In German the nouns have three categories,
referred to as ‘genders’ but that’s just linguistics.
While often sex tells a word’s gender with ease,
to learn all the rest, I present some heuristics.
Each gender has articles (like ‘a’ or ‘the’.)
Each ‘a’ starts with ein and each ‘the’ starts with d.
Each stanza gives one, but they’ll sometimes entwine;
you’ll note that the ‘the’ word will rhyme with each line.
First let’s consider the nominative,
when the noun does an action: ‘that is’, and ‘I live’.
For neutral nouns, ‘a’ is just ein, and ‘the”s das.
The line through the middle, not minus or plus.
So anything ending in -mittel is thus,
and anything ending in -lein, too, you suss?
And metals, and other -um words ride this bus,
Colours and -at words are in this noun class,
and one more wee suffix we’ll shortly discuss.
For ‘feminine’ nouns you use eine or die.
Most female people are -in this group, see?
Though young girls are neutral, that won’t confuse us;
It’s Mädchen, and all of the -chen nouns are das.
But -ions aren’t neutral; that’s plain chemistry,
and neither are flowers or fruit or a tree
(though apples and peaches and -Ents don’t fit there;
for those we will need the more ‘masculine’ der.)
‘Feminine’ endings are -schaft, -ung and -ie;
Their meanings are sort of like ‘-ness’, ‘-ing’ and ‘-y’.
Remember that ‘-ness’ and get -heit and -keit free!
For masculine nouns, once more ein, and ‘the”s der.
All male folk are this, you were surely aware,
and that’s a trait French-like -eur suffixes share.
And -ist is there too; let’s hope sex-ists are rare,
for -ant man will get them, and that could quite scare
the wussiest -us words whose gender they share.
Remember all this? Have some brain-boosting fare,
or drinks made with alcohol, if you don’t care.
Points on the compass should indicate where,
and weekdays and seasons say when to be there.
One more thing, by the way: any plural is die.
Forgot something’s gender? Just talk about three.
All right, now were done with the nominative,
but what about when it’s a thing that you give?
When we use direct objects, what happens then?
Well, most stay the same, except der becomes den.
But what if you want to give something to it,
or use aus, außer, bei, nach, zeit, von, zu, or mit?
Oh, hear them, see their fuss, memorising…
Go “der→dem, die→der, das→dem”, surprising!
But that isn’t all: just like ‘man’ goes to ‘men’,
the die for the plural (not feminine)’s den.
Okay, now there’s just one more case to go through.
It’s mostly when ‘of the’ in English would do:
in spite of, inside of, because of, possession.
You’ll figure them out in the course of the session.
Außerhalb, innerhalb, trotz, wegen, während,
diesseits, jenseits, statt… ask a parent.
For these ones, again, see their fuss, guess their stress,
and simply repeat, “die→der, das→des, der→des”.
The die for the plural is one of a pair;
it’s just like the feminine: die becomes der.
But now you might wonder what happens to ‘ein‘s
in the cases described in the previous lines.
It’s really quite simple; if the d-word’s amended
you take the new letter with which that is ended,
mix in an ein, and an ‘e’, and combine ‘em
for einer and eines, einen and einem.
Since I live in Austria now, of course I’m learning German, so I needed something to keep this all straight in my own head. I recall coming up with this idea while riding on a train through Switzerland a on a visit to Geneva few months ago; I’d brought along one of my German books in the hope of studying on the train, and it had a list of rules for figuring out the likely gender of a word. I wanted a more interesting way to memorise them. I didn’t write much of it at the time, but I came up with the main principles of it.
I didn’t expect to remember the entire poem by heart, so I wanted to make sure that even if I only remember one line, most of the time it will still contain some useful information. It’s no good remembering that flowers and fruit and trees are all the same gender if I don’t know which one it is. So I made each line that had a gender hint rhyme with the appropriate word for ‘the’; if I remember ‘neither or flowers or fruit or a tree’ then I know the definite article for flowers, fruit, and trees is ‘die’ because it rhymes with ‘tree’. This kind of thing gets complicated when I get to the stanzas about accusative, dative and genitive case; I glossed over those topics a bit, and didn’t even mention what the cases are called. But now all I have to remember is ‘hear them, see their fuss, mem…’ and through rhymes I can remember der dem, die der, das dem. I’d have liked to have that same line allude to which case it is, so I’d remember exactly when der should change to dem. I could also do with some kind of nice outro, and an introductory stanza that doesn’t have an alternating rhyme scheme completely unlike the rest of the poem. When I have more time, I’ll work on that. I’m already one poem down for the weekend, despite having taken a found-haiku break Friday.
After much deliberation, I decided to put German words and word parts (even the one that does double duty as the English ‘in’) in italics without any sort of quotes unless they need to be clearly separated from some English morpheme (e.g. ‘ein‘s is not the German word eins), mentioned English words (and that one language-neutral single letter) in inverted commas without italics (which makes things weird when I also need an apostrophe) and emphasised words in bold. I am not at all sure I made the right decisions.
For those who were confused, this poem references Ents and ions.