Forming the German plural

QUESTION (received through my Facebook page):

“Well….I have a lot of problems with plurals, specially with those that don’t change (der Fahrer, die Fahrer) and those that change in a weird way (der Saal, die Säle)…and with the singular Tantrum (der Glanz)…since I’m assuming I’ll have to learn them by heart, it would be great to have a list (I am working on my own already, but if I can take advantage of the work of someone else…well, gerne!”

ANSWER:

That is a great question!

Whereas in English we generally just add an -s to the noun to form the plural (though try explaining to a German pupil learning English why it is “children” not “childs”!) German has about a dozen different ways to form the plural and in a lot of cases there is no proper rule for that that’ll cover all the forms. Instead you have more general rules of thumb that’ll cover a large number or some of the cases.

The good news is that you’re in good company. Even well educated Germans at some stage in their lives will come across a plural form they need help with. Just the other day a German Twitter buddy asked what the plural of “Plenum” is. It is “Plenen” though the original Latin plural form “Plena” apparently is also acceptable.

The moment you start learning German you are confronted with plural forms. You cannot form a sentence without using a noun so from Day 1 you need to find a way to learn the relevant plural forms. Given the large number of possible forms, it is best to simply memorise the right one any time you learn a new noun. So rather than just to learn: “das Fahrrad”, learn “das Fahrrad, die Fahrräder”. There really is no quick fix or short cut. (Sorry.)

Especially if you’re at an early stage in your studies, trying to understand possible rules is just going to confuse you unnecessarily. After all most Germans aren’t aware of those rules themselves and as children they also learned the plural forms one by one by trial and error. You could actually go through your whole German studies without ever needing to know the rules but if you have reached a level of expertise where you may want to learn a bit more about those forms, this is what you could do next.

First of all drop over to About.com to see a list of all the possible plural endings to get you started and give you a quick overview.

Unfortunately on those pages there is little in regards to theory so for this go to this Vistawide German page. They provide some additional info with regards to some of those forms.

Read through them all and specifically focus on the likelihoods mentioned in the text. Celebrate rules such as

“All feminine nouns ending in -ei, -heit, -keit, -schaft, -ung have the plural suffix or -en. Feminine nouns ending in -in add -nen in the plural form. These never add an umlaut.”

as they apply to all the nouns in question.

If you read that

“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e.”

then you know that when in doubt you could make a well informed guess with the masculine words (and possibly also the neutral ones) but that the odds are against this ending for the feminine nouns.

Needless to say those rules will help you when you have some time to think about the answer e.g. when you’re writing an essay. Of course, when you’re in the middle of a heated discussion you won’t have time to stop and analyse what possible prefix may make whatever plural form necessary or what the odds are that a specfic noun has an -e as their plural but as an extra bit of info to help you choose the right forms these rules can be quite helpful once you are past the Beginner stage.

So let’s look at your individual queries:

der Fahrer – die Fahrer

This falls under the category of
“Nearly all masculine and neuter nouns that end in -er, -en, -el, -chen, -lein & collective neuter nouns beginning with Ge- have plurals that are identical to their singular forms or that simply add an umlaut.”
“der Fahrer” is masculine and with an -er ending. Hence the form doesn’t change in the plural. Mind you: As the text indicates there are a few exceptions such “der Bauer – die Bauern” but when in doubt rely on the fact that the odds are stacked heavily in your favour that nothing changes for the vast majority of those nouns.

der Saal – die Säle

This belongs to
“Approximately 89% of masculine words, 74% of neuter words, and 25% of feminine words have the plural form -e or -¨e. Feminine nouns with the plural -e always take the umlaut. Masculine nouns often take the umlaut, but not always. Neuter nouns that have the plural -e rarely take the umlaut.”
So this is masculine meaning that it has a high likelihood of a) an -e plural ending and b) adding an Umlaut. If you were just speaking the word out aloud you’d have come up with the right solution just from this rule alone.
What is special about this though is that one of the vowels drops and we don’t write “die Sääle”. Generally we just don’t have two Umlaute in a row so this you just need to remember on an individual basis. Again, you are in excellent company about this. There are numerous threads about this on the Internet – one is here – from German natives wondering about this particular form as well.

der Glanz (the gloss, the shine)

You are right: this as well as some other words do not even have a plural form. Other examples are:
die Milch, die Erziehung, das Publikum, das Obst, das Gemüse, die Ruhe, die Stille.
These are by and large collective nouns or abstract terms where it just wouldn’t “feel” right to use the plural and in a lot (but not all) of the cases the English translation would also not carry a plural.

im am um

im, am, um: Three German words that often get mixed up when used in the context of time.

So here’s a quick run down….

um is used when referring to a specific time on the clock e.g.

Ich treffe Petra um 8 Uhr. ( I’ll meet Petra at 8 o’clock.)

im is used in reference to a specific month or season e.g.

Ich habe im September Geburtstag. (My birthday is in September.)
Wir fahren im Sommer in den Urlaub. (We’ll go on vacation in the summer.)

am refers to a specific day which can either be a weekday or a specific date e.g.

Wir planen am Sonntag die Eltern zu besuchen. (We’re planning to visit the parents on Sunday.)
Weihnachten wird in Deutschland am 24. Dezember gefeiert. (Christmas is celebrated in Germany on December 24.)

Looking for Freedom on the Road South

OK, time to switch off your taste buds, but recently I discussed with an Irish friend of mine who is fluent in German how helpful some of the 1970s German Schlager (pop songs) are when it comes to learning the lingo. They can be pretty annoying, but because they quickly burn their way into your memory will help to remember certain phrases much easier than if you just tried to remember the individual words and sentences. (Also check out Daliah Lavi’s OH WANN KOMMST DU? for learning the days of the week amongst other things.)

He mentioned Tony Marshall’s Auf der Straße nach Süden, a song I hadn’t listened to in ages, and then emphasised that this was quite clearly the model that David Hasselhoff’s Looking for Freedom was based on.

Of course, he was spot on. How could I never have noticed the fact that both songs sound virtually identical? Judge for yourself: Look at the first video from 1978. Marvel at the fact that singers as tone deaf as Tony Marshall became Schlager Stars. Then notice how badly the audience clap to the rhythm and tell yourself: “That explains a lot.” Do not, however, forget to also have one ironic eye scan the lyrics that are also printed on the YouTube page as they will help you e.g. with some of the prepositions (“Auf der Straße nach Süden/mit der Sonne als Ziel”) as well as with some general vocabulary.

Then listen to The Hoff’s video and salute the man who was single handedly responsible for bringing the Berlin wall down. (You did know it was him, didn’t you?)

Easy German on YouTube

The fun videos on YouTube are teaching (or better: demonstrating) the use of practical German. They were created by Solarnet.tv and are meant to complement any regular German language course. They were filmed in Muenster and are bringing back memories from my own time in the university there. In case you’re wondering: Lesson 5 appears to have been deleted by YouTube.

Common Mistake #2 – Incorrect translation of “when”

One thing that I hear time and again by even my more advanced students are sentences like: “Ich werde dich besuchen, wann ich wieder in Irland bin” or “Wenn ich 10 Jahre alt war….”.

The English word “when” has three different translations in German.

The most well known is wann.

“Wann” is only ever used in questions?

Wann kommst Du mich wieder besuchen? (When will you visit me again?)

Wenn of course looks and sounds very similar and can therefore easily be mixed up, but is used in sentences (not questions) for future events or when talking about regular occurences:

Wenn ich nach Dublin fahre, werde ich dich auch besuchen. (When I travel to Dublin I will also visit you.)
Immer wenn ich Kopfschmerzen habe, nehme ich eine Tablette. (Whenever I have a headache I take a tablet.)

Last but not least we have als which again is used in sentences when discussing past events such as:

Als ich 10 Jahre alt war, habe ich erstmals in einem Flugzeug gesessen. (When I was 10 years old I sat in a plane for the very first time.)

So make sure to become aware anytime you want to use the English “when” and use
*Wann in questions
*Wenn in sentences discussing the future or regular occurences
*Als in sentences discussing the past

der See die See

Just as confusing as it can be to see a noun that has two different forms of the plural, we also sometimes come across nouns that appear to have two different genders. Whether we talk about “der See” or “die See” depends on the context and meaning.

“Der See” simply means “the lake”.

“Die See” means “the sea, the ocean”. Other popular words with a similar meaning are “das Meer” or “der Ozean”.

The plural for both of these forms is “die Seen”. The meaning of the plural is context driven, i.e. you cannot just by looking at the word determine whether we talk about “lakes” or “oceans”, however, it is much more common in German to speak of “die Seen” when talking about “the lakes” and instead to substitute “die Meere” when speaking about “the oceans” in the plural.

The best way to memorise these distinctions is probably by simply memorising the name and gender of one proper lake and of one proper ocean. Once you have done that you should never have problems again with the meaning or grammatical gender of these words, e.g.:

der Bodensee (Lake Constanze)

die Ostsee (the Baltic Sea)

Wort Worte Wörter

So what’s the plural for “das Wort”? Is it “die Worte” or “die Wörter”? You will come across both versions and the correct answer is: The plural can be either one of those depending on the context.

Wörter is used when we are talking about a number of individual non-connected words, e.g. when we speak about words in a dictionary.

“In diesem Lexikon sind viele Wörter.”

We talk about Worte when we are dealing with a number of connected words that between them create sentences and phrases, e.g. speaking a couple of words at a funeral.

“Auf dieser Beerdigung werde ich ein paar Worte über den Verstorbenen sagen.”

Beware of false friends – 10 common errors for English speakers learning German

Given some of the similarities that exist between the German and the English language it is easy to believe that everything that sounds alike will also have the identical meaning. Needless to say this isn’t always the case. Below find a list of some of the most commonly made errors for English language speakers learning German. (Or for that matter for German language speakers learning English!)

der After
The fact that this word is capitalised and preceded by a “der” should already help to identify that this is a masculine noun and that therefore the meaning will not be identical to the English “after”. The German term is the proper medical term for the, ahem, “anus”. Given that we are talking posteriors here, this should at least help to create some kind of mnemonic connection between those words.

das Gift
In German “Gift” actually means “poison”. If you wanted to refer to a present you would instead use “das Geschenk”.

bekommen
This does not mean “to become”, but “to receive, to get”, i.e.
Ich bekomme ein Geschenk.
I am getting a present.
(You did remember that “Geschenk” was “gift/present”, didn’t you?)

(ich, er sie, es) will
In German “will” does not describe the future tense, but indicates that either I (ich) or he/she/it (er/sie/es) wants something. It is derived from the irregular German verb “wollen”. For the record, the relevant forms of the verb are:
ich will, du willst, er/sie/es will, wir wollen, ihr wollt, sie wollen
In order to express the future tense in German you would want to use forms of “werden”, e.g.
ich werde, du wirst, er/sie/es wird, wir werden, ihr werdet, sie werden

sensibel
Easily confused with “sensible”, but it actually means “sensitive”.

das Handy
A relatively new term that you likely didn’t learn in school if you first learned German more than 10-15 years ago, “das Handy” means “mobile phone” and has nothing to do with being handy or a handyman. The connection is with “die Hand”, i.e. a phone you carry in your hand, and yes, quite obviously a really dreadful Anglicism. Incidentally in German you wouldn’t “txt” or “text”, but “simsen”, i.e. send an SMS (SiMS, geddit?) message. And a “portable (house) telephone” is a… “Mobiltelefon”.

das Rezept
If you fancy a receipt, go and ask for “die Quittung”. If you are asking for a “Rezept” you would like a recipe for a meal…. and possibly also for a linguistic disaster if you get it wrong and mixed up.

der Chef
In German this is a very common term for “boss”. (Though you could also say “der Boss” or more formal “der/die Vorgesetzte”). If you rather talk about a chef/cook, use the term “der Koch” or “die Köchin” (for a female chef).

eventuell
This means “possibly” or “maybe”. “Eventually” on the other hand is “schließlich” or “letztendlich”.
In a similar vein, aktuell does not mean “actual” or “actually”, but “current, up to the minute”. Use “eigentlich” or “tatsächlich” to translate “actual(ly)”.

There are scores more of these false friends in the German language, but make sure to remember these ten as they are some of the most common ones that, make no mistake, you will confuse at least a few times when first learning the language.

Daliah Lavi – Oh wann kommst Du? (Learning German through music)

One way of learning to understand German (or any other language) is through the use of music.

The melody of any song will help you to memorise certain words and phrases nearly instinctively. Just make sure to follow those steps:

1. Listen to the song and try and understand the lyrics

2. Listen to the song again, but this time also read the lyrics. (You will notice that this time you are already starting to understand more than the first time.)

3. Slowly read the lyrics without listening to the song and translate the passages that you don’t understand.

4. Listen to the song again without the lyrics.

At this stage you should have a good understanding of what the song is about. From now on you can occasionally listen to the song again whenever you feel like it or even have it play in the background, so that certain words and phrases will sink into your consciousness. Learning German through songs is a fun way to quickly gain a good active knowledge of the language.

Have a look at the YouTube video below. Yes, it is not the most sophisticated song ever written and feel free to have a snigger at some of the 1970s décor, but once you have followed this exercise I bet you will have at least mastered the days of week. You will also have mastered one simple question (Wann kommst Du?) as well as some of the most common second person singular forms (Du kommst, Du willst, Du kannst, Du glaubst) and got a feel for the usage of “wenn…. dann…”.

Incidentally, you will also have noticed how many of the lyrics are part of the most commonly used words of the German language.

Not bad for just one simple little song, eh?

Daliah Lavi – Oh, wann kommst Du (Lyrics)

Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag,
Freitag, Samstag, Sonntag jeder Tag
vergeht ohne Ziel

Für mich sieht der Sonntag wie Montag aus
der Alltag ist überall zu Haus
jeden Tag das selbe Spiel

Vielleicht gibt es irgendwo einen Sinn
und irgendwer weiß den Weg dorthin
wo Liebe wohnt

Weil Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag,
Freitag, Samstag, Sonntag weil kein Tag
ohne Liebe sich lohnt

OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (uhhh)
OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (uhhh)

Wenn du gehn willst, lass ich dich gehen
woran du glaubst, werd ich verstehn
du kannst fragen, was du nie fragst
alles sagen, was du nie sagst
du kannst träumen, wovon du gern träumst
und versäumen, was du gern versäumst
wenn du treu sein willst, dann sei doch treu
wenn du frei sein willst, dann bist du frei

OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (kommst du)
da dei da dei da dei da dam da di da da dei da dam da di di di dum la da di da da dadadam
da dei da dei da dam da dei da di da dei da dam da di di di dam la da di da da dadadam

Vielleicht gibt es irgendwo einen Sinn
und irgendwer weiß den Weg dorthin
wo Liebe wohnt

Weil Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch, Donnerstag,
Freitag, Samstag, Sonntag weil kein Tag
ohne Liebe sich lohnt

OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (uhhh)
OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (uhhh)

Wenn du gehn willst, lass ich dich gehen
woran du glaubst, werd ich verstehn
du kannst fragen, was du nie fragst
alles sagen, was du nie sagst
du kannst träumen, wovon du gern träumst
und versäumen, was du gern versäumst
wenn du treu sein willst, dann sei doch treu
wenn du frei sein willst, dann bist du frei

OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (kommst du)
OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst du (kommst du)
OOh, oh oh oh oh oh wann kommst

Popling

I recently came across Popling, a nifty new online application that assists with learning languages as well as other subjects.

The idea is that while some people may find it difficult to devote longer periods of time every day to learning a language, everyone can afford a few seconds here or there. When you download the application you will every once in a while receive a flash card with a term that you will then need to translate and will then learn whether you got this right or wrong. Once you gave the answer you will then continue with your normal work at your computer until sometime later in the day when another flash card with a new term will show up.

For the German version of Popling there are already a large number of possible subjects available on flash cards ranging from learning basic nouns and phrases to food and restaurant vocabulary and even phrases for dealing with problems.

If there is one thing that could be criticised it is that the list of nouns by and large do not include any indication as to what grammatical gender we are dealing with and as I had previously indicated learning the gender of a noun right from the beginning is of the utmost importance. Still, everyone is allowed to upload their own sets of flash cards, so hopefully over time some of those will also be added.

If anyone is using Popling, I would appreciate some comments about it as I have not actually started using it myself.