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In English "here" and "there" are typical pairs to indicate space and distance. The same is true of Hungarian ("itt" and "ott").

But in German it's a bit different: I have seen "da" many times in contexts when I would have used "hier". And I have even read "da" and "dort" together as a pair.

My question is: how to use these three deixes (spatial adverbs) properly in German?

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up vote 15 down vote accepted

Generally, if 'hier', 'da' and 'dort' are used to designate place of varying distance, then - 'hier' refers to closest proximity - 'da' refers to a larger distance from the speaker - 'dort' indicates largest distance.

Imagine you talk to someone within an interesting park full of interesting features.

'Hier stand die alte Mauer der Stadt, da war der Wachturm, und dort (drüben) war das alte Rathaus'

However, nobody takes it as strict. In particular, 'da' and 'dort' are often used interchangably. These rules do not cover idiomatic usage (e.g. phrases like 'hier und da'), or you may completely dismiss the distance rules if you refer to a couple of locations and don't want to repeat the same word over and over again.

(When revering to a map:) 'Hier ist die Autobahn A3, dort sind wir, und da war ist die Raststätte wo wir gestern gegessen haben'.

For more information about the (lack of) difference between 'da' and 'dort' see this article published from the Philologisch-Historische Fakultät Universität Augsburg.

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2  
Laut Duden dürfen beide anscheinend auch im selben Kontext verwendet werden … Hast du nähere Informationen, warum das eine für weite, das andere für sehr weite Entfernung benutzt wird? – PattaFeuFeu Nov 4 '12 at 23:49
1  
Es scheint ein debattierbares Thema zu sein: philhist.uni-augsburg.de/lehrstuehle/germanistik/… - In formaler Sprache würde ich im Zweifelsfall das dreistufige Konzept verwenden. Das dürfte aber nur interessierten auffallen. Dem Rest ist es faktisch egal. – shuhalo Nov 5 '12 at 0:08
    
@PattaFeuFeu Ich würde sagen, dass "Im Wald, da sind die Räuber" und "Auf der Alm, da gibt's koa Sünd" mit dort nicht stimmig klingen, kann aber am "idiomatischen" Charakter liegen. – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 6 '12 at 16:22

In addition to the previous answer, which takes care of the distinction of the three words with respect to each other, I though I'd add some detail to "da" being used synonymously with "here".

I have seen "da" many times in contexts when I would have used "hier"

That's an absolutely correct observation.

Basically, "da" in colloquial speech, when referring to a place, can mean here, there, or a more general "everywhere" (as in, "er ist wieder da" for "he's back; he has returned; he has come back").

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Rules of thumb

When forming German sentences as a native English speaker:

  • Use hier for here and da for there.
  • When targeting a high register, sometimes dort is better than da when it is emphasised.
  • When there is any kind of doubt whether to use da or one of hier, dort, always prefer da.

When making sense of German utterings as a native English speaker:

  • Dort translates to [over] there.
  • Hier typically translates to here, but keep in mind that sometimes it translates to there.
  • Da is more likely to translate to there than to here, but you should be equally open to both interpretations.
  • If there is an opposition hier - dort or hier - da, it translates to here - there. (The same is true for an opposition da - dort. But that's rare because it's colloquial but most German speakers don't use dort in colloquial speech.)
  • If something looks like a ternary opposition hier - da - dort, it's more likely that a binary opposition hier - da/dort is intended.

Rationale

Coming from English, the following should help to understand what's going on:

  • hier = here
  • da/dort = there
  • Most German speakers don't make the here-there / this-that distinctions as systematically as most English speakers do. In the absence of a direct opposition as in "Do you mean this or that?", hier and da are basically interchangeable. This is a natural development because the here - there distinction can be used not just for space but also to refer to different previously mentioned parts of speech, similar to the latter - the former. Since the two aspects can result in contradictory distinctions, this starts a natural erosion process that seems to have progressed faster in German than in English.
  • But dort belongs to a high register and is not affected by this erosion.
  • Hier and especially dort automatically carries a certain amount of emphasis. Many speakers never use dort in natural speech (it may sound affected), and even hier is very often replaced by da.

Caveats

The above are just general guidelines. There are some pragmatic complications. E.g. the difference between the two uses of English here and there in the following examples can be rendered by different choices in German:

  • There are a few problems here and there. - Es gibt hier und da noch ein paar Probleme.
  • The difference between here and there is striking. - Der Unterschied zwischen hier und dort ist beachtlich.

Hier und dort would be wrong in the first example; this is probably why hier und dort is preferred in the second example, though hier und da is acceptable as well.

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