This week I was contemplating how to say a sentence in German that involved the words German woman and American man when a German language concept dug in a little deeper. I knew this concept, but I was still thinking about it in English. I wanted to string together the language the way we do in English by adding the words for woman (Frau) and man (Mann) to specify the gender of the German and American. But German is efficiently built with the person’s gender in the words themselves:
■die Deutsche = German woman
■der Deutscher = German man
■die Amerikanerin = American woman
■der Amerikaner = American man
This also applies to other words describing a person. You know whether the neighbor, the teacher, the chemist, or the friend is male or female. You know this not only from the words themselves, but also from the articles. You know whether it is one person or more than one person (plural), where die Amerikanerinnen = American women or die Amerikaner = American men. Not only “people words” are assigned a gender, of course, but all nouns are also assigned to masculine (der), feminine (die), or neuter (das).
While I may bellow extensively about the three articles, the four cases, and the 16 different ways to say “the” in German, I’m beginning to open my mind to the richness and compactness of the German language. As this wonderful article about language points out:
“Once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers – stuck in their monochrome desert of ‘its’ – are entirely oblivious to.”
The Mann has discussed how from his perspective as a native German speaker, he sometimes feels at a loss with English, as if he’s missing vital information that he’s trained to have. He wants to know what gender of teacher, neighbor, or professional when someone simply says “I spoke with the teacher” or “I saw the neighbor today” or “I met with the vice president of sales.”
Like most people who learn a new language, I struggle with how I think in English about German. If I would just let go and trust the language to do what it’s supposed to do, I’m well on my way to really understanding it.