Shortly after arriving in Germany, my wife (who is German) told me: “Phil, there’s a spider in the bathroom. Can you take her outside?” I remember feeling very impressed that my wife knew the difference between a male and female spider.
Of course, she didn’t. She was simply using the German idea that a spider takes the feminine gender (die Spinne).
German is well-known for having three genders (the famous der, die and das), but English actually also has three: he, she and it.
Der, die, das
In German, every noun has a gender. Tree, chair and a computer are all examples of masculine nouns (der Baum, der Stuhl, der Computer), and bridge, credit card and flower are all feminine (die Brücke, die Kreditkarte, die Blume), but it would sound strange in English to hear: “He’s the best chair I’ve ever seen,” or “I can’t find my credit card, I hope she hasn’t been stolen.”
Incredibly, child, girl and baby are all neuter nouns in German (das Kind, das Mädchen, das Baby), so it wouldn’t be unimaginable to hear a German make the mistake of saying: “The girl is playing outside. It looks very happy.”
He, she, it
Unlike German, however, the English genders are simply used for males (he), females (she) and objects (it).
There are a few exceptions, however:
Animals are treated as objects until the gender of that particular animal is known. When meeting a dog owner, you might ask: “You have a very nice dog. What’s its name?”, to which the owner might reply: “Her name is Susi.”
Countries, ships and vehicles are sometimes referred to as feminine, but this is considered either old-fashioned or affectionate:
“She’s a fine old ship.”
“I don’t like Jamaica, I love her.”
“I’ve just bought a new car. She’s a beauty!”
A client of mine once said: “Our office printer is quite old. He isn’t working today.” (printer in German is masculine: der Drucker). I told her that she should say “It isn’t working today” or to give the printer a name (e.g. John). I would just have to remember she’s talking about the printer whenever she tells me that “John isn’t working today”!
A simple rule to follow is: “If it’s not human or animal, just use ‘it‘.” It’s much easier than naming everything you own!
If you have any questions about this topic, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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