Welcome back to another instalment of our German grammar series in which I answer some of the questions that have popped up on the newsletter. Today’s question is by Douglas:

My question: why do some German nouns add a final ‘n’ in the acc. sing., e.g. ‘meinen Namen’ , einen Geldautomaten, which, of course has to add -en, since the nom. ends in ‘t’. Is there a rule that governs this, and if not, is there a list of offenders one can just learn!

Rule Of The Weak

First of all, these nouns belong to the group of the so called “N-Declension” and are also called “weak nouns”. But before you start wondering whether these nouns are in need of some serious gym time or protein shakes, let’s look at their basic characteristics:

Weak nouns …

  • are always masculine
  • get an additional -n in their Akkusativ, Genitiv and Dativ declension (in singular!)

In other words: not all masculine nouns are weak nouns, but all weak nouns are masculine*. In the case of Douglas’ question, Geldautomat is of course masculine (der Automat).

Let’s have a look at some examples:

  • Ich habe diesen Namen noch nie gehört.  [Akkusativ – der Name]
  • Das ist der Film des neuen Produzenten. [Genitiv – der Produzent]
  • Sie hat dem Jungen Komplimente gemacht.  [Dativ – der Junge]

As you can see all these nouns are masculine and they receive an additional -n in their Akkusativ, Genitiv and Dativ (singular) declensions.

In plural their declension endings are identical. In fact, you only know that they are plural because of the article. Let’s run through the same three examples again, but see how we switch to plural (article colored turquoise) and the declension stays the same:

  • Ich habe diese Namen och nie gehört.
  • Das ist der Film der neuen Produzenten.
  • Sie hat den Jungen Komplimente gemacht.

List Of N-Offenders

The amount of nouns belonging to this group of “n-declensions” is relatively small, but there are some patterns for spotting them, aside from being masculine.

  • Many of these nouns end on -e, -ent, -ant, -ist, -oge or -at.
  • Mostly they describe nationalities, persons or animals

Let’s have a look at some of these:

Nationalities:

  • der Deutsche, der Russe, der Franzose, der Pole, der TĂŒrke, der RumĂ€ne, der Afghane, der Bulgare, der Ire, der Schotte, der Chinese, der Schwede, der Finne, der DĂ€ne, etc.

Examples:

“Ich kenne diesen Franzosen aus dem Fernsehen.” (Akkusativ)

“Das ist die Tochter des Polen von nebenan.” (Genitiv)

“Ich werde mit dem Afghanen sprechen.” (Dativ)

Persons:

  • der Spezialist, der Journalist, der Polizist, der Christ [-ist]
  • der Produzent, der PrĂ€sident, der Agent [-ent]
  • der Intendant, der Leutnant, der Informant [-ant]
  • der Virologe, der Urologe, der PĂ€dagoge [-oge]
  • der BĂŒrokrat, der Aufsichtsrat, der Apparat, der Soldat [-at]

“Ich mag diesen BĂŒrokraten nicht.” (Akkusativ)

“Die Arbeit des Polizisten ist nicht leicht.” (Genitiv)

“Sie gibt dem Agenten die Papiere.” (Dativ)

Animals

  • der Elefant, der Affe, der Löwe, der Hase, der Ochse, der Bulle, der Rabe, etc.

“Ich finde diesen Affen lustig.” (Akkusativ)

“Das Leben eines Löwen im Zoo ist traurig.” (Genitiv)

“Sie geben dem Hasen Futter.” (Dativ)

*Exceptions

As always with grammar, there are exceptions. Here are some words that are part of the group of “weak nouns” but don’t necessarily fit into our previous categories:

  • der Architekt, der Chaot, der Held, der Fotograf, der Herr, der Bauer, der Pilot, der Prinz  [masculine persons, but not ending on -e, -ent, -ant, -ist, -oge or -at.]
  • das Herz [the only non-masculine weak noun]
  • der Automat, der Diamant [masculine nouns ending on -e, -ent, -ant, -ist, -oge or -at, but not nationalities, persons or animals]
  • der BĂ€r, der Fink, der Spatz [masculine animals, but not ending on -e, -ent, -ant, -ist, -oge or -at]

A Dying Breed

So many rules, so many exceptions. Yes, but before you despair, I have some good news: the “n-declension” is almost extinct in colloquial German, i.e. you will hear people leave out the “-n” all the time in daily life, especially in Akkusativ and Dativ. It’s very common to hear people say things like:

  • “Frag den Pilot!”
  • “Kennst du den Prinz von England?”
  • “Geh zu einem Spezialist!”

Strictly speaking it is “incorrect”, but since languages are organic and constantly changing, it may just be a matter of time before the “n-declension” will be fully extinct. Until then I’d advise you to keep in mind that it exists but not be overly worried about it.