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Nouns with MULTIPLE Articles?! Posted by on Mar 5, 2020 in Current Events, Grammar, Intercultural, Language

Willkommen zu Transparent Language! Der Blog für deine Portion Deutsch! Oder… Das Blog für deine Portion Deutsch? In a recent post, I told you everything you need to know about German Artikel (articles). But there is something I left out. And that is the strange case where one single Nomen (noun) can have multiple Artikel. Why and how does this work?

Coronavirus

You’ve probably not missed the news of das Coronavirus (the coronavirus), an epidemic that has reached many places in the world. My colleague Constanze wrote an post explaining about it in German.

But today I don’t want to focus on this virus, but on its Artikel. As it turns out, Virus is German word that has zwei Artikel (two articles). Since it is such a hot topic right now, it is talked about a lot, and so I can present you with some evidence of this schwankender Artikelgebrauch (varying article use):

In this video, produced by the Bundesministerium für Gesundheit (Federal Ministry of Health), both the title, graphics and the Virologe (virologist) interviewed all use the article das. So you hear das Coronavirus.

And here is an example of a video by the Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club (ADAC) (General German Automobile Club), where the Article der is used:

As you can hear, the presenter almost always uses der Coronavirus – almost always, because right at the beginning he says das sich immer weiter ausbreitende Coronavirus (the ever further spreading coronavirus), instead of der. So what’s going on? Why do two reputable outlets both use different articles for the same noun?

From Neuter Origins

Händewaschen kann helfen, das Virus zu stoppen! Oder den Virus zu stoppen? (Image by CDC at Unsplash.com)

Specifically about the word Virus, the Duden even wrote an article about it, admitting:

Ein Virus ist nicht nur in medizinischer, sondern auch in sprachlicher Hinsicht ein Verwandlungskünstler. (A virus is not only from a medicinal, but also from a linguistic perspective a “quick-change artist”.)

The explanation given is that the fachsprachlicher (technical) term Virus came from Latin, and kept its neuter origin, and so was brought into German as das. However, most words ending on -us are maskulin (masculine), and so der Virus became a thing, too. And today, both Artikel are correct.

There are some more like this. Among German Substantive (substantives), 1.4% take on zwei Artikel, though one of them is often selten (rare), regional begrenzt (regionally limited) or Fachsprache (technical language, jargon). Within these 1.4%, two out of three times the combination is masculine/neuter, so der/das Blog. However, in almost 18% of cases, the combination is masculine/feminine – for example der/die Salbei (sage). And lastly, in some 14% of Substantive, it’s feminine/neuter, such as die/das Email (email).

What most of these words have in common is that they were originally Fremdwörter (foreign words) that entered the German language. Mostly, this affects Nahrungsmittel (foods) or (brand) names of certain items that are referred to as their brand. And sometimes, a new Artikel also comes in from regional variations. For example:

das/die Nutella

das/der Ketchup

die/der Butter (butter – regional variation here! I, coming from the North, am used to die Butter and feel very weird when reading der Butter as a Nominativ!)

Again, here the association may be that the original language had a certain Artikel (e.g. la nutella from Italian) and the Germans, out of what sounds right, gave it the second Artikel. Since das is often used for objects and Fremdwörter, it perhaps sounded right and was thus introduced.

Why Not All?

But guess what – it gets crazier. There are Nomen that can take every single Artikel! Such as:

der/die/das Joghurt (yogurt)

der/die/das Triangel (triangle)

However, there are only 40 Substantive that can take all three Artikel – making up a mere 0.04% of all nouns in German. Even Substantive that don’t use an Artikel at all are a bigger group with 0.1% – such as Aids (AIDS) and Allerheiligen (All Hallows).

So how can you recognize that such Nomen can have no, two or more Artikel? In dictionaries, both Geschlechter (genders) are detoned, such as for the word das/der Blog hereThe Duden gives you Laptop, der oder das to indicate that two articles can be used.

But be careful! Sometimes, a different Artikel also gives a word a different meaning, with so-called Homonyme (homonyms). Die Steuer (the tax) means something else than das Steuer (the steering wheel).

Here are some more examples:

der/das Event (event)

der/die Appendix (appendix)

der/die/das Spam (spam)

die/das Cola (cola)

der/das Gummi (rubber)

der/die Paprika (bell pepper)

der/das Bonbon (piece of candy)

die/der Sellerie (celery)

der/das Quiz (quiz)

der/das Liter (liter)

Does your language have such schwankender Artikelgebrauch? Let me know in the comments below!

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About the Author: Sten

Hi! I am Sten, both Dutch and German. For many years, I've written for the German and the Dutch blogs with a passion for everything related to language and culture. It's fascinating to reflect on my own culture, and in the process allow our readers to learn more about it! Besides blogging, I am a German-Dutch-English translator and filmmaker.