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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 9 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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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
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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

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