In this third article, Victor Anibal Rodriguez talks Die Deutsche Bestimmten Artikel (The German Definite Articles). ___________________________
One of my biggest challenges learning German has been dealing with the German definite articles. There are those who swear that because English is a Germanic language that English speakers should have no trouble learning German. To those people I say, “Hogwash! You have no clue what you’re talking about!”
In order to understand why definite articles are so difficult why don’t we first take a look at the German noun? For those of us who slept through English grammar classes in school, a noun is a person, place, or thing, like: a dog, a house, or a car. If we find ourselves petting a dog and I ask you what is the gender of “dog”, you’d probably check under the dog’s tail. After I give you a funny look, I will clarify myself and tell you that I meant the gender of the “word” “dog”. After you give me a confused look and scratch your head for a good minute, you’re going to wonder what on earth I am talking about.
I wouldn’t really blame you since there is really no such thing in English. But for other languages this is a real thing. My native tongue for example, Spanish, has two gender classifications: masculine and feminine. German on the other hand has four: masculine, feminine, neuter, and PLURAL? I’ll touch on plurals in a bit. I was lucky that I had already some understanding of noun gender as a Spanish speaker. So I feel like I have a bit of a leg up than native English speakers. However, I was not ready for the reality of German gender nouns.
The gender of a Spanish word can be deciphered rather easily by knowing a few rules. If I have never heard the word “perro” before in my life, I would still know that it is a masculine noun because of the ending of the word. German has no such rules. Well, that’s not true, they do have some rules, but there are so many exceptions to the rules, there might as well not be any. So if I hear the word “Stift” for the first time, I would have no clue if it’s a masculine, feminine, or neuter noun. I’d have to look that shit up. So why is gender so important, because depending on the gender of the noun you use a different definite article and that’s where the real fun begins!
We are so spoiled in English, we only have just the one definite article, “the”. You have no idea how lucky you are as a native English speaker. German has three (and each has four different cases—more on that in a minute) and their usage depends on the gender of the noun. The German definite articles are as follows: der (masculine), die (feminine & plural), and das (neuter). “Der”, “die”, and “das” all mean “the”. Remember that I said Plural was a gender. Well, sort of. No matter what gender a noun is, once it becomes plural it follows different rules specific to Plurals.
So why are these article uses so important? Couldn’t you just use “das” and call it a day? Sure, if you don’t want anyone to understand what the hell you’re saying. I mentioned cases before. As if three different articles isn’t confusing enough, you have to know all of the different cases that are associated with each article. So what are cases?
Look, I’m no linguist. I’m not even a scholar of any kind. I’m just a computer programmer with a passion for writing. So I’m really not all that smart. Grammar school was a long time ago and I’ve only been studying this language for about a month. I am just learning as I go. However, I feel like I should at least attempt to explain what a case is the best I can.
As I understand it, a grammatical case determines the function performed by nouns or pronouns in a phrase or a sentence. If you have no idea what that means, don’t worry, neither do I.
German has four cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. Nominative is the noun that is doing something. Accusative is the noun that is having something done to it. Don’t ask me about the other two cause I don’t freaking know.
So what does this mean? Say I take the following sentence:
Der Junge isst den Apfel. – The boy is eating the apple.
(Both Junge and Apfel are masculine nouns. Der is masculine definite article for Nominative cases, den is the masculine definite article in Accusative cases.)
Say I switch some words around,
Den Apfel isst der Kind. – The apple is being eaten by the boy.
Notice that the meaning of the sentence remains the same. Word order is not important in German in this instance thanks to the cases used. So, if you don’t know your cases, you’d think that second sentence said, “The apple is eating the boy.” And you’d be wrong and probably be sent to a mental institution. If I wanted to say, “The apple is eating the boy” in German, I would say, “Der Apfel isst den Junge.” It’s subtle, but did you catch the difference? So whether I like it or not, cases are kind of important in learning the language.
Now, there are in many cases, some similarities between the two languages. A lot of the words are very similar and that makes it easy to learn a lot of vocabulary rather quickly. So far I’ve learned between 200-300 words. Not too shabby for only a month’s worth of study. If only it wasn’t for those stupid genders. Since there are no real rules to remember, one must remember the article along with the word and that presents a real challenge for me.
After many failed attempts at trying to remember the stupid article with the word—you know because remembering the word wasn’t challenging enough. I finally found a way to make things easier for me to remember them by using a mental palace.
A mental palace is an imaginary place created in your brain based on a real place that you are familiar with. It’s a technique that has been used for thousands of years to remember all kinds of shit. The idea is that the brain sucks at remembering words, but it is particularly amazing at remembering places and locations. Look it up, it’s a real thing.
In my “noun palace” I have three rooms one for each gender. Every time I come across a new noun, I first find its gender and I begin the process of committing it to memory. That process goes something like this: I visit my mental palace and I walk through the rooms in my mind until I find the room where the noun belongs. Then I create a ridiculous mental picture inside that room. The more ridiculous the image is the easier it will be for my brain to remember it.
For example, today’s word of the day is die Kommode (the dresser). I visit my Noun memory palace which opens into the masculine room, there I see the previous items I have placed there like der Apfel (the apple), der Tisch (the table), der Hut (the hat). I walk across to the next room, the feminine room where all of my feminine nouns live. The room is guarded by Amy Adams… Ahem! That’s all I will say about that.
So to commit this item to memory. I examine the word and see if it sounds like anything else I’m familiar with. Unfortunately, for this word it is not one of those cognate words (words that have a common word origin and therefor look or sound similar). So, I have to get creative. Kommode sounds like komodo dragon to me. So I’ll make a dresser out of a Komodo dragon. Give it some drawer spaces and a large mirror. The more detail you can give the better and easier it will be to remember. Once it’s created Amy Adams chases the dresser to find something to wear. She opens up the drawers and dresses in front of the large mirror. She always looks pretty!
From now on when I see a dresser, I’m gonna think of a komodo dragon and my brain will fill in the rest. The interaction with Amy will help me remember that it’s a feminine word and I’ll be able to use the correct article when it comes up in conversation.
Definite articles are just the start. The next challenge will be memorizing the indefinite articles: a, and an. Not to mention possessive pronouns and all of that shit! Why am I doing this again? Wish me luck!