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 “Mädchen” to 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,