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Last one counts

German has a lot of compound nouns, and like all German nouns, they of course also have a gender.
Luckily, we don’t really have to learn it, at least not if you know the gender of the parts.

Because the gender of a compound noun will
ALWAYS be the gender of the LAST word in it.

And by ALWAYS I mean almost always.
There are exceptions, in particular nouns that are just one noun and a prefix. Like der Teil and das Urteil.

But if you combine two or more nouns into one word, then 99% of the time, the rule works 100%.


Example. Take these two nouns:

der Sand (the sand), die Wüste (the desert)

And now, let’s check out the compounds.

  • die Sandwüste (the sand desert)
  • der Wüstensand (the desert sand)

And there’s actually a deeper reason why that is the case – German uses the same logic as for adjectives.

In some languages, like French for example, adjectives tend to come AFTER the noun they describe, but in German and English, they come before it.

  • the tall, green tree
  • der große, grüne Baum

The noun is the actual thing. It tells us, WHAT it is. The adjective(s) are describing or specifying it, they tell us WHAT KIND of that thing it is.
And that’s the exact same thing that goes on for compound nouns. The last noun is what it actually is, and the one(s) before specify what type.

  • der Wüstensand (What is it? Sand. What kind of sand? From the desert.)
  • die Sandwüste (What is it? A desert. What kind of desert? A sand desert.)

So in a way, the most defining element actually comes at the end, with all the specifications coming before it.

This is a paradigm called “head-final” and it’s actually a really important concept because German leans heavily head-final (hint: verbs). I’ll talk about this some other time.