Das Mädchen: Why the Word 'Girl' Is Gender Neutral

The logic behind some German Articles

A tall woman in a sma
A German Mädchen is a small woman. Image Source @getty

Have you ever wondered why the word for girl, das Mädchen, is neuter instead of feminine in the German language? Here's what Mark Twain had to say on that topic:

In German, every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in their distribution; so the gender of each noun must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.

When Mark Twain claimed a girl has no sex in the german language, he was of course not talking about the act of sex nor the biological sex. He was playing with the still pretty common initial misunderstanding of many German learners that grammatical gender represented by the articles (e.g. der, das, die) equals biological gender, is also called: sex (male, female and anything in between).

He did not want to say that a young lady had no biological gender. If you look closer at the german word for young lady, you will notice the following:

“das Mädchen” does have a gender called "neuter" – which is indicated by the article “das”. So, why is a girl in the German language a neuter?

Where Does the Word "Mädchen" Come From?

The answer to this question lies in the origin of the word "Mädchen". You might already have stumbled upon minimized things in German – we call them diminutives, for example: Blättchen (=small leave), Wörtchen (=small word), Häuschen (=small house), Tierchen (=small animal) – You might rather know their “grown-up” original versions: Blatt, Wort, Haus, Tier – but we add the "chen"-ending to show that they are small or to express that they are cute.

 And if something is cute, then it is not “sexy” anymore, meaning that it is not female or male anymore, right? 

All “diminutized” words get the article “das” in German.

This also applies to Mädchen as it is the smaller form of.. well... what? Mäd? Almost. Let's take a closer look.

With a bit of fantasy, you might recognize the English word "Maid(en)" in "Mäd" and this is exactly what it is.

A small maid(en).– and this was the German word for woman until the beginning of the 20th century. It might even be familiar to you – as the German Maid (speak: mite) – wandered through the German-Anglo-Saxon culture and settled down in the English language where it established a quite durable meaning as a kind of house-servant – the maid.

A maid in German is denoting a female being which means that it is of female grammatical gender. Therefore it is used with a female article of which there are:

  • die-Nominative
  • die-Accusative
  • der-Dative
  • der-Genitive

By the way: Should you want to learn or refresh your articles, I can recommend this song composed by a partner and friend of mine (the song starts somewhere around 03:35) that makes learning them in all cases a "Kinderspiel" (with help of beautiful "Klavierspiel").

Of course “girls” (nor men) do not lose their biological sex/gender by getting the diminutive ending –chen.

It's actually pretty interesting that the meaning of "maid" shifted to it's nowadays' meaning of "girl" in German and how that happened in detail, I guess would lead too far here. I hope your curiosity regarding how the Germans can even consider a girl to be a neuter being has been satisfied.

How to Diminutize in German

Simply remember, whenever you see a word ending with –chen, it is a diminutive of its big original. And there is yet another ending you might come across, especially when you like to read older literature or children's books:  it’s the ending  ‘-lein’ like in “Kindlein”  - the little child, for example, or like in “Lichtlein”, the little light. Or the story "Tischlein deck dich" by the Grimm brothers (click here for an English version of that article).

Germans learn these endings in primary school with this sentence:

“-chen und –lein machen alle Dinge klein.” 
[-chen and –lein make all things small.]

There is no clear rule regarding when to use which of these two endings. But : the –lein – ending is a very old German form and is not really being used anymore and very often there are both forms, like e.g. Kindlein and Kindchen.

So if you want to form a diminutive on your own – you better do it with the –chen ending.

By the way – did you ever wonder where “ein Bisschen” comes from? I guess you are able to answer this question now.

PPS: A small German man, the "Männchen", probably best known in form of the East German Ampelmännchen, shares the same fate as German girls.
 

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Schmitz, Michael. "Das Mädchen: Why the Word 'Girl' Is Gender Neutral." ThoughtCo, Jan. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/why-girls-have-no-sex-in-german-1444813. Schmitz, Michael. (2017, January 29). Das Mädchen: Why the Word 'Girl' Is Gender Neutral. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/why-girls-have-no-sex-in-german-1444813 Schmitz, Michael. "Das Mädchen: Why the Word 'Girl' Is Gender Neutral." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/why-girls-have-no-sex-in-german-1444813 (accessed November 19, 2017).