That’s it. Here you will get first hand information about something you always wanted to know: What is the meaning behind the articles. I mean, come on, there are articles in English. There is one definite article and one or maybe two indefinite ones. They really don’t mean a thing. It is just about saying if something is specific or unspecific. So instead of saying ‘the house’ and ‘a house’ one might also say ‘specific house’ and ‘unspecific house’.
And here is the good news: German is no different – at least not on this behalf. Yes, we distinguish between specific and unspecific just as speakers of the English language do. However, (now comes the whole truth), …
… we put information into the article. We use the article as a carrier that is piggy-backing information. Wow! You would never have guessed that. There is even a Wikipedia on German on German articles alone. Hmm, my curiosity led me to the Wikipedia page about English articles, and guess what, it is a lot longer!!! So, there must be something simple about German articles that we haven’t noticed yet.
Let me give you a simple example. So, there are basically three articles in the German language, meaning there are three German translations for the English word ‘the’ which are ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’. The funny thing about German nouns is that you (almost) never know which of the three to choose. In the following example sentences we will talk about ‘die Straße’ (‘the street’ or ‘the road’). It is “die Straße”, hence ‘der’ or ‘das’ would be the wrong article to choose. Let’s not call it feminine even though grammatically speaking ‘die’ is the feminine article, however, there are very few feminine aspects about a street if you think about it. Well, you might argue that both a street and a woman can be curved or straight, but that has nothing to do with what I am trying to explain here.
The following two German sentences are both correct. Believe me. It’s my mother tongue.
'Ich gehe auf die Straße.' 'Ich gehe auf der Straße.'
A word-by-word translation would be something like ‘I go on the street.’ At a first glance you might consider the first sentence correct and the latter incorrect because of the article ‘der’ instead of ‘die’. But let me reassure you that it is just a first glance for a non-native speaker who hasn’t gotten very far yet in his approach to learn the German language. ‘der’ in the second sentence is not wrong but a modified version of ‘die’. Now you know why I was refraining from calling it feminine because now we would be talking about sex transformation instead of German grammar.
With this, two questions come up: How do you know that ‘der’ is a modified ‘die’ and not the original ‘der’, and, why does it change at all? Okay, first things first …
It has to change because it bears information. The first sentence says that I move from here to there with ‘here’ being somewhere off the street, and ‘there’ being on the street. So, I relocate. In the second sentence I just go (or walk) on the street without neither walking onto the street nor leaving it. In English you would probably change the preposition from ‘onto’ to ‘on’. In German, however, we change the article instead.
Very good question. Imagine you are at a carnival ball. And there is a woman dressed like a man. Can you tell the original from the modification? Of course, in most cases, you can.
The same is true for German. Just as in real life when you meat somebody new, you will put him or her into one of two categories, man or woman, right? When learning German you will do exactly the same thing. You encounter a new word such as ‘die Straße” and you put it into one of three categories ‘der’, ‘die’ or ‘das’.
Can you forget the article? No, you also don’t forget that Jack is a man and Jill is a woman, do you?