About the author and the book
Does anyone still visit a library? Isn't everything on the internet? Hasn't it all been discovered? This is a photo of the author holding a copy of one of several PhD theses that used computer analyses to study the connection between German nouns and their gender. These monographs are kept on the fourth floor underground at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich. There are no windows down there, but with a budget of almost USD50 million a year, it is one of the world’s best-stocked libraries for academic research, making the trip worthwhile. It is here that the author discovered how much stuff is not on the internet. The findings from these treatises are not widely known and are not, therefore, taught as part of the regular syllabus for German. In fact, this topic is so obscure that it is not taught at all. Why the sun is feminine and the moon masculine, is definitely not explained in German grammar books or in German dictionaries. Why would anyone want to know that?
About the author
As an analyst at UBS, where he worked for twenty-five years in New York, London and Zurich, he had to connect the dots and make investment recommendations about the future, which by definition is unknowable. In contrast, the nouns that constitute the German language is a closed system and the patterns between those nouns and gender are, by definition, knowable. The digital age made it very easy to run the dictionary through software and see what patterns are revealed – not unlike backtesting economic and financial data to see if they might reveal plausible investment insights.
The results of this data analysis opened up new avenues of research. There was more to these patterns than mere correlations between nouns and their gender.
Having studied Greek and Latin – which, like German, also have three genders – the author started by looking for similar patterns between German nouns and their gender. It was, however, much easier to identify the gender of Greek and Latin nouns – the clues were usually in the noun endings (in the nominative case).
German was different; it was as if it had deliberately been made harder for those outside the tribe.
There were, however, more gender similarities between Greek and German, than between Latin and German. For example, a girl is not feminine, but neuter in both Greek and German for the same reason, namely that the diminutive form in both languages tends to be neuter.
The author assumed that there had to be a comprehensive logic to German nouns and their gender. This issue was simply too important for the ability of a tribe to communicate with its members for it to be arbitrary. There had to be principles according to which new nouns were accorded a gender. Why, for example, is the new noun "Blockchain" feminine? (*Answer provided below). And why are a wall and a door feminine too? (**Answer provided below). Accordingly, the author kept a record of each and every pattern that he found linking German nouns to their gender. Outside of his own research, he found numerous blogs on the topic, but noticed that whereas they typically provided examples of patterns, they never seemed to explain the exceptions to the pattern.
Why the exceptions matter
It was the exceptions that had always interested him. There had to be a reason for the exceptions. The more he focused on the exceptions, the more new patterns he discovered. For example, whereas it is widely known that German nouns ending on ‑ung or ‑heit tend to be feminine, the reason why Schwung should be masculine and Fahrenheit neuter, requires some work to solve the riddle. Thus, the exceptions reveal the insights that, statistically, single-syllable nouns (Schwung) tend to be masculine, whereas many units of scientific measurement (Fahrenheit) are neuter. Once we know that, we can do some reverse engineering to find more patterns. Let's take another example. Here is a noun ending on "-ung": Hornung. This noun is not feminine either, but masculine. The reason is that its synonym is masculine, which is consistent with the statistical pattern that nouns describing similar concepts tend to share a similar gender. Two keys, therefore, are required to unlock the gender code: sounds and meaning.
Focusing on these “exceptions” reveals the important link between German gender and similar categories of nouns. Once we know the significance of similar categories, many pieces of the gender puzzle fall into place.
What started out as the author's hand-written notes to himself, led to the publication of this book, which has been translated into thirteen languages – including German.
*Blockchain: imported nouns are typically first mapped to existing nouns for the same subject matter. Hence, Blockchain is mapped to "Kette" (chain), which is feminine. And nouns ending on "-e" in the nominative singular are feminine 91% of the time. The probability is very high, therefore, that Blockchain would be feminine.
**Flat surfaces tend to be feminine: walls, doors, ceilings, blackboards, plains, etc. – die Fläche, die Ebene, die Wand, die Mauer, die Tafel, die Decke, die Tür, die Seite, die Flanke, die Platte.
Reviews and comments
The book was featured at the Frankfurter Buchmesse in October 2018.
One of the hypotheses of the book, namely, that German native speakers allocate the gender of fake (non-existent) nouns according to a pre-determined pattern, was tested by a reviewer in 2019 via social media (Link).
The book has been extremely well received. The snapshot below from June 2019, for example, shows that the book ranked #1 on the Amazon "Most Wished For" book in the category "German Language Instruction". Amazon computes this ranking daily on the basis of the number of its customers who have added the book to their purchase list.
Source: Amazon.com as of 14 June 2019