Why is 'das Mädchen' neuter?

When new students who are beginners learn about gender in German, it usually doesn’t take long before somebody asks “How come a girl is neuter in German?”
They are puzzled because they do know that girls are females, so why do we say ‘das Mädchen‘?

The main and most important reason is that Mädchen ends in ‘chen’ and nouns which are diminutives and end in ‘chen’ are always neuter. This is one of the easiest gender rule to remember.
For example:
Das Brot – bread/ das Brötchen – bread roll (little bread)
Der Korb – basket/ das Körbchen – little basket
Das Haus – house/ das Häuschen – little house, cottage
Der Hase – hare, das Häschen – little cute hare
Das Kaninchen – cute little hoppy thing, I mean, rabbit
Das Meerschweinchen – the cute little pig that came from over the sea, guinea pig

From a historic point of view it must have made sense to have the word for girl as neuter because in those days only boys were important and girls didn’t count until they were married. Even young unmarried women were unimportant, hence they were addressed as ‘Fräulein’ (Words ending in the diminutive ‘lein’ are also always neuter).

Only when a woman got married was she useful and therefore became a ‘Frau’ which is feminine (die Frau).

Luckily, that isn’t the case anymore.

The word Fräulein hasn’t been used for over 40 years (unless you use it to make a little girl feel grown-up). Once a girl reaches adulthood, she is addressed as Frau.  Just like the address Herr doesn’t tell us whether a man is married or not, we don’t need to know if the woman is a Frau or Fräulein.

As for girls, the word Mädchen is still neuter for two reasons, a) because it ends in ‘chen’, b) because nouns ending in ‘chen’ don’t change in the plural. By saying das Mädchen, we know it’s one girl, whereas die Mädchen is more than one.

There is one compromise, though. If we wanted to say ‘The girl is little. She is called Lisa and she lives in Berlin’ we should say ‘Das Mädchen ist klein. Es heißt Lisa und es wohnt in Berlin‘.
That would be grammatically correct and is still sometimes used, because the personal pronoun for neuter nouns is ‘es’.

What you most likely would hear, is: ‘Das Mädchen ist klein. Sie heißt Lisa und sie wohnt in Berlin‘.

That’s better, isn’t it?

PS. If you’d like to know more about German gender and gender rules,  have a look at my Udemy course: German grammar – gender #1 – Is it der, die or das?

 

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