Credit: Tohidur Rahman (CC by SA 4.0)

Will German lose its noun declensions, like Dutch did? An open and shut case.

Martin Karaffa
5 min readMay 27, 2019

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When English speakers learn German, we kinda vibe with all the verb conjugations and stuff. Once you get over the fact that you can’t really translate I’m loving it, most of us can cope with verbs.

But declining a noun is a different matter. Gender. Case. Der/die/das/den/dem/des/der again/whatever/aaargh.

An English speaker recently asked if German was on its way to giving this steampunky grammatical relic the heave-ho, like Dutch did.

I’m no linguist, but I think the answer is nein. Here’s why.

A Question of Contact

I recall an observation from linguist John McWhorter. He noted that when a language is used as a lingua franca over a long period, the grammar simplifies and the vocabulary becomes more complex.

The classic example is English. The Norman Conquest forced French and Old English to collide, and the English we speak today is an artefact of that time. Our grammar doesn’t decline nouns, and has only basic declension of pronouns. We have no formal and informal voice. But our vocabulary is huge, with Latinate terms often duplicating the original English (e.g. start and commence). As the language of a trading nation — indeed, a nation pursuing global conquest — that collision of English with other languages has continued ever since.

This brings us to Dutch. The Netherlands was another trading nation, and many non-native speakers employed it to trade. Cases had started to slide by the 1700s, and by the 1800s were pretty much gone.

The German language wasn’t subjected to the same historical forces. Overseas commerce was pretty much confined to the Hanseatic League in the north — I’d call them small islands of free trade. Even today, the English spoken as a second language in Hamburg strikes me as particularly elegant, and almost an English dialect unto itself.

Not so for the rest of Germany, which until the late 1800s did business with only neighbouring regions. No need for the language to simplify in order to become a lingua franca.

There are some regional exceptions, of course. Let’s take Boarisch, or Bavarian, the German dialect spoken near where I…

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Martin Karaffa

Marty is an independent strategy consultant specialising in global brands and communications. He is also an Associate Partner of The Culture Factor.