One of the most difficult things for English speakers learning German is the use of gender. English has one gender, and German has three, which is one more gender than humans have.
The genders in German are the masculine “der”, the feminine “die”, and the neuter “das”. I was very sad to learn that my name, “Brett”, is in German a “das” word, and that I have no gender in this country.
Every noun in German has a gender. It seems to be very important to Germans that everything in the world is male, female, or like me, neither. The fork is a girl, the spoon is a boy, and the knife is neither. This is very strange. If any of these things should be a boy, it’s the knife. But Mark Twain has already discussed this.
What’s more important for you is to understand how English speakers think of gender. It’s quite different.
1. Things do not have genders.
This should be obvious. In English, we only have one definite article, “the”, and one indefinite article , “a/an”.
The pronouns “he”, “she”, and “it” are very easy to use. Just follow these five rules:
- If it has a personal name and a penis, use “he”
- If it has a personal name and a vagina, use “she”
- If it has a personal name, but you’re not sure if it has a penis or vagina, be very careful.
- If it is a guitar, boat, or car that belongs to a man, and the man really loves it, you can use “she”.
- If it doesn’t have a name, use “it”.
So, pretty easy. Hopefully you didn’t learn too much there.
2. Your friends.
I have never had a boyfriend. This is because I’m not a homosexual. I’ve had friends who are boys, and friends who are men, but never a boyfriend. The words “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” only describe romantic relationships.
Some women, most of them American, will use “girlfriend” to talk about their female friends, usually when they’re talking about a group of friends. For example: “Last night some I watched 'Twilight' with some girlfriends. Then we ate ice cream and had a pillow fight.”
Don’t say this. It’s for native speakers only.
If you’re talking about a person you like who you do not have a romantic relationship with, say “My friend, Lynne” or “a friend of mine”.
Friend = non-romantic
Boyfriend = romantic
Girlfriend = romantic
One more note: “partner”, at least in
, is usually used for a romantic relationship between two homosexuals (or a business relationship). So be careful with this word, especially if you, or the people you are talking to, are homophobic. America
3. Jobs and nationalities.
I am an English teacher. My colleague, Liz, is also an English teacher. In English, we use the same word, “teacher” for the job we both do. It doesn’t matter that I have a Y-chromosome and Liz doesn’t.
In English, we try to look past gender when talking about jobs. The only jobs I can think of that have different words depending on if the person is a man or a woman are these:
But even in these jobs, the recent trend has been to use the same word, like “server”, “actor” and “hooker”, whether the person is a man or a woman. In the past, we called a female flight attendant “stewardess” and a male flight attendant “steward”. But now, everybody’s a flight attendant.
You might wonder, how will people know if I’m talking about a man or a woman? Well, they won’t. Because they won’t really care. They also won’t know if the person is black or white, or gay or straight. If it’s important at all, it will become clear at some point, because you will have to use a word like “he” or “she”, or maybe the person’s name.
4. The German word “man”.
This translates formally to “one”, but more often, we just say “you”. As in, “you are what you eat”.
Normally we use the word “they” when talking about a group of people that we are not a part of. But it has another use. If we want to talk about a hypothetical person, we can use “they” instead of “he/she” or the more sexist “he”. For example:
“If I find out who ate all my Pringles, I’m gonna kick their ass!”
It’s much more elegant than “If I find out who ate all my Pringles, I’m gonna kick his or her ass!”