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How should one best interpret the difference between "dasselbe" and "das Gleiche" ? When should one use one or the other?

Is it correct that "dasselbe" is appropriate for concrete things, and "das Gleiche" is for the abstract idea? Is there much more to it?

I have trouble for instance, drawing the line between phrases like:

"Wir wollten alle das Gleiche."

and

"Er sagt in jeder Vorlesung dasselbe."

both of which are examples from my dictionary (so I assume they are correct) and both of which seem to refer to the same (dasselbe/das Gleiche??) thing...

Your help is appreciated!

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3  
Your examples are fringe cases. For objects you can touch, the distinction is simple: Das selbe means one and the same instance of something, das gleiche means a different, but similar copy. Now, can you say the same word twice, or is it a different instance, a copy of the same word? It depends on what aspect of a word you're looking at. Hard to decide, and I'd rather get used to saying das gleiche, just to avoid accidentally saying das selbe when such a strong meaning wasn't intended. This mistake is made often even by native speakers. –  fzwo May 30 '11 at 8:57
    

6 Answers 6

There is a difference:

Ich trage das gleiche Kleid wie Maria.

Maria and I are physically wearing two different dresses, but they are the same kind and design.

Ich trage dasselbe Kleid, das ich bei meinem Geburtstag anhatte.

I am wearing the same dress. It's physically the same item.

"Das gleiche" is "the same", with regards to its qualities.

"Dasselbe" is physically the same item.

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3  
That means, you can never say/mean/think/write "dasselbe" as someone else but only "das Gleiche"? –  Florian Peschka May 30 '11 at 8:40
1  
@ApoY2k well, it's a question of philosophy: Do you think two instances of one and the same thought are perfect twins, or do you think there is only one concept for the thought, and everyone thinking it actually thinks the same thought, as if they share a mind? I think it boils down to whether you think in terms of instances or prototypes (objects and classes, if you know object-oriented programming). If people wear das selbe Kleid, they are sharing it. –  fzwo May 30 '11 at 8:52
    
Die Sendung mit der Maus covered this topic a few years ago: youtube.com/watch?v=hePMxBhJK3E It's basically the same as teylyn's answer, but a great visualization. –  alex Jun 2 '11 at 7:32
    
@ApoY2k In this exact context regarding a dress, no, unless that person sold or lent you that dress to wear :) –  takrl Jul 14 '11 at 8:03

"Dasselbe" is used when you're referring to the exact same object, whereas "das Gleiche" is only used if there are multiple different objects of identical form or nature.

When it comes to more abstract terms like in your first example, I assume it would be okay to use "dasselbe" as well as "das Gleiche", but not if it refers to material objects.

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I sometimes think the Java programming language was created by Germans, because it makes the exact same distinction as the German language:

todaysLunch.equals(yesterdaysLunch) =~ Es gibt heute zum Mitagessen schon wieder das gleiche wie gestern

Translation: two Objects are semantically or by other (defined or implicit) rules equivalent, without actually being physically the same Object.

thisFly==theFlyThatsBeenBotheringMeAllDay =~ Das ist die selbe Fliege, die mich schon den ganzen Tag nervt.

Translation: two different ways of referring to the same physical Entity.

Obviously this distinction only makes sense for entities that have some kind of physical manifestation.

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Most languages distinguish between identity and equality like that, methinks. –  Tim May 30 '11 at 8:37
    
@Tim would that be natural or programming languages? Could you provide examples? –  Sean Patrick Floyd May 30 '11 at 8:46
    
@Sean: Programming. E.g. eq? vs. equal? in Scheme. –  Tim May 30 '11 at 8:56
    
This is a concept known to all (I think) object-oriented languages, not only Java. You have a class "Car", and instances of it. Now, there are probably two visually indistinguishable blue VW Golf VI out there - they are equal (let's ignore number plates for the sake of argument). But they're not the same, and the owner of you Golf's "twin" won't be happy if you just use his car instead of yours, claiming "but it's the same!". –  fzwo May 30 '11 at 9:01
1  
@Sean Python has an "is" operator for "dasselbe" and "==" for "das Gleiche". ;-) –  Jürgen A. Erhard May 30 '11 at 10:11

Das Gleiche

means equality (instance of the same abstract class)

dasselbe

means identity in a mathematical sense.

Practical usage in German is not 100% correct and consistent.
Even Germans have difficulties here and I'm forced to remember the rules because my intuition is uncertain.

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To remember the difference between "das Gleiche" und "dasselbe", you could use the german saying

Sie gleichen sich wie ein Ei dem anderen

Two eggs look identically, so "das Gleiche" means "looks like but is not the same". As a consequence, "dasselbe" means "is the same instance of an item".

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+1 for bringing in an idiom to help memorizing –  Samuel Herzog Jun 1 '11 at 2:41

The difference between the two for tangible objects is mostly straightforward and has been addressed by the other answers. Briefly, use dasselbe for literally identical objects and das Gleiche for objects which are only very similar.

For abstract concepts, the main problem is that for any two concepts which are somewhat similar but not identical (and thus would only be gleich at first glance), there always exists a more abstract concept which contains both of these concepts and would thus justify using dasselbe for them. For example, two different points of view on the same thing would be:

Hans befürchtet, dass er im Regen nass wird.
Paul befürchtet, dass er im Regen nass wird.
Hans und Paul befürchten das Gleiche.

Hans befürchtet, im Regen nass zu werden.
Paul befürchtet, im Regen nass zu werden.
Hans und Paul befürchten dasselbe.

In the first point of view, the things the two are afraid of are [Hans wird im Regen nass] and [Paul wird im Regen nass] and thus slightly different. In the second point of view, both are afraid of [nass Werden im Regen] and thus of the identical abstract thing.

This problem also exists the other way round: If you are referring to one abstract concept in two cases (and thus would use dasselbe at first glance), there often exist two similar but not identical less abstract concepts for each of the cases which you could be referring to as well (and thus would justify using only das Gleiche). For example, take the above example the other way round.


To make things even more confusing, there exists a grey area between abstract and concrete. For example when ordering meals in a restaurant:

Hans: Ich hätte gerne die Heringspizza.
Paul: Ich hätte gerne dasselbe / das Gleiche.

The arguably predominant interpretation here is that dasselbe is only correct if Paul and Hans really want to share one pizza. However, one can also hold the point of view that they are not referring to the concrete pizza they will be having but to the abstract item on the menu and thus dasselbe would also be appropriate if they are not sharing a pizza.


Due to the above you can usually find a justification for either choice in many situations and most people won’t be confused no matter what you choose.

However, in the rare case, that you cannot find two less abstract entities to refer to, I would prefer dasselbe:

Wir gehen in dieselbe Klasse.

Also, in cases where there are two predominant levels of congruence for the abstract entities you are referring to, I suggest using dasselbe for the higher level of congruence. To take one of your examples:

Er sagt in jeder Vorlesung dasselbe.
Er sagt in jeder Vorlesung das Gleiche.

I would use das Gleiche if he is saying the same thing contentwise but not with the same words, e.g. “alle Studenten sind doof” in one lecture and “alle Studenten sind dämlich” in another one. Only, if he is using the very same words in every lecture, I would use dasselbe.

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It's a bummer that this genial concept doesn't get more attention. Only point: in the pizza example, I wouldn't say that the "predominant interpretation" is them wanting to share a pizza, but rather that they want the same "abstract item on the menu" - especially when using die. –  Grantwalzer yesterday
    
@Grantwalzer: What concept are you referring to? Regarding the predominant expectation in the restaurant case, we would need to conduct a study to get a definite answer, but at least amongst my colleagues there is a strong majority that considers dasselbe to be wrong here unless they want to share a pizza (this is what actually lead me to composing this answer). –  Wrzlprmft yesterday
    
That on a more abstract level two gleiche things can be dasselbe - and the other way around. Well that seems a rather forced perspective, especially when taking into account the phrasing - no waiter is gonna bring you just one pizza. People tend to say "Wir hätten gerne eine ..." or "Eine ... bitte, wir essen sie gemeinsam" etc. –  Grantwalzer 23 hours ago

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