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Which is correct: Deutscher Schäferhund or Deutsche Schäferhund?

I am still trying to get a hang of the language. I am not able to find an equivalent usage of an English adjective which has two correct forms (not that it is necessary — it's just easier to learn a rule if you have something equivalent in a language that you already understand).

If there's a general rule governing such cases, I would like to know that as well. I am assuming that both the uses are correct since the Wikipedia page has both forms but I am unable to understand how.

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3 Answers 3

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Short answer: der Deutsche Schäferhund, ein Deutscher Schäferhund

Long answer: It depends; "deutsch" is an adjective in this case, and German adjectives need to be inflected. Inflection is still done the same when adjectives were capitalized for becoming a part of the name (Deutscher Schäferhund).

Singular

  • Nom. der deutsche Hund, ein deutscher Hund
  • Gen. des (eines) deutschen Hundes,
  • Dat. dem (einem) deutschen Hund
  • Acc. den (einen) deutschen Hund

Plural

  • Nom. die deutschen Hunde
  • Gen. der deutschen Hunde
  • Dat. den deutschen Hunden
  • Acc. die deutschen Hunde

There really is no English equivalent since adjectives ("German" shepherd) are usually not inflected.

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3  
Keywords: strong, weak, mixed declension. Shouldn't miss in an answer. –  Em1 Jul 4 at 6:57
1  
It should be mentioned that the same rule applies not only to German dogs but also to German nationals: ein Deutscher but der Deutsche –  Landei Jul 4 at 7:02

In the question it is assumed that there are two correct forms for one adjective. But since adjectives have to be declined in German, it is even "worse" and the number of correct forms is much bigger than two. Let's start with the obvious forms: Adjectives are declined with respect to the three grammatical genders (male, female, neuter); singular and plural have to be distinguished; there are four cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative). So we have 3×2×4=24 forms. But unfortunately that's not the end. There are three schemes for declension and every adjective can appear in each of these schemes. The three schemes are called strong, weak and mixed declension; you have to learn 24×3=72 forms to decline one adjective correctly!

Strong declension is used e.g. when there is no article before the adjective (for example in headlines):

Deutscher Schäferhund

Weak declension is used e.g. when there is a definite article before the adjective:

Der Deutsche Schäferhund

Mixed declension is used e.g. when there is an indefinite article before the adjective:

Ein Deutscher Schäferhund

As the term "mixed declension" supposes, for some forms mixed declension and strong declension are identical, for other forms mixed declension and weak declension are identical.

Now, it is not as bad as you may think after having read this:

  • In plural you need not distinguish between the three genders or between nominative and accusative which reduces the multitude of forms.
  • Neuter forms are always identical in accusative and nominative.
  • There are indicator consonants for some case-gender-number combinations: The nominative-male-singular combination is indicated by the letter "-r" which always must be there. When there is no article, the adjective gets the "-r" (Deutsche*r* Schäferhund); when there is the definite article "der", the adjective needs no more "-r" (de*r* Deutsche Schäferhund); when there is the indefinite article "ein", the adjective again needs the "-r" (ein Deutsche*r* Schäferhund). For dative-male-singular the same holds with "-m": (strong: Deutsche*m* Schäferhund; weak: de*m* Deutschen Schäferhund; mixed: eine*m* Deutschen Schäferhund). Of course, this indicator letter is just a memory hook and doesn't give away where the "-e"s and "-en"s go.

When learning German you need the tables for all the declension schemes (for example listed here) and you have to learn for each article or pronoun whether the following adjective requires weak, strong or mixed declension.

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Even longer answer than Ingmar’s long one:

In German noun phrases (aka. nominal groups etc.), all parts have to agree in gender, number and case. In nominative (R:S:E = m:n:f) and accusative (N:S:E), one of the attributes or the noun itself has to be inflected to show the gender of the phrase. The gender is determined by the nominal lexeme’s linguistic gender (Genus), which is often determined by a derivational suffix, or by the natural gender (Sexus) of its signified. Plural substitutes gender except in personal pronouns.

The noun, i.e. the head of the nominal phrase, can only be inflected by gender if it is a pronoun, an adjective or a participle; although some proper nouns (e.g. Paul, Paula) and common nouns (Freund, Freundin; Helfer, Helferin; Zauberer, Zauberin; Zeuge, Zeugin; Arzt, Ärztin; Witwe, Witwer) arguably inflect by gender, too, though m:f only.

Pronouns of all kinds are rarely accompanied by attributes and when they are, they’re treated like common nouns (incl. uppercase initial and inflection: des wahren Ichs). Most other heads never stand alone, but proper nouns (i.e. names), mass nouns (like Wasser), abstract nouns (Liebe) and plurals may. In predicative use others may as well.

Most of those nominal words that can stand alone may also take attributes without an article. Some article-like attributes are only possible with plural heads.

If an article is present it is always the leftmost attribute or, to put it differently: the leftmost attribute may be an article (since there’s more than d+ and ein+). Possessives (i.e. either pronouns or genitive forms) work the same. Articles and possessives are mutually exclusive – one could also say they belong to a common category. Other attributes follow them and the head noun marks the end of the phrase at the right. The exception are appositions.

Definite articles (das/-er/-ie, dieses/-er/-e etc.) are always strongly inflected by gender. Indefinite articles (ein+, kein+) and possessive pronouns etc. (mein+, dein+, sein+, ihr+) are always weakly inflected by gender, except when used as predicates of course. Cardinal numbers work mostly like indefinite articles, but are always plural, hence no gender.

Adjectives can inflect in three ways (usually termed weak, mixed and strong) and they are also used uninflected as predicates. Attributive adjectives always inflect opposite to the article if any. That means strongly inflected adjectives follow non-inflected attributes and complex inflected attributes (i.e. personal pronouns) or stand alone.

Attributes of the same kind inside the same phrase have to be inflected the same, but “same kind” is sometimes ambiguous, because the leftmost attribute can often be considered either an article or an adjective.

Examples

Das kalte Wasser im See gefriert fast. Die kalten Wasser des Pazifik bewirken El Niño. – weak inflection
Ein kaltes Wasser hätte ich gern. Zwei kalte Wasser, bitte! – mixed inflection
Kaltes Wasser gefällt mir nicht. Kalte Wasser stürzen den Berg hinunter. – strong inflection
Kaltwasser kommt aus dem rechten Hahn. – no inflection
all nominative neuter

Hund (like the composite Schäferhund) is not a mass noun like Wasser:

Der Deutsche Schäferhund, die Deutschen Schäferhunde … – weak
Ein Deutscher Schäferhund, zwei Deutsche Schäferhunde … – mixed
Deutsche Schäferhundestrong
all nominative masculine, last one only possible in plural

By the way, a female German shepherd is either a Schäferhündin or rather a Schäferhundhündin, a male one is always a Schäferhundrüde.

German attributive (article + adjective) inflection, masculine:neuter:feminine

Case   Definite/Demonstrative Indefinite/Possessive  Isolated  Predicative
------+-----------+----------+----------+----------+----------+----------+
 Nom  |   r:s:e   +    e        -:-:e   +  r:s:e      r:s:e       r:s:e
 Acc  |   n:s:e   +  n:e:e      n:-:e   +  n:s:e      n:s:e       r:s:e
 Dat  |     m     +    n          m     +    n        m:m:r         m
 Gen  |     s     +    n          s     +    n        n:n:r         s
  • Definite articles and demonstrative pronouns d+, dies+, jen+, d+jenige(n), d+selbe(n), welch+, jed[wed]+, all+ are used with “weakly” inflected adjectives.
  • Indefinite articles [irgend]ein+, kein+ and possessive pronouns mein+/dein+/sein+/ihr+/uns+/eur+ are used with “mixed” inflected adjectives.
  • Uninflected pronouns or particles der[lei|gleichen], welch, manch, wessen, dessen, deren and mass/plural articles einig+, etlich+, etwelch+ are used with “strongly” inflected adjectives, but there are exceptions. Isolated adjectives also inflect strongly.
  • manch+, einig+ (Sg), mehrere, irgendwelch+ fluctuate.
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