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by Mehedi 

June 7, 2022

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In this article I will explain the dreaded subject of declension (Deklination der Nomen) and the four German grammatical cases (Kasus). Feared by many, but once you understand the rules, it will be much less intimidating. 

The term declension in the German language describes the inflection (change) of nouns, articles, pronouns and adjectives according to the four cases: nominative, accusative, dative and genitive. You will also have to consider the grammatical gender (Genus) and whether a noun is singular or plural (Numerus). The grammatical cases help you to identify the function of a noun within a sentence.

In the scope of this article I will focus on the declension of nouns and articles, as this is the foundation of all further learning. But first I will explain what the grammatical cases are and how they are used.

Understanding the Four German Cases (Kasus):

Each grammatical case determines a specific function within a sentence. These functions include the subject (nominative), the direct object (accusative), the indirect object (dative), and the attributive use (genitive).

Let's look at a simple simple sentence:

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Der Mann gibtdem Hunddes Nachbarneinen Knochen.
The man givesthe dogof the neighbora bone.
subject
→ nominative
indirect object
→ dative
attributive use
→ genitive
direct object
→ accusative

It can also help to use questions to determine the grammatical case.

Nominative 

indicates the subject of the sentence, the one that performs the action. It is also used after the verbs: sein, bleiben, werden. It is the basic form you find in the dictionary. 

Ask this Question to determine the nominative case:

Wer gibt dem Hund des Nachbarn einen Knochen? Der MannWho gives the dog of the neighbor a bone? The man

Accusative

indicates the direct object of the sentence, the object which directly receives the action. It is also used after the prepositions: durch, für, gegen, ohne, um

Ask the question:

Wen oder Was gibt der Mann dem Hund? Einen KnochenWhat does the man give to the dog? A bone

Dative

indicates the indirect object, the receiver of the direct object. It is also used after the prepositions: aus, bei, mit, von, zu

Ask the question:

Wem gibt der Mann einen Knochen? Dem HundTo whom does the man give a bone? To the dog

Genitive

indicates possession by s.o./s.th. or attributes of s.o./s.th., and it is also used after certain prepositions: e.g. wegen, trotz, infolge, dank

Ask the question:

Wessen Hund gibt der Mann einen Knochen? Des NachbarnWhose dog does the man give a bone to? The neighbor's.

Depending on the case, the definite or indefinite article changes, and sometimes the ending of the noun itself. The article is the most obvious indicator for German grammatical cases.

Declension with the definite/indefinite (the/a) article in singular

masculinefeminineneutrum
nominative
Wer?
der/ein Maler
der/ein Nachbar
der/ein Gedanke
der/ein Lieferant
die/eine Katzedas/ein Zimmer
das/ein Kind
accusative
Wen/Was?
den/einen Maler
den/einen Nachbarn
den/einen Gedanken
den/einen Lieferanten
die/eine Katzedas/ein Zimmer
das/ein Kind
dative
Wem?
dem/einem Maler
dem/einem Nachbarn
dem/einem Gedanken
dem/einem Lieferanten
der/einer Katzedem/einem Zimmer
dem/einem Kind
genitive
Wessen?
des/eines Malers
des/eines Nachbarn
des/eines Gedankens
des/eines Lieferanten
der/einer Katzedes/eines Zimmers
des/eines Kindes

The declension of definite and indefinite articles is straightforward, though you do have to memorize it. The only tricky bits are some of the differing endings for the masculine and neutrum. But there is some logic to this.

Types of Declension in Singular:

Accusative/dative noun endings:

All feminine nouns remain the same. Most masculine and all neutrum nouns (with the exception of das Herz) do not change either. 

But there are some exceptions that have the letters -n or -en added*:
  • Masculine living beings with the ending -e:
der Junge, den Jungen, dem Jungenthe boy
der Kunde, den Kunden, dem Kundenthe customer
der Rabe, den Raben, dem Rabenthe raven
  • Masculine nationalities with the ending -e:
der Russe, den Russen, dem Russenthe Russian
der Deutsche, den Deutschen, dem Deutschenthe German
  • And a few more masculine nouns, mostly also living beings:
der Bauer, den Bauern, dem Bauernthe farmer
der Nachbar, den Nachbarn, dem Nachbarnthe neighbor
der Bär, den Bären, dem Bärenthe bear
  • Masculine professions originating from other languages:
der Fotograf, den Fotografen, dem Fotografenthe photographer
der Assistent, den Assistenten, dem Assistententhe assistant
Der Advokat, den Advokaten, dem Advokatenthe lawyer
  • Masculine abstracts with the ending -e and one neutrum word (das Herz):

This last group also ends with -s in the genitive case (the others don't!):

der Buchstabe, den Buchstaben, dem Buchstaben, des Buchstabensthe letter
der Wille, den Willen, dem Willen, des Willensthe will
das Herz, das Herz, dem Herzen, des Herzensthe heart

Genitive noun endings:

In the Genitive the fast majority of feminine nouns remain the same. 

And so do names used with article, e.g.:

Some masculine and neutrum nouns have the letters  -es added:

  • Mono-syllabic words:
Die Leiden des jungen Werther.The sufferings of the young Werther.
  • If the last syllable is stressed:
Aufgrund ihres Erfolges wurde sie berühmtDue to her success she became famous.
  • Nouns ending in -s, -ß, -sch, -st, -z, -x:
Am Rande des Glases war eine Fliege.At the rim of the glass was a fly.
Ich habe den Sinn des Witzes nicht verstanden.I did not understand the meaning of the joke.
  • But: Names of people ending with -s, -ß, -x have instead an apostrophe added:
Lars' Auto war kaputt.Lars's car was broken.
Max' Freundin ist nicht zu Hause.Max's girlfriend is not at home.

Nouns that have the letters  -s added:

  • Multi-syllabic words:
Der Griff des Hammers ist aus Holz.The handle of the hammer is wood.
Die Lage des Zimmers war im Obergeschoss. The room was situated upstairs.
  • Most nouns ending on a vowel:
Das Wasser des Sees war kalt.The water of the lake was cold.
Der Geruch des Kaffees ist angenehm. The smell of the coffee is pleasant.
  • Names of people and places:
Er hat Annas Mutter getroffen.He met Anna ́s mother.
Wir wohnen im Zentrum Hamburgs.We live in the center of Hamburg.

Nouns that have the letter  -(e)n added:

  • *The same nouns that have the letter -(e)n added in accusative and dative:
Die Ernte des Bauern war mager.The harvest of the farmer was poor.
Das Käfig des Affen ist klein.The cage of the monkey is small.
Die Arbeit des Fotografen ist schön.The work of the photographer is beautiful.
  • Adjectives transformed into nouns:
Ich glaube an die Macht des Guten.I believe in the power of (the) good.

The genitive is more commonly used in the written language. More casually Germans often use:

von + dative, e.g.

Er hat die Mutter von Anna (Annas Mutter) getroffen.

Der Käfig von dem Affen (des Affen) ist klein.

And finally we have to look at how declension affects the plural form of nouns.

Declension in Plural

Plural declension is much more simple than singular. You only have to remember the declension of the article die, which is identical for masculine, feminine and neutrum. 

If you want to refer to an unspecified amount, you just omit the article altogether, same a in English, e.g.

Fische schwimmen im WasserFish swim in the water.
Ich kaufe Taschen.I buy bags.

The plural nouns remain unchanged in nominative, accusative and genitive

The only case they can change, is the dative, which always needs to end with -n

Exceptions are words ending with -s. They remain unchanged in all four cases.

Declension with the definite (the) article in plural:

words in plural with the following endings:
-e-ensingular & plural are the same-er-s
nominativedie Fischedie Taschendie Hügeldie Kinderdie Büros
accusativedie Fischedie Taschendie Hügeldie Kinderdie Büros
dativeden Fischenden Taschenden Hügelnden Kindernden Büros
genitiveder Fischeder Taschender Hügelder Kinderder Büros

You have now mastered the four German cases and the basics of declension!

Conclusion

There are four grammatical cases in German; the case you use, depends on the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence.

It can be helpful to use the questions: Wer? Wen oder Was? Wem? Wessen? to verify, if the noun is in nominative, accusative, dative or genitive; certain prepositions and a few verbs also require a specific case. 

The article is another good identifier of the grammatical case. Learn which article belongs to which case by heart, there are not that many! Memorizing them will instantly demystify declension for you. 

The endings of nouns can be a bit trickier, but often the noun actually does not change at all. So don't agonize about the endings, it will take some time to get used to. But eventually you will develop a feeling for what sounds right in conjunction with which article.

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Mehedi

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