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Looking at adjectives like "alt", "jung", "lang", "kurz" and their respective comparative degree "älter", etc. I get the impression that their sense is inversed.

Like in "älteres Auto"/older car, the car is not as old as the "altes Auto"/old car. Or the "längerer Weg"/longer route is actually shorter than "langer Weg".

Why is this and when is this used? Is this a stylistic device like an oxymoron ("Alter Knabe"/old boy)?

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I can't share your impression. Perhaps it's meant to be ironic but in that case I don't get it ;) –  cr0 May 12 at 9:00
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It's a real thing, though: de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Komparation#Nicht_vergleichender_Gebrauch –  elena May 12 at 9:16
    
Nice question... I have had a dicsussion about what coke of the following orders will have less ice "Cola, mit wenig Eis." or "Cola, mit weniger Eis" –  Emanuel May 12 at 9:44

2 Answers 2

up vote 11 down vote accepted

What you're looking for is called "absoluter Komparativ".

Komparative in Ausdrücken wie ein älterer Herr oder auch ein kürzerer Beitrag werden als “absolut” bezeichnet, weil sie losgelöst von einer Vergleichskonstruktion gebraucht werden. Der absolute Komparativ beschäftigt schon seit der Antike Logiker und Sprachwissenschaftler, weil er sich als “Störenfried” nicht ohne weiteres in die gängigen Theoriekonzepte zur Komparation einfügen will. (source)

Research about it seems to be going on:

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I'm glad it has a name :D –  PsiX May 12 at 9:53
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@PsiX: Note that this is true only when used outside of an actual comparison. "Das ist ein älteres Auto" means a somewhat older, but not "really" old car, when it's the only car you are looking at. "Dieses ist das ältere Auto", when looking at two cars side-by-side, does indicate that this is older than the other. Tricky, I (native German) never reflected on this... –  DevSolar May 12 at 10:48

Compare it to English. "That's an older car" obviously means it's getting old, but isn't quite there yet.

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