“das Mädchen” – why is it grammatically neutral?

The question that comes up most often when someone is about to tell me how terribly difficult it is to learn the German language is: why is “das Mädchen” (German for “girl”) a neuter form and not of feminine gender?

To this there are so many different angles, but I’ll condense it as much as possible. First of all, because of the use of the word “gender” in “grammatical gender” many people have the misconception that there has to be some kind of connection between the perceived gender of the “thing” or “being” described by a word and the grammatical gender of the word itself. If this was true, you’d probably be surprised by the differences between the grammatical gender of words in your native language and that of the counterparts in almost any other language.

Need a simple example? Let’s take “ручка” (latinized “ručka”, Russian for a “stylograph”) which is grammatically a feminine word and let’s take the same word in German (with article) “der Füllfederhalter” (or short “der Füller”, German for “stylograph”) which is grammatically a masculine word. Or let’s take it one step further. The grammatically masculine word “veggur” (Icelandic for “wall”) becomes grammatically feminine “die Wand” (German) and as well grammatically feminine “стена” (latinized “stena”, Russian). And there is a multitude of further examples where the grammatical gender diverges from what you perceive depending on your native language. It would be interesting to hear the opinion of someone who was raised from the earliest moment to be multilingual. Anyway, when you were raised with German as native language “die Wand”, no matter into which language you translate it, will always be perceived as “female” and if the grammatical gender in that language disagrees, it will be thought of as odd ;)

But back to “das Mädchen”. Of course we all agree that a girl is by definition female. Unlike the things for which we compared the grammatical gender before, there is an inherent biological gender to a girl. Nevertheless in the German language the word is grammatically neuter, while “der Junge” (German for “boy”) got the “proper” grammatical gender: masculine. How can that be?

The answer to it is probably somewhat disappointing to most people. The suffix “-chen”, also “-lein”, in German denotes the so-called diminutive. And yes, even the English language has this grammatical form, think of the nouns doggy and dog. In Russian the diminutive is denoted by the suffices “-ик” (latinized “-ik”) and “-ок” or “-ёк” (latinized “-ok” or “-jok”). For example a “smallish house” would be “домик”, from the normal form “дом”. And in German applying the diminutive means to change the grammatical gender of the word to neuter. Always. Even “der Junge” (masculine) can become “das Jungchen” (neuter) in German.

The biggest problem to understanding this stuff lies with the fact that nowadays the root form of “das Mädchen” is not used to mean “girl” anymore in modern German. In fact without being a linguist it is hard to determine which word is the root form. An old Duden (the standard dictionary for German) from 1930 doesn’t even list “Mädchen” with the meaning “girl”, but instead the totally unrelated diminutive forms for “die Made” (German for “maggot”):

Mädlein, Mädchen (kleine Made); vgl. d.

The most likely root of the word “Mädchento me was “Magd” or some historical form of it. “Die Magd” (feminine gender, German for “maid” … German also knows “die Maid”), if put into diminutive by the common rules, would yield “das Mägdchen” or “das Mägdlein”. Now I had a hunch that the spelling of the former is too close to “Mädchen” to be a coincidence ;)

However, I draw my actual evidence again from the Duden of 1930. There and in older German texts you can sometimes find the word “die Maid” (feminine gender) which has somewhat of a connotation of “young virgin/unmarried woman” in modern German, also see “maid” on Wiktionary. In the Duden from 1930 you will find:

Maid (Mädchen) w.; _, _en || Maidenschule (Landwirtschaftsschule für Frauen)

Astonishing, isn’t it? The diminutive form isn’t mentioned alphabetically where it would be expected – instead we find “Mädchen” as a derived form under “Maid”.

So now that we have solved this mystery, a few final words on the common use of words. The modern German word for “head”, “der Kopf”, a cognate of Latin “caput” and English “cup” is now used where in former times you would often use “das Haupt”. While the latter is still in use in words like “zu enthaupten” (German for “to behead”) or as prefix in compound words to mean “main …”, it would in most cases sound ridiculous if you used it normal speech when referring to your head. In fact it would sound a bit snobbish if you did. Interestingly I once read an article where the author was comparing different nouns in different Germanic languages, among them “head”. But he was apparently a bit misled, because he compared:

  • English: head
  • German: Kopf
  • Icelandic: höfuð
  • Swedish: huvud

… among some other Germanic languages. Now which one doesn’t fit? ;) In fact I would have wanted to ask the author why he didn’t choose the word “haus” (another Icelandic word for “head”)? I think he wanted to make a point with the similarities, but the proper choice for the German word would have been “Haupt”, not “Kopf”, in that case. As antiquated as it may sound to him as a German native speaker.

And if we think hard enough about cognates between English and German we’ll find loads of them even though the meaning is – nowadays – often only remotely related.

This concludes our little excursion into the world of languages,

// Oliver

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25 Responses to “das Mädchen” – why is it grammatically neutral?

  1. Andrej says:

    So there I was, riding in a car with two Finns, trying to make sense of their conversation, occasionally asking for clarification. In this particular case I noticed that when the addressee changed from the familiar second person to the polite second person, the case of the direct object also changed.

    The next question was, of course, why? To which I got the typical Finnish response of, “Fsck if I know. It’s just how it is.”

    And a shrug and a blank stare.

    Leraning languages, like martial arts, seems to work best when there is some understanding but mostly lots of drilling.

  2. Robin and Farina says:

    That was really informative, thank you.

    I’ve asked my German girlfriend numerous times to explain why Mädchen is neutral and she never could, so I finally decided to Google it and got this.

  3. German lerner says:

    I was searching for an explanation as to why a word that means “girl” isn’t feminine and this article came up. The diminutive explanation makes perfect sense, though I’m still left wondering why modern Germans don’t revise the grammatical gender to female ex post facto. In English the vernacular is constantly added and revised (i.e. Merriam-Webster highlights a word they newly added to their dictionary every year) so why not German?
    And doesn’t it bother them every time they say “das Mädchen”?

  4. Oliver says:

    Changing the grammatical gender would in fact be inconsistent. Any other diminutive form ending in “-chen” would have to be changed as well to stay consistent. Example: der Hund (the dog) -> das Hündchen (the doggy). The big difference is in the article, otherwise it’s not as odd as it may seem to the bystander ;)

    And doesn’t it bother them every time they say “das Mädchen”?

    Why would it? Most monolingual people don’t ever think for a split-second about any aspect of their native language. Being a German native speaker it’s funny for me to see people getting excited over the fact :mrgreen:

  5. d says:

    Same shizzle in Dutch.
    All Languages all over the world should be simplified. Drop all grammar. The simpler the better. Of course linguists would disagree, but the world would be a better place for it.
    That and no more duplicate fancy words. 1 meaning means 1 word.
    I so need world domination to put this in motion!
    Thanks for the article Oliver. Very understandable. It´s because it ends with chen.
    If the word was written as “Mädshen” for instance it would be feminin!

  6. slawe says:

    it’s because the women are so ugly they don’t know whether they are feminine or masculine

  7. slawe says:

    i meant the german women :lol:

  8. Oliver says:

    Oh, I’m sure they’re going to appreciate your honesty. :-?

  9. Truthful says:

    Ugh.
    @d suck it up. Grammar is more important than you know. And using rather voluminous and/or synonymous words adds variety to a language, so the saying

    never use a big word where a diminutive one will suffice

    makes sense, albeit ironically. Plus, saying something like, for instance, copulation, is a better, less harsh way of saying sex.

    @slawe you’re a moron. all I have to say…

    @oliver thanks for this article, I would have NEVER have found this that easily. Note to self: diminuative is genderless…

  10. sbi says:

    And don’t get me started on why “der Kitzler” is male in German…

  11. Obalix says:

    To add to your reflection about the base form of “Mädchen” I’d like to point to the fact that the sound of “ai” and “ä” in German are very similar. So “Maidchen” might have been changed to “Mädchen” over the time.

  12. ZAGROS says:

    thank you so much Oliver, great article for a beginner :)
    regards from Persia

  13. peter says:

    i’ve always wondered why it is das mädchen… thanks.

  14. bdl says:

    As a native Russian/Ukrainian speaker I can say the differences in languages are something you get used to really quickly. An interesting example of such difference would be the word “dog”: both in Russian and Ukrainian it is spelled “собака” (“sobaka”) yet it is feminine in Russian and masculine in Ukrainian.

  15. Oliver says:

    @bdl: thanks for that, very interesting. I didn’t even know this subtle difference and had to check in my dictionary (Ukrainian/German). Probably even more natural to you as someone who grew up multilingual.

  16. Henry says:

    But then…..”plurally”speaking..

    DIE Manner & DIE Jungen!!!.(The Men & Boys)

    Das Mädchen schreibt……(Singular)..Die Mädchen schreiben(plural).

    But then sometimes even the singular “female” becomes a “Male”(LOL!)

    Genitiv (2.Fall) des Mannes der Frau des Kindes
    Dativ (3. Fall) dem Mann(e) der Frau dem Kind(e)
    Akkusativ (4. Fall) den Mann die Frau das Kind

    Plural
    Kasus Maskulinum Femininum Neutrum
    Nominativ (1. Fall) die Männer die Frauen die Kinder
    Genitiv (2.Fall) der Männer der Frauen der Kinder
    Dativ (3. Fall) den Männer den Frauen den Kindern
    Akkusativ (4. Fall) die Männer die Frauen die Kinder

  17. Henry says:

    P.S.And to really cause a rumble in the jungle….
    Eng;
    “The Girl with her Sister”
    Germ:
    Das Mädchen….. mit SEINER Schwester!.(seiner=His!)

    Thats the written accepted Grammar..but correctly SPOKEN would be..

    “Das Mädchen mit ihrer Schwester”!!.(ihrer=HER)

    And it just goes on and on and all so unnecessary!!.
    So no wonder Germans at least, find it easy to learn English!.

  18. Oliver says:

    I’m not exactly sure this is a qualified comment in any way. You assumption that genitive “der” (for female) is in any way “male” is completely insane. So what gender does “des” (genitive singular for male) have then? Because there is no nominative “des” for any gender, so you’re comparing apples and oranges.

    Equally plural “die” has got nothing to do with singular “die”, except the spelling is the same. Comparing these means either you don’t understand the concept of grammar or you try to apply some kind of folk etymology to compare things which inherently cannot be compared. So you are trying to compare things across the boundaries of semantics versus syntax.

    If those rules did not apply you could also come along and say stuff like: this soda is sweeter than outside in the winter.

  19. Oliver says:

    Same here: semantics versus syntax (grammar). Don’t mix them.

    And no: the spoken form of your example would be the same as the written form unless you are non-native speaker or using some dialect or come from a less educated background (or any combination of those). Some people – mostly from Southern Germany and South of there – also seem to think “wie” and “als” are interchangeable when they aren’t. This doesn’t make their wrong use of “wie” in places where an “als” ought to be used magically correct (“X ist besser wie Y” – wrong!). Sure they’ll continue to use it wrongly, but their continued wrong use doesn’t make it right in any way. Here you are mixing common non-standard/local use of language with standard high language. Similarly to “der” (genitive singular female) in your previous comment the “seiner” (genitive singular female) as an inflected form has got nothing to do with the non-inflected form, even though they share the same spelling.

    And by the way, it is true that these days English has almost become a non-inflected language ((there is some inflection)). However, its beginnings are the same as those for German. Check out some other Germanic languages for examples of this. For Icelandic for example the genitive (eignafall) form of amma (grandma) would be ömmu. Similarly the name Anna becomes Önnu. Other languages don’t inflect names at all or put limits on how to inflect them.

    And no, it’s not unnecessary at all. English has no concise way for expressing certain concepts, simply because they make much less use of compound words (zusammengesetzte Wörter). So it takes three or four words to express the same thing. Similarly there are so many things in English that are way worse than in other languages: pronunciation has got nothing to do with spelling, the same word can mean different things depending on the context (e.g. pen being a writing utensil or a closed of area to rein in cattle), for certain concepts there exists no unambiguous way of expressing them, example: hot. At any given point to you refer to hot because of the temperature or because of the amount of chili? You can’t reasonably use spicy either, because that does not just refer to the spiciness added by chili or pepper – in other words there is no word that can unambiguously express spiciness without hotness. And yeah … that list also just goes on and on, too.

    I don’t know whether you are non-native speaker of German or native speaker of German – and frankly I don’t care. But you shouldn’t put up made up facts as justification for and argument. To me it seems a bit as if you came straight from a reading of Mark Twain’s iconic and ironic “The Awful German Language” and think that out of this you learned something about the German language at all. The exaggerations Twain makes and the examples he gives are a means to an end. But when he “complains” about compound words and that the structure of a sentence differs it almost seems as if he’s complaining about a lack of stack space in his short term memory which allows him to process a full German sentence without problem.

    […] and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all.

    Funny? Certainly. But hardly the gist about the German language. Curiously some of your examples seem to be no more than slightly altered forms of those Mark Twain provides.

    Try the book “Denglisch for Better Knowers: Fun Birds, Smart Shitter, Hand Shoes und der ganze deutsch-englische Wahnsinn” (a bilingual book) for a book by non-native speakers that don’t want to make a point for how awful the German language allegedly is.

  20. Oliver says:

    Just thought about this some more. So by your logic the English snippet “current current fluctuations” makes no sense because the first and second “current” are somehow allegedly identical. Although in fact one is an adjective and the other is a noun.

    This would be analogue to the “der” (male nominative) and “der” (female genitive).

  21. Edgardo Damian Perez Ortega says:

    I will be start a few months ago to learn deutsch and I view many things.
    Thanks for the post.
    I continue with my learning.

  22. Oliver says:

    Viel Erfolg beim Lernen, Edgardo!

  23. Avraham says:

    Informative and interesting as it is, this article did not satisfy my curiosity about why das Weib is Neuter. Can anybody comment? Thanks.

  24. Florian says:

    Thanks, I thought i understand now, but it doesnt make it easier.
    Btw try learning dutch:
    Der -> De (feminin)
    Die -> De (masculin)
    Das -> Het (neutral)

    However, when you mention something in the next sentence you have to refer with the correct gender.
    ‘De boot is leeg. Ze werd ontruimd door een alarm. -> The school is empty. She was emptied because of an alarm.’
    ‘De trein is leeg. Hij werd ontruimd door een alarm. -> The train is empty. He was emptied because of an alarm.’
    And there are even words who are considered dual-gender. So you can use he/she as you like. You can only us ‘it ‘when it’s neutral.

    However what truly bugs me is that in Dutch/English/German, when you’re talking in the possesive sense, you use the gender of the owner. We’re going to his house. While in FRENCH you use the gender of the word. Nous allons à sa maison.

  25. Oliver says:

    True that. Doesn’t make it easier indeed. I don’t know enough French (yet) to comment. And Dutch is indeed on my list of languages to learn although it’s a fairly small one. But I hope to benefit from the fact that Dutch and German are relatively closely related.

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