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Is the same to say Menschen and Leute? When are they exchangeable? I've heard that if you know the people you use one of this words, but I don't know which. (And I don't know if what I've heard is true either.)

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Could you give an example of what you have in mind? Menschen and Leute isn’t always exchangeable; in fact, I’d say it is rather the minority of cases where it is. – chirlu Aug 22 '13 at 8:15
Related:,; see in particular this comment (though I don’t agree with it). – chirlu Aug 22 '13 at 8:19
@chirlu Yes. So, I said in German class something like this: Die Leute, die unter diesen Krankheiten leiden, blah blah and the teacher told me --kennst du diese Leute? --Nein. -- Dann sag "Menschen" stattdessen. (grammar errors, to be attributed to me, not to my teacher-- but the idea is that. Moreover, I could be wrong, so "Menschen" and "Leute" here could be exchanged.) – c.p. Aug 22 '13 at 8:22
It's nonsense that you need to know people to call them "Leute". Prove: "die feinen Leute" - "das vergessen die Leute nicht" - "kleine/große Leute" - "was werden die Leute dazu sagen" - "unter die Leute kommen" - "etwas unter die Leute bringen". However, it may refer to people you know very well, i.e. family (meine Leute gehen mir auf den Nerv), colleagues or friends (Leute, hört mal), employees (fähige, gute Leute; gutes Verhältnis zu seinen Leuten) – Em1 Aug 22 '13 at 8:49
@c.p.: Your teacher is right. The doctor could (but must not) say Leute if he speaks about the people he has seen. But it's not appropriate, if e.g. the health insurance reports its statistics – äüö Aug 22 '13 at 10:29
up vote 11 down vote accepted

The way I always explain it is that Menschen is shifted toward human while Leute is shifted toward a colloquial use of people... maybe a bit like folk(s). Consequently, Leute is also fine if you're going down the derogatory route but it is not part of the word per se.

Let's look at some examples now. If you talk about your last night out and you describe the bar you'd use Leute.

Da waren viele merkwürdige Leute.

Menschen would sound weird because it has this emphasis on human, which is totally superfluous. On the other hand, if you talk about people suffering from a disease it makes sense to bring the human side in there. Leute would sound too casual.

Menschen, die an dieser Krankheit leiden...

Also here, Leute would be wrong

Irgendwann leben Menschen auf dem Mars.

The point is that humans live there... not just some random dudes. There is an overlap in the middle where either version is fine. A politician could use either one in a speech.

Die Menschen/Leute wollen wissen, wie es weiter geht.

One big grammatical difference is that Menschen has a singular whereas Leute hasn't. And lastly, it has been pointed out in comments that there is a fair number of idioms using Leute.

So... use Menschen if the human aspect bears relevance. Use Leute if you are talking casual and you just mean folks, guys, people.

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IMO Leute is usually in the context of local neighborhood where you can define that local on your own. That's why it sounds a bit more intimate and hence also used to emphasize sympathy or familiarness when speaking about those persons, even when you don't know them personally.

Menschen is the more general meaning, just like the individuals or human beings.

There is a wide overlapping set where you can say Leute and Menschen. But if you need to be informal, only use Menschen, like in Der erste Mensch im All. If you're in a local situation, rather use Leute, like in Alle kleinen und großen Leute bitte mal hier rüber kommen! or Was sollen denn die Leute von dir denken?!.

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