ArticleGerman declension
AuthorHelmut Richter
published / modified /
Article URLhttp://hhr-m.userweb.mwn.de/de-decl/
Chapter4. Noun declension
This pagehttp://hhr-m.userweb.mwn.de/de-decl/noun/
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Noun declension

The declension of most German nouns underlies one of several patterns which are described in this chapter. The preceding two chapters dealt with the declension of other parts of speech in German. At the end of this article, there is a large collection of fully declined examples covering the patterns described.

Formation of plurals

Along with each German noun, one has to learn its gender and its plural. When these two are known, the remaining cases can nearly always be inferred, except for masculine nouns with an -en plural, most – but not all – of which are subject to a special declension pattern called weak declension. By the following rules one can get a feeling which formations are frequent, infrequent, or impossible, but they cannot save the labour of learning at least the genders and the plurals of the words.

Most words of German origin end with the word stem, with a schwa ending (that is, -e, -el, -en, or -er; each with an unstressed -e- realised as schwa) or with one of a handful of other endings, such as -ung (f), -heit (f), -keit (f), -schaft (f), -in (f), -nis (n or f), -tum (n, seldom m), -sal (n or f), -lein (n), -chen (n, at the same time a schwa ending), -ling (m), or -ig (m). For words of all these shapes there are a handful of plural endings, typically -e, -n, -er or no ending. These formations are called German-style plural in this article; they will be discussed in the two sections following this one.

German words that do not fit in this pattern mostly get a plural ending -s, in particular words ending with full vowels -a, -i, -o, -u (but not -ai, -ei, -au, -äu, -eu, -ee, -ie), also acronyms and abbreviations. Low German loan words in High German can also have a plural -s ending; this Low German -s ending is also becoming more and more popular for words like Mädel (gal) or Kumpel (buddy) which have also a standard plural formation without -s.

Foreign words often have German-style plurals when they have been loaned into German for a longer time and when they can be fitted to the above shapes. There is no hard rule, and quite similar-looking words may have dissimilar plural forms. Thus the following observations can only give the trend:

A number of exceptional or remarkable plural forms are listed in Ralph Babel’s FAQL.

“German-style” plural forms

The formation of plurals called “German-style” in the last section consists in two changes to the word, of which none, one, or both take place:

Which of these two changes apply for a given word depends on its gender and its shape:

  1. Words ending with the word stem or with a non-schwa ending mostly get an -e ending when masculine or neuter, and an -n ending when feminine.

  2. A small number of frequent monosyllabic words of German origin get a different ending: -er when masculine or neuter, and -e when feminine.

  3. Words with a schwa ending get no plural ending when masculine or neuter, and an extra -n ending when feminine.

  4. In addition, masculine words can get an -n ending; most of them underlying weak declension as described in the next section.

  5. A vowel -a-, -o-, -u-, -au- in the word stem changes to umlaut always in case 2 of this list, never with an -n ending, and mainly for masculine words in the remaining cases.

These rules are summarised in the following table (u stands for umlaut, w stands for weak declension). The green fields represent the combinations that adhere to the above rules. The red fields are exceptional combinations – the given examples are meant as more or less exhaustive. Not contained are plural formations which do not exactly follow the rules in this section; for instance, many foreign words losing their original ending when acquiring the plural ending -en behave like the words the group of exceptions marked k.

-n
w
-n -e
u
-e -er
u
-
u
- Exceptions
m stem or non-schwa ending   a b   c     aTyp¹), Papagei, Psalm, -or³);
bGeneral²), Kanal, Palast, Tenor²);
cIrrtum, Reichtum;
dDorn¹), Pfau, Schmerz, See, Staat, Strahl, Zins;
eKäsefBauer¹), Bayer;
gMuskel, Pantoffel, Stachel, VetterhCharakter
monosyllabic German   d          
ending -e             e
ending -el, -en, -er f g   h      
f stem or non-schwa ending       i       i-nis, -sal;
jMutter¹), Tochter
monosyllabic German              
ending -e, -el, -er           j  
n stem or non-schwa ending   k     l   m kLeid, Insekt, Juwel, Verb;
lRegiment¹), -tumm-leinnHerz;
oBett, Hemd, OhrpFloß;
qAuge, Ende, InteresserAbwasser, Kloster
monosyllabic German n o p        
ending -e, -el, -en, -er   q       r  

¹) These words have more than one declension, see section on polysemes.
²) Tenor (stressed on second syllable, high male voice) and General have also plurals without umlaut, with no difference in meaning.
³) -or refers to masculine words with that ending which denote a person or a technical or mathematical device performing some action referred to in the word, e.g. Autor, Professor, Kondensator, Quantor. These words have the stress always on the penultimate syllable; that is, in the singular before and in the plural on -or; they build the plural by appending -en (see also Direktor in the table of examples). The remaining words with -or (other stress, other meaning) have mostly a plural with -e. None of the words in both groups are subject to weak declension.

Weak noun declension

With the exception of Herz, all nouns subject to weak declension are masculine. Among the m nouns, the following are subject to weak declension:

  1. all nouns ending with -e denoting persons or animals, e.g. Bote, Kunde, Däne, Franzose, Löwe, Rabe

  2. many monosyllablic nouns of German origin denoting persons or animals, e.g. Mensch, Fürst, Held, Bär – but other m words meeting these criteria are not weakly declined, e.g. Mann, Freund, Wirt, Hund

  3. a few nouns ending with -r denoting persons where the -r belongs to the word stem and is thus not an ending, e.g. Bauer, Nachbar (=Nah-Bauer), Bayer, Pommer, Ungar, but no words with the ending -er

  4. all other nouns ending with -e (except Käse), e.g. Friede, Glaube, Gedanke, also Herz (n) and Fels

  5. many nouns with endings from foreign languages, to wit:

    1. all nouns with one of the stressed endings -ant, -ist, -and, -end, -et, -graph, -graf, -soph, -lith, -path, -nom irrespective of whether they denote persons, animals, or anything else – but no nouns with one of the stressed endings -al, -ar, -eur, or with the ending -or which is stressed in the plural only.

    2. nouns with one of the stressed endings -at, -it, -ent when they denote persons or animals, e.g. Soldat, Bandit, Referent

    3. some other words with those endings, e.g. Automat, Satellit, Koeffizient, Quotient – but not for instance Apparat, Profit, Akzent, Kontinent.

In weak declension, the words take an -n ending not only in the plural but in all cases except m-N (Herz, being n, in all cases except n-NA). As explained before, the -n becomes -en except after a Schwa ending or other -e. The words of item 3, however, append always only -n, and so does Herr in the singular.

The words of item 4 in the list get an additional -s in the mn-G case: m-N Funke, m-G Funkens, m-DA and p-NGDA Funken. Note that this declension differs from a standard declension of Funken only in the m-N case; the declension with the -ens genitive is thus a mixture of the declensions of Funke and Funken which both exist and are synonyms. In fact, most of these words exist with two m-N forms with and without final -n. With Friede(n), Fels(en), Funke(n), Gedanke(n), Glaube(n), Name(n), Wille(n), the shorter form is the normal one but the longer one is also in use; with Gefalle(n), Haufe(n), Same(n), Schade(n), the shorter form is obsolescent or obsolete. A special case is Drache(n) where the shorter form conveys the original meaning “dragon” whereas the longer form is used for figurative meanings. With other words (e.g. Brunnen, Kuchen, Nutzen, Rücken), the ancient m-N forms without -n have entirely disappeared and are no longer considered correct.

As a recent change, there is a trend to use strong declension for some of these words in sloppy language, in the genitive case less so than in dative and accusative.

Remaining cases

Up to now, we have studied the formation of the p-N case for all words and of all cases for words underlying weak declension. The remaining cases for non-weak declension are:

The usage of the optional -e ending for mn-D case and of the -es instead of the -s ending for mn-G case normally occurs only with words of German origin ending with a stressed root syllable. It is not possible with words with a schwa ending, with a diminutive ending -chen or -lein, with an unstressed foreign ending or with a full vowel other than a diphthong at the word end. In the remaining cases (foreign words, other words with unstressed last syllable, words ending with stressed diphthong at the word end), it is very uncommon but occurs here and there.

When a final [s] sound in the uninflected noun would render the genitive -s inaudible, that is, with words ending with -s, -ss, , -z, -tz, -x, German words and foreign words stressed on the last syllable mandatorily get an -es ending (des Gases, des Rosses, des Kreuzes, des Schatzes, des Hindernisses, des Kolosses, des Kompromisses) whereas words with unstressed foreign ending get no genitive ending at all (des Status, des Mythos, des Index) with exceptions only when the word is no longer perceived as foreign (des Busses, des Atlasses, des Zirkusses or des Zirkus). For other words as well, facilitation of pronunciation is an incentive of using the longer form with -es; in particular with lax plosives after long vowel at the word end (des Siebes, des Rades, des Tages). and with word-final consonal clusters ending with -sch, -t, or -d (des Barsches, des Mastes, des Hemdes). It is, however, neither mandatory for these words nor unusual for other words (des Tals or des Tales, des Kinns or des Kinnes).

Where there is free choice between -s and -es genitive, usage of -es has a slight poetic or archaic touch. The always optional -e dative ending, however, is pronouncedly archaic; many speakers use it only in idioms, e.g. bei Lichte besehen ([seen] in the cold light of day), im Grunde (basically), zu Tage treten (outcrop), im rechtlichen Sinne (in the legal sense), in diesem Sinne (in this spirit).

Declension of polysemes

Polysemes, that is, words that have different but related meanings in different contexts, have sometimes developed different declensions for the different meanings. In particular the formation of the plural is occasionally dependent on the meaning.

There is one recurring pattern with several neuter words having a plural with -er in the normal context, and a plural with -e used only in elevated or poetic language for a special case: Lichter (all kinds of lights) – Lichte (candles or other small non-electric lamps); Gesichter (faces) – Gesichte (visions); Bänder (tapes, ties, ribbons) – Bande (emotional bonds); Tücher (cloths) – Tuche (fine textile fabrics); Länder (countries) – Lande (lands, realms). The distinction between Wörter (words, lexical items, dictionary entries) and Worte (words, expressions, sayings) follows the same pattern but there is nothing elevated or poetic about the usage of Worte. Note also the pairs Geister (spirits, ghosts) – Geiste (brandies, distilled liquids) where the word is masculine and Schilder (signboards, plates) – Schilde (shields) where the word is neuter in the first meaning and masculine in the second.

Here are some other examples of differently declined polysemes with their nominative and genitive singular and their nominative plural:

Examples

The following list of examples begins with the declensions represented by the green and red field in the table of German-style plurals, and in the same sequence when the matrix is read column by column.

-n
w
m   der Diamant
die Diamanten
des Diamanten
der Diamanten
dem Diamanten
den Diamanten
den Diamanten
die Diamanten
  der Mensch
die Menschen
des Menschen
der Menschen
dem Menschen
den Menschen
den Menschen
die Menschen
  der Buchstabe
die Buchstaben
des Buchstabens
der Buchstaben
dem Buchstaben
den Buchstaben
den Buchstaben
die Buchstaben
f der Bauer
die Bauern
des Bauern
der Bauern
dem Bauern
den Bauern
den Bauern
die Bauern
n n das Herz
die Herzen
des Herzens
der Herzen
dem Herzen
den Herzen
das Herz
die Herzen
-n m a der Direktor
die Direktoren
des Direktors
der Direktoren
dem Direktor
den Direktoren
den Direktor
die Direktoren
d der Staat
die Staaten
des Staat(e)s
der Staaten
dem Staat(e)
den Staaten
den Staat
die Staaten
g der Stachel
die Stacheln
des Stachels
der Stacheln
dem Stachel
den Stacheln
den Stachel
die Stacheln
f   die Zeitung
die Zeitungen
der Zeitung
der Zeitungen
der Zeitung
den Zeitungen
die Zeitung
die Zeitungen
die Bäckerei
die Bäckereien
der Bäckerei
der Bäckereien
der Bäckerei
den Bäckereien
die Bäckerei
die Bäckereien
  die Frau
die Frauen
der Frau
der Frauen
der Frau
den Frauen
die Frau
die Frauen
  die Schwester
die Schwestern
der Schwester
der Schwestern
der Schwester
den Schwestern
die Schwester
die Schwestern
n k das Leid
die Leiden
des Leid(e)s
der Leiden
dem Leid(e)
den Leiden
das Leid
die Leiden
o das Ohr
die Ohren
des Ohr(e)s
der Ohren
dem Ohr(e)
den Ohren
das Ohr
die Ohren
q das Auge
die Augen
des Auges
der Augen
dem Auge
den Augen
das Auge
die Augen
-e
u
m b der Kanal
die Kanäle
des Kanals
der Kanäle
dem Kanal
den Kanälen
den Kanal
die Kanäle
  der Kopf
die Köpfe
des Kopfes
der Köpfe
dem Kopf(e)
den Köpfen
den Kopf
die Köpfe
f   die Hand
die Hände
der Hand
der Hände
der Hand
den Händen
die Hand
die Hände
n p das Floß
die Flöße
des Floßes
der Flöße
dem Floß(e)
den Flößen
das Floß
die Flöße
-e m   der Kontakt
die Kontakte
des Kontakts
der Kontakte
dem Kontakt
den Kontakten
den Kontakt
die Kontakte
  der Arm
die Arme
des Arm(e)s
der Arme
dem Arm(e)
den Armen
den Arm
die Arme
h der Charakter
die Charaktere
des Charakters
der Charaktere
dem Charakter
den Charakteren
den Charakter
die Charaktere
f i die Kenntnis
die Kenntnisse
der Kenntnis
der Kenntnisse
der Kenntnis
den Kenntnissen
die Kenntnis
die Kenntnisse
n   das Geheimnis
die Geheimnisse
des Geheimnisses
der Geheimnisse
dem Geheimnis
den Geheimnissen
das Geheimnis
die Geheimnisse
  das Bein
die Beine
des Bein(e)s
der Beine
dem Bein(e)
den Beinen
das Bein
die Beine
-er
u
m c der Irrtum
die Irrtümer
des Irrtums
der Irrtümer
dem Irrtum
den Irrtümern
den Irrtum
die Irrtümer
  der Mann
die Männer
des Mann(e)s
der Männer
dem Mann(e)
den Männern
den Mann
die Männer
n l das Regiment
die Regimenter
des Regiments
der Regimenter
dem Regiment
den Regimentern
das Regiment
die Regimenter
  das Kind
die Kinder
des Kind(e)s
der Kinder
dem Kind(e)
den Kindern
das Kind
die Kinder
-
u
m   der Bruder
die Brüder
des Bruders
der Brüder
dem Bruder
den Brüdern
den Bruder
die Brüder
f j die Tochter
die Töchter
der Tochter
der Töchter
der Tochter
den Töchtern
die Tochter
die Töchter
n r das Kloster
die Klöster
des Klosters
der Klöster
dem Kloster
den Klöstern
das Kloster
die Klöster
- m e der Käse
die Käse
des Käses
der Käse
dem Käse
den Käsen
den Käse
die Käse
  der Knochen
die Knochen
des Knochens
der Knochen
dem Knochen
den Knochen
den Knochen
die Knochen
n m das Männlein
die Männlein
des Männleins
der Männlein
dem Männlein
den Männlein
das Männlein
die Männlein
  das Rudel
die Rudel
des Rudels
der Rudel
dem Rudel
den Rudeln
das Rudel
die Rudel
-s m   der Opa
die Opas
des Opas
der Opas
dem Opa
den Opas
den Opa
die Opas
  der Gorilla
die Gorillas
des Gorillas
der Gorillas
dem Gorilla
den Gorillas
den Gorilla
die Gorillas
  der LKW
die LKWs
des LKW(s)
der LKWs
dem LKW
den LKWs
den LKW
die LKWs
f   die Oma
die Omas
der Oma
der Omas
der Oma
den Omas
die Oma
die Omas
  die Sauna
die Saunas
der Sauna
der Saunas
der Sauna
den Saunas
die Sauna
die Saunas
  die GmbH
die GmbHs
der GmbH
der GmbHs
der GmbH
den GmbHs
die GmbH
die GmbHs
n   das Sofa
die Sofas
des Sofas
der Sofas
dem Sofa
den Sofas
das Sofa
die Sofas
  das Büro
die Büros
des Büros
der Büros
dem Büro
den Büros
das Büro
die Büros
o
t
h
e
r
m   der Radius
die Radien
des Radius
der Radien
dem Radius
den Radien
den Radius
die Radien
  der Atlas
die Atlanten
des Atlasses
der Atlanten
dem Atlas
den Atlanten
den Atlas
die Atlanten
f   die Matrix
die Matrizen
der Matrix
der Matrizen
der Matrix
den Matrizen
die Matrix
die Matrizen
n   das Praktikum
die Praktika
des Praktikums
der Praktika
dem Praktikum
den Praktika
das Praktikum
die Praktika
  das Thema
die Themen
des Themas
der Themen
dem Thema
den Themen
das Thema
die Themen
  das Virus
die Viren
des Virus
der Viren
dem Virus
den Viren
das Virus
die Viren
  das Genus
die Genera
des Genus
der Genera
dem Genus
den Genera
das Genus
die Genera