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–Ich hätte gerne ein Paar Brötchen
–Wie viele?

That was (modulo trivialities) a conversation that surprised me. Of course –assuming the grammatical correctness of the sentences–, the baker doesn't see that I was meaning Paar and not paar, but I'm bemused by the fact that, in absence of more data, he didn't think that I was actually asking for precisely two items.

It is therefore credible, referring to this question, that not only paar means rather "a few", but that in the native speaker’s mind the distance between this word and "two items" is huge.

Questions:

  • Is this related to a orthography reform? Perhaps Paar→paar (I guess no). If not, why/when did this change take place? (in case the phenomenon has been studied)
  • Could somebody warn non-native speakers from using certain words or expressions, which have lost its original meaning as well? I ask in the sense of this answer Ungefähr→ungefähr.

Edit: My argument behind the first question has been refuted in the answers bellow. I thought paar came from Paar, which I thought meant originally exactly two items. It comes from the Latin par (paris), which mean two equal. The argument only motivates the second question, which therefore remains valid.

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Ein Paar Schuhe, aber ein paar Brötchen. - Ein Paar beschreibt immer zwei zusammengehörige Dinge. Brötchen gehören aber nicht zusammen. Deswegen wird der Bäcker immer von ein paar Brötchen ausgehen. –  Em1 Nov 13 '13 at 13:24
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Also note that apparently in English not everyone thinks that “a couple of” has to refer to exactly two, either. –  Carsten Schultz Nov 13 '13 at 14:46
    
@CarstenSchultz: Yes; this seems to be a dialectical difference in English. In some places/age groups, a couple of X’s unambiguously means two X’s. In other places, the meaning has shifted/generalised from this, to mean roughly “a few”/“several”, although in some contexts (e.g. “Jack and Jill are a couple”) it means exactly-two-with-some-specific-relationship. It seems very plausible that Paar*/*paar is exactly the same divergence, but taken further — can anyone with German etymology reference confirm/deny this? –  PLL Nov 13 '13 at 16:55

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

The word Paar doesn't only mean two items but rather two items that are related to one another. The prime example is

Mike und Jenny sind ein Paar.

This notion also shows in compounds like Paartherapie, Paartanz or paarweise. The situation of using Paar as a qualifying noun is rather rare. The only example I can think of is this:

Ein Paar Schuhe.

This makes sense because the shoes are related to one another. Most Germans would understand this as a pair.

Ein Paar Brötchen. on the other hand doesn't make sense. How can buns be related? So a listener will autmatically assume that you meant paar. Hence the question. It has nothing to do with spelling reform or anything. The sentence:

Ich möchte ein Paar Brötchen.

does not make sense in writing either. The point is that 2 buns lack the relationship that is necessary for a Paar.

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"Ein Paar Brötchen" may very well make sense and the expression "ein Paar XY" is quite common for certain food-items. Both buns and e.g. sausages are often actually sold in pairs like meckback.de/index.php?strg=19_22&baseID=22&dataID=22 or fleischerei-goebser.de/shop/product_info.php?products_id=79 . –  jarnbjo Nov 14 '13 at 18:15
    
@jarnbjo... you're totally right with the "Paar Wiener". That I do know. As for the buns... well, they use marketing language but the item itself is not referred to as "ein Paar Brötchen". Anyway, there might be more examples, but I think "quite common" is a bit of an exaggeration ;) –  Emanuel Nov 14 '13 at 22:01
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As a fun fact: Not everything that ends with paar could be decoupled. "ein Schuhpaar" is the same as "ein Paar Schuhe" whereas "ein Brautpaar" is not the same as "ein paar Bräute", which would mean "some hot chicks". :) –  insertusernamehere Nov 15 '13 at 7:43

While Emanuel's answer is right, it is lengthy. Simply put

Ein Paar > a pair of
Ein paar > a couple/few

You then have to figure out the subtle differences, like for example

Heute habe ich ein Paar Jeans gekauft
Heute habe ich ein paar Jeans gekauft

(Solution: Ein Paar Jeans = a pair of jeans = one piece, ein paar Jeans = more than one piece)

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Note that a couple of can mean a few as in "a couple of minutes". So, from that standpoint, couple is the English 'counterpart' to paar/Paar. –  Em1 Nov 13 '13 at 15:03
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"a pair of trees" ... this would not be translated using Paar. google.de/… The reason: Paar used as an adjective is rather rare in German and almost only applies to shoes. I even find it odd with Jeans because I buy "eine Jeans". Thus your answer is misleading. Same for "a pair of forks" or "a pair of toothpicks" –  Emanuel Nov 13 '13 at 16:44
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To put more direct: ein Paar Jeans bedeutet ganz klar zwei Jeans. Jeans, Hose und ähnliche Bekleidungsstücke sind im Deutschen ganz klar Singular. –  Toscho Nov 13 '13 at 17:06
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@Toscho: mir ist der Gebrauch von ein Paar Jeans/Hosen im Sinne von eine Jeans/Hose durchaus geläufig, vor allem in der Generation, die um die Mitte des 20. Jhdts geboren wurde. –  Ansgar Esztermann Nov 14 '13 at 7:26
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@ThorstenDittmar Socken sind auch keine den Jeans oder Hosen ähnliche Bekleidungsstücke: Sie hängen nicht zusammen. Ein Paar Socken besteht aus zwei Körpern, die ohne Probleme räumlich getrennt werden können. Bei Hosen, Jeans und ähnlichem ist das nicht der Fall. –  Toscho Nov 14 '13 at 14:53

Lacking the distinction between lower and upper case spelling in a spoken conversation, I guess most people would instead indicate the difference using emphasis:

  • Ich hätte gern ein Paar Socken.
  • Ich hätte gern ein paar Socken.

If you emphasize the number, by melody and also by introducing a short pause after it, you stress the fact that you are speaking of a spcific amount. If you don't do that, but instead speak „ein paar“ as a connected phrase without pause or special emphasis, perhaps even colloquially abbreviated to „'n paar“, then it will more likely be interpreted as an imprecise amount.

That said, other answers are correct in stating that Paar usually refers to items with some connection between them that makes them form a unit in some sense. So even if you did use the emphasis as indicated above, the baker might still ask for the precise amount. Which is the reason why I changed my example to something where both meanings are plausible.

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