Welcome, my incredible students, to our series on the most “substantial” building block of language: nouns! In German, nouns are what the rest of the sentence is built around. All of the other parts of speech, from verbs, to adjectives, to articles, have to adjust to the nouns. Before we get into that, though, let’s back up a little bit.


What is a noun?

It might sound like a basic question, but it’s also an important one. 

Definition: A noun is any word for people, creatures, things, or ideas. If we’re talking about grammar, they are the subjects and the objects of sentences.

Let’s do a few examples:

  • Das Wetter ist gut. (The weather is good.)
  • Die Bäume haben Blätter. (The trees have leaves.)
  • Die Schule ist weit weg. (The school is far away.)


Bonus Tip! Notice that nouns are always capitalized in German. This makes them very easy to recognize when you’re reading German text.


What about pronouns?

If you remember grammar class from school, you’re probably wondering about pronouns. These cheeky words go in the place of nouns sometimes, when the noun can’t be bothered to show up. In a way, pronouns are lawyers for nouns.


They show up to represent the noun when it isn’t available. In German, pronouns are not capitalized, but grammatically they work exactly the same way as nouns do. 

  • Katie backt gerne, aber sie hat kein Mehl. (Katie likes to bake, but she has no flour.)
  • Gogo macht Kaffee für sich und Bobbi. (Gogo makes coffee for himself and Bobbi.)
  •  gibt ihm eine Tasse. (He gives him a cup.)


Not bad, right? Well, hold on to your hat, because we’re just getting started!


The 3 Genders of German nouns

All German nouns have one of three genders: masculine, feminine, or neuter.  

In German, a word’s gender identity doesn’t have to conform to its “sex”, or the sex of what (or who) it represents. Let’s look at a few examples:

  • das Mädchen (the girl)
  • der Baum (the tree)
  • die Straße (the street)

This shows us that, in German, streets are feminine, trees are masculine, and girls are neuter.

Obama with skeptical frown


Confusing, right?

That’s because the gender of a word mostly has to do with.

  • what kind of ending it has
  • how the word was made
  • its meaning

Here is a short summary of the different categories for each gender: 

Masculine

  • Nouns with the endings -ant, -ismus, -ast, -ich, -ig, -us,  -ling, -or, and -us
  • Male people and animals
  • Days of the week, months, seasons
  • Many nouns deriving from verbs with the ending “-en”


Feminine

  • Nouns ending in -a, -in, -anz/-enz, -ei, -heit/keit, -ie, -ik, -schat, -sion/tion, -tät, -ung, -ur
  • Female people and animals
  • German rivers
  • Numerals


Neuter

  • Nouns that end in -chen, -lein, -ma, -tel, -tum, -um
  • Children, young animals, and small things
  • Metals, chemicals, and scientific units
  • Nouns formed from infinitive verbs and adjectives
  • Hospitality venues
  • Letters


We can also change the genders of some nouns using endings like -in to make masculine nouns feminine, and -er to make some feminine nouns masculine.

Of course, this is just a quick overview—the sneak-preview. To get into the details, and see all of our examples, make sure to check out our full post on noun genders over here


How nouns are made

Many of the nouns we use everyday started out as something else. After all, it’s easier to adjust an existing word than to make up something unique for every idea. 

In German, the ways we make nouns also help us to combine words into very long compound nouns, like the awe-inspiring Toillettenbürstenbenutzungsanweisung (toilet brush user manual)!


Using adjectives to create nouns

When we want to make nouns out of adjectives, we have a few different options. 

1.) Change the endings to umlaut + -e, -heit/-keit, or -tum, depending on the original adjective.

  • kalt (cold) →  Die Kälte hat mir die Finger gefroren. (The cold froze my fingers.)
  • dunkel (dark) → In der Dunkelheit sieht Gogo nichts. (Gogo sees nothing in the darkness.)
  • heilig (holy) → Der Pilger besucht das Heiligtum. (The pilgrim visits the shrine.)


2.) Use a declined adjective in place of a noun.

  • gut (good) - Die guten Schuhe (the good shoes) → Die guten sind im Schrank. (The good ones are in the closet.)
  • sauber (clean) - Das saubere Schneidebrett (the clean cutting board) → Er benutzt das saubere. (He’s using the clean one.)
  • frisch (fresh) - die frischen Fische (the fresh fish) → Die frischen sind ausverkauft. (The fresh ones are sold out.)


Using Verbs to make nouns

When we want to change a verb into a noun, we also have two options available.

1.) Use the endings -ung, -tum, and -er, or the more complicated combination of sounds ge-/-e to make different kinds of nouns

  • backen (to bake) → Der Bäcker steht früh auf. (The baker gets up early.)
  • umgeben (to surround) → Die Umgebung der Stadt ist sehr schön. (The surrounding area of the city is very nice.)
  • (sich) irren (to be mistaken) → Er hat sein Irrtum eingesehen. (He recognized his mistake.)
  • reden (to talk) → Das ist jetzt genug Gerede. (That’s enough chatter, now.)


2.) Use the infinitive form of the word as a neuter noun for the action that the verb describes. It works like a gerund in English.

  • laufen (to run) → Das Laufen macht mich müde. (Running makes me tired.)
  • rauchen (to smoke) → Das Rauchen ist ungesund. (Smoking is unhealthy.)
  • spielen (to play) → Das Spielen macht spaß. (Playing is fun.)


Connecting different words to make compound nouns

Before we can start making long compound words, we have to learn how to combine two regular words to make a compound noun. Here, we often need to use other sounds as a bit of glue to help us hold them together.

Noun + noun compounds often use -s-, or -es as connecting sounds. The type of sound used always depends on the word in front. Let’s look at a few examples.

  • das Jahr (the year)+ die Zeit (the time)→ Sommer ist die schönste Jahreszeit. (Summer is the most beautiful season.)
  • das Leben (the life) + der Lauf (the course) → Katie hat ihren Lebenslauf ausgedruckt. (Katie printed out her CV.)
  • die Leitung (the pipe) + das Wasser (the water) → Sie trinkt Leitungswasser. (She drinks tap water.)


Others use the plural form of the noun, or you could say that the plural ending acts as a connector. For instance:

  • der Hund (the dog) + die Leine (the leash) → Bobbi hält die Hundeleine. (Bobbi is holding the [dog] leash.)
  • die Tinte (the ink) + der Fisch (the fish) → Sie kocht Tintenfisch. (She cooks squid.)
  • das Huhn (the chicken) + das Ei (the egg) → Katie kocht ein Hühnerei. (Katie cooks a chicken egg.)


Keep in mind, though, that a lot of other noun + noun compounds are free spirits that don’t need any connecting sounds at all. For example:

  • das Haus (the house) + die Tür (the door) → Gogo schließt die Haustür. (Gogo closes the front door.)
  • der Kaffee (the coffee) + die Tasse (the cup) → Bobbi füllt seine Kaffeetasse. (Bobbi fills his coffee cup.)
  • das Dach (the roof) + das Fenster (the window) → Katie öffnet das Dachfenster. (Katie opens the roof window.)


Compounds with verbs

When we want to add a verb into a compound noun, we have to use its stem, which is the main part of the word that carries its main meaning. It does not include any special endings, like the -en ending that many verbs have in their infinitive form. It works like this:

  • trinken (to drink) + das Wasser (the water) → Das Trinkwasser ist sauber. (The drinking water is clean.)
  • fahren (to drive) + das Zeug (the stuff, gear) → Bobbi hat ein neues Fahrzeug. (Bobbi has a new vehicle.)
  • brennen (to burn) + das Holz (the wood) → Gogo kauft Brennholz für den Kamin. (Gogo buys firewood for the fireplace.)


Compounds with other kinds of words

Adverbs, prepositions and adjectives can be directly combined with nouns—no extra steps required. Hurray!

  • grün (green) + der Kohl (the cabbage) → Katie kocht Grünkohl. (Katie cooks kale.)
  • unter (under) + der Mieter (the renter) →  Frau Stock mag keine Untermieter. (Frau Stock doesn’t like subletters.)
  • mit (with) + der Arbeiter (the worker) → Das Geschäft hat 5 Mitarbeiter. (The business has 5 employees.)


Alright, now, do you want to see how we make those really long words? Check out our full length post about how to make nouns over here!


German Noun Declensions

A declension is a special form of a word that is meant to show its case, number, and gender. In German, articles already tell us most of that information about a noun, though.

Too much information


So, most kinds of nouns just don’t bother. Only four types of German nouns still have declensions:


1.) Dative plural nouns

The ending -n is used for plural nouns in the Dative case that don’t end in n or s.

  • Gogo will mit seinen Mitbewohnern feiern. (Gogo wants to party with his roommates.)
  • Er hat Schuhe an den Füßen. (He has shoes on his feet.)
  • Sie schauen aus den Fenstern. (They look out of the windows.)


2.) Genitive singular nouns in the masculine and neuter cases

These types of nouns are a bit more complicated. Most regular nouns use the endings -s or -es, but weak nouns (more on that here) use -en, and a small set of irregular nouns use -ens.

  • Katie genießt den Geruch des Kaffees. (Katie savors the smell of the coffee.)
  • Der Affe (the monkey) - Sie hat die Banane eines Affen geklaut. (She stole a monkey’s banana.)
  • Bobbi glaubt an die Kraft des Willens. (Bobbi believes in the power of the will.)


3.) Some Dative singular nouns

Some words get the ending -e when they are in the dative singular form, and especially when used in specific phrases, like these:

  • Ich gehe nach Hause. (I’m going home.)
  • Er wohnt auf dem Lande. (He lives in the country.)
  • Im Grunde genommen geht es immer um Geld. (Basically, it’s always about money.)


4.) Proper Nouns in the genitive case

Proper nouns (the names of people and places) often get the ending -s.

  • Bobbis Auto ist neu. (Bobbi’s car is new.)
  • Die Einwohner Berlins haben gewählt. (The residents of Berlin have voted.)
  • Katies Koala kommt aus Australien. (Katie’s Koala comes from Australia.)


However, there are lots of exceptions. Proper nouns that have an article (like des or der) in front of them normally will not be declined at all. If you’d like to learn more about how noun declensions work, how to identify weak nouns, and what kinds of exceptions there are, make sure to read our article about it here. 


German Plurals

When we want to talk about two or more of something, we need to use a plural form. In English, that’s usually just the ending -s. German has many different plural endings, but we’ll just focus on the most important stuff first. Speaking of the essentials, let’s start with my video about plural forms!


Alright, ready? The first thing we need to know about plurals is that all plural forms are feminine and use feminine articles. This means that even words that don’t change at all for their plural form will change their gender to feminine to show us that they’re plural! Convenient, right? Let’s take a look at the forms.


Masculine and feminine plurals

Many masculine and a small number of feminine nouns use the ending -e or umlaut + -e to show plurality, like this:

  • die Maus (mouse) → Die Mäuse verstecken sich. (The mice are hiding.)
  • die Hand (hand) → Sie wäscht sich die Hände. (She washes her hands.)
  • der Tag (day) → Die Tage sind im Sommer lang. (The days are long in summer.)
  • der Ball (ball) → Die Bälle rollen herum. (The balls roll around.)


Most feminine nouns, but also masculine nouns that end in -e, -ent, -ist, or -on get the ending n/-en.

  • die Orange (orange) → Er isst die Orangen. (He eats the oranges.)
  • die Banane (banana) → Die Bananen sind krumm. (The bananas are crooked.)
  • der Tourist (tourist) → Die Touristen machen Bilder. (The tourists are taking pictures)
  • der Student (student) → Die Studenten studieren. (The students are studying.)


Masculine nouns that end in -el, -en, and -er often have no plural ending.

  • der Lehrer (teacher) → Die Lehrer benoten Prüfungen. (The teachers grade tests.)
  • der Bäcker (baker) → Die Bäcker kneten Teig. (The bakers knead dough.)
  • der Arbeiter (the worker) → Die Arbeiter streiken. (The workers go on strike.)


Neuter Plurals

Most neuter plurals use the ending -e in the plural form

  • das Bein (leg) → Gogo streckt die Beine. (Gogo stretches his legs.)
  • das Jahr (year) → Die Jahre vergehen. (The years pass.)
  • das Haar (hair) → Er rasiert die Haare ab. (He shaves the hairs off.)


A few neuter nouns will use -er instead

  • das Kind (child) → Die Kinder gehen zur Schule. (The children go to school.)
  • das Buch (book) → Sie packt die Bücher ein. (She packs up the books.)
  • das Fach (subject) → Sie mag all ihre Fächer. (She likes all of her subjects.)

 

Of course, these aren’t all of the plural forms that are out there. If you’d like to get more into the details of how to form plural nouns, you can find the full article about the topic here.

Alright, that’s it for your introduction to German nouns! You can use this overview as a primer, and, when you’re ready, get into the details in our other posts.

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