I was taking some meeting minutes with a colleague yesterday. We did the whole meeting German -- it was all native speakers bis auf Yours Truly, so there was no reason not to. But we wanted to record the decisions and action plans in English, since the wider audience is not likely to be just German-speakers. This happens pretty frequently where I work.

I noticed we were using plenty of Denglish (that is also a fact of life in my line of work), and for a distraction at the end of a tiring day I asked about the gender of all those English words we'd employed in the discussion:

  • die Farm (as opposed to der Bauernhof)
  • der Level (as opposed to die Ebene or die Schicht)
  • der View (as opposed to die Sicht or die Maske)
  • die Mail, because die Nachricht (but some say das Mail)

I got faux ornery 1 at my colleague. I asked him, accusingly, "so how did the entire German Rasse 2 collectively decide which gender to assign to which words you imported from my native language you obviously prefer over perfectly usable equivalent terms in your own Muttersprache?

His answer:

Well, we usually just keep the gender from the original language.

I guffawed. "These are all English words. They don't have a gender at all. You have arbitrarily chosen one for them in your language!"

His response: "Yes, but...wait, does that mean you really don't think of...I don't know, the Moon, as masculine or feminine?"

My retort: "Kann er bumsen?"

His rebuttal: "Nein, aber der Mann im Mond!"

My reply: "Ja, der schon, aber sein Wohnort nicht!"

The Sun and Moon are nice examples, since German flips the gender roles around there, compared to Romance languages. I pontificated thusly: "Our languages are really quite similar, especially considering the differences between, say, Ancient Egyptian and Mandarin. But despite our similarities, there must be something fundamentally different between our two languages if you never considered that we have no deep-down-unexpressable feeling that the inanimate objects have inherently masculine or feminine aspects."

We got into a few edge cases, like das Mädchen, but that's easily explained away to diminuitives. I said "look what you did to that poor girl, taking away her gender completely!" He justified it with das Kind as OK, so maybe das Mädchen is NBD... But der Junge 3 gets to keep his masculine...um, article.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this discussion: I've had it before -- with other native German speakers, talented in English and other European languages.

This opened a whole new Fass: 4 how much does gender in one's native language (or the lack thereof) influence our abilities to really understand foreign speakers, or native speakers when we are the foreign speakers?

1. Pronounced fo zorneREE.
2. He cringed, and I admit to delighting in that.
3. Really just an abbreviation of der junge Mann.
4. ein Fass aufmachen = open a can of worms