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What is the origin of the particle man that German uses to create impersonal sentence?

One example for all:

Man muss die Geschichte kennen.

When I first saw it, I thought it had something to do with the English "man", in such a way to mean "a certain/typical man", but I guess this does not make any sense.

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Did you search the answer in Wiktionary? Herkunft: man ist der Nominativ Singular einer Vorläuferform von Mann und hat ursprünglich die Bedeutung jeder beliebige Mensch. –  c.p. Jul 24 '13 at 6:58
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2 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The English word man can also mean a human or person in general, disregarding the sex.

Have a look at OALD meaning 2 (humans as a group or from a particular period of history) and 3 (a person, either male or female).

In former times the German word "Mann" was also used to describe a human. From DWDS on Mann and man:

Die alte Bedeutung ‘Mensch’ ist erhalten in jemand, niemand und im Indefinitivpronomen man.

man entwickelt sich aus dem unter Mann behandelten Substantiv in dessen alter Bedeutung ‘Mann, Mensch’, die im Ahd. meist, im Mhd. gelegentlich noch durchzufühlen ist.

While in English it's somewhat old-fashioned to describe a person in general, in German both meanings are still very often used in the current language, though there's a spelling difference now.

There are also some notes on this in the Grimmsche Wörterbuch but it's more difficult to read.

mann, ohne hervorhebung der geschlechtlichen bedeutung, im bloszen sinne einer person (vgl. dazu jemand, niemand)

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I know the meaning of man in English, I wasn't thinking only about a male individual. But this doesn't answer my question about the German "man" used for impersonal sentences. Are you saying that my guess (end of question) is right? –  martina Jul 24 '13 at 5:53
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@martina: Yes, he is. :) –  chirlu Jul 24 '13 at 6:51
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The indefinite pronoun "man" indeed shares an etymology with the English "man". Both derived from a common ancestor already used in Old High German, Old English and Old Saxonian. Then the meaning was not only of a man but also of a human being.

This meaning of a male human being is lost over time in the German pronoun "man" but preserved in the etymologically related noun "Mann".

Still until today we sometimes see the stem mann in a non-gender usage (e.g. "Mannschaft").

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