you absolutely won't if you don't try.
posted by ubersturm at 12:56 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am trying to learn German using Duolingo.com

If you are learning German, learn German, not some pidgin version that ignores a critical part of the language.
posted by rr at 12:58 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you don't learn the genders of nouns you'll never understand German grammar.

Just immerse yourself, try your best, make tons of mistakes and eventually the genders of common words will start to stick. I think reading is a better way to learn this than listening for some reason.
posted by neilb449 at 1:10 PM on March 9, 2014

Speaking imperfect German in Berlin for four years now, trying-but-not-too-hard to get the articles right, achieving a 60ish % success rate, and no one bats an eye. Using "das" for everything, you sound like an idiot - especially when you're fudging the really obvious cases that everyone knows.
posted by tempythethird at 1:18 PM on March 9, 2014

This just sounds very culturally insensitive. Like you going in and ignoring a whole part of the German language just because you couldn't get it right.

Keep going at it. That's the only way.
posted by inturnaround at 1:21 PM on March 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

As a German language native I say it depends what you are going to use German for.
If you're just using it as a tourist ("Wo ist das Toilette?") nobody's going to care, and people might actually respond in English to help you out.
If you want more than that, you should give the impression that you are trying to get the articles right.
Incidentally, Germans aremore direct than Americans about correcting your grammar mistakes should you make them. They see this as being helpful, not rude, so try not to let it get to you.
posted by Omnomnom at 1:38 PM on March 9, 2014

Is it acceptable, in the name of practicality, to ignore gender while speaking German?

Nope.* In the name of practicality no language has ever been learned.

The gender-neutral, mumbled "d'r" is actually a joke over here: An American friend of mine told me he tried that during a trip in Germany. Great trick. GREAT trick.

* Nor is it okay when Germans try to shoehorn irregular English verbs into more current standard forms.
Aand...The reverse wouldn't be ok either, I guess. (i.e. Germans inventing female and male forms for, say, roadkill, root beer, no-u-turns signs and the venerable AMC Pacer (it's a She, isn't it?), just because they can't live with the uncertainty).
posted by Namlit at 1:46 PM on March 9, 2014

I guess the answer to this question is pretty much unanimous!

To be clear, these are the specific answers I was looking for. I knew that it'd likely be an egregious mangling of the language, but I just wanted to be sure. And now I have a better understanding the general role of "gender" within the language and how it has little to do with female/male/neuter but really just three different types of nouns that are, more or less, arbitrary (although I'm positive it will become less so as I become more familiar).

I feel like a fool for even contemplating this, but I'm glad I asked! Thanks everyone for the thoughtful answers and the explanations. It helped me a lot.
posted by triceryclops at 1:48 PM on March 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

For comparison's sake: Russian has no equivalent of the English articles "a, an, the". A Russian student who says something like "I'll sit at the table in the kitchen after I use a bathroom" may even be seen as endearingly cute because of the minor error. A Russian tourist who says "I'll sit at a table in the kitchen after I use a bathroom" may also get cut a lot of slack, because hey, at least they're trying. A Russian immigrant who says "I'll sit at a table in a kitchen after I use a bathroom" and absolutely refuses to use any article other than "a," is not necessarily going to be a social outcast, but they're also not going to get any points for their laziness.
posted by lore at 2:40 PM on March 9, 2014

Closer would be "I'm meeting the Chris in the some bar at the five o'clock", because they can't be bothered to learn when we use articles and when we don't and just stick them in randomly everywhere.

I have worked with this person, and she was quite annoying (she was Czech not Russian, but had lived in the UK for over a decade, so no excuse).
posted by tinkletown at 3:08 PM on March 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I was learning Deutsch I was told children and the lazy got by with a substitute article 'duh' for everything, instead of der, den, die, and das. Always using 'das' would make the speaker sound even more ignorant.

they can't be bothered to learn when we use ... and when we don't and just stick them in randomly everywhere
I have difficulties with my Chinese students and co-workers who've decided always mixing the infinitive and continuous forms of verbs is acceptable, hence sentences like
"When are we to eating?"

posted by Rash at 11:32 AM on March 10, 2014

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