Sunday, December 21, 2003

It's well past midnight here. I was in bed for a couple of hours, but I just can't get to sleep. Maybe it's the Coke I had with lunch or the Hershey's Kisses I skeeched after supper, but I can't make my brain turn off.

What, you may be asking, could possibly weigh so heavily on Bonnie's mind as to come between her and her treasured sleep? I'll tell you, but only if you promise not to laugh: I'm concerned about how to refer to my cat in German.

Hey, you promised not to laugh! This is no trivial matter!

I have a cat. His name is Eddie. How easy that is to say in English! But in German? Not so easy, I'm afraid.

If you speak no language other than English, where we have the apple, the flower, and the bread, it's hard to imagine a place where nouns have gender as they do in German: der Apfel (masculine), die Blume (feminine), and das Brot (neuter). Believe me, it can make life very confusing. There is so much I have left unsaid for want of knowing the proper gender of my subject. Better, in my book, to remain silent and be thought introspective than to speak up and be confirmed as gender impaired.

But getting back to Eddie the cat . . .

Cat in German is feminine: die Katze. I read somewhere once that very young children assume all cats to be female, so I suppose on some level this makes sense.

If I want to proclaim my proud position as a cat owner in German, I say, "Ich habe eine Katze." If that's as far as the conversation goes, I'm fine. But what if I'm pressed for my cat's name? Or my cat's coloring? Then I'm truly in a pickle.

There are three pronouns in German for the third person singular: er, sie, and es, which refer respectively to nouns of the masculine, feminine, and neuter genders. So to be gramatically correct, I would have to say of my cat, "Sie heisst Eddie. Sie ist schwarz," because--remember!--die Katze is feminine, and the pronoun must agree with the gender and number of the noun whose place it takes.

But Eddie is a boy!

A couple days ago, I found myself chatting with the secretary at the kids' language school, so I thought I would pick her brain on this issue. (I've been thinking about this for some time, I'm afraid.) She immediately understood my predicament and informed me that I did not have eine Katze at all but rather einen Kater (masculine). She insisted to me that this is the proper terminology for a male cat and expressed surprise that we English speakers do not have special words for describing animals of opposite sexes.

I explained that we do have a special word for a male cat--that is, of course, tomcat, which I described as "The boy cat who runs around the neighborhood and makes babies with every girl cat he bumps into."--when it struck me that my problem is even more confusing than I had thought at first. You see, Eddie is neutered!

Unfortunately, the kids were done with their lessons before I had a chance to ask if there might be yet another word in German for boy cats who sing the soprano lines.

I see only one way out of this mess: I must get another cat and quickly. For then I can talk about meine Katzen (plural) and refer to them collectively as sie, which besides being the third person singular pronoun also moonlights as they. (This poor, overworked pronoun also does time capitalized as you but only in formal situations. I tend to avoid formal situations.)

We used to have a dog, you know--a lovely yellow lab that we raised for Guide Dogs of Texas. In German, the dog is der Hund (masculine). But our dog was a girl! At least until the operation . . .

I may never sleep again.

(With thanks and apologies to Mark Twain and David Sedaris.)

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