For example, suppose a German native is walking on a road but does not know the word "die Straße" (so she also doesn't know the noun gender). She then points down at the road says, "I walk on it." What is the German equivalent in everyday conversation?

  • One common, colloquial deictic is das da, or anything more appropriate with da(r).
    – Crissov
    Oct 15 '15 at 20:59

German native speakers often use the word das Ding for things whose name they don't know. Examples:

Ich habe das Programm geöffnet. Muss ich jetzt hier auf dieses Ding klicken?

Sometimes it is altered to das Dings or even Dingsbums as mentioned in Konstantin's answer:

Zum Kochen von Kartoffeln benutze ich immer dieses Dings.

As das Ding is neuter, one refers to it with es. Continuing the above conversation:

Wo hast du es gekauft?

This usage of Ding is informal and only used in spoken language, of course.

In conversations, many people also use dings as a fill word when they try to remember a name or word:

Gesten waren wir mit Anna, Flo und äh...dings...Fabian essen.

  • Assuming this is an accurate answer: thank you. So if I first refer to the object as "das Ding" then I can assume neuter gender from there. It is strange though (to me as a native English speaker) that the existence of gender forces you to choose at least one noun. I have a follow-up question: are "da" words used commonly in everyday speech? "Ich laufe auf es" oder "Ich laufe darauf" ?
    – Wayne
    Oct 15 '15 at 16:18
  • "Ich laufe auf es" is grammatically wrong. "Ich laufe darauf" is correct and an elegant way to express that you walk on something. But it's a slighlty weird example, so it's hard to tell what a native speaker would actually say.
    – Deve
    Oct 15 '15 at 16:22
  • 1
    If I want to learn the word, I'd probably say: "Das, worauf ich gerade laufe..."
    – Gerhard
    Oct 15 '15 at 16:28
  • In addition to Ding, Dings and Dingsbums, I think Dingens is common, too.
    – unor
    Oct 15 '15 at 20:29
  • Also note that there are many other of substitutes for "Ding" (depending on the dialect etc).
    – sloth
    Oct 16 '15 at 6:52

I understand the question as asking for a workaround that doesn't need a catch-all noun such as thing/Ding. I am guessing it is motivated by the fact that when translating

I walk on it.

to German you need to know what "it" refers to in order to find the gender.

Sometimes Germans use natural gender in this kind of situation. People and animals with an overt sex/gender are treated as if that's their grammatical gender (which it likely is anyway), and everything else is treated as neuter. This is probably one of the things that drive a language towards natural gender for everything -- a process that has already completed in English but that can be observed at work in standard Dutch and Flemish (and especially in the differences between the two).

I think it's a general principle in German that natural gender is always correct with demonstratives, though occasionally when it's clear what the correct noun would be, that can be used as well. E.g., the one over there translates to der/die/das da drüben according to the natural gender of whatever is pointed to.

But in this particular case we actually wouldn't normally use natural gender because there is a workaround involving a demonstrative that avoids the issue completely:

Ich gehe darauf.

English still has the same construction, though it's very antiquated nowadays except in specific (e.g. legal) contexts:

I walk thereon.

  • Thank you; that is indeed my real question. Follow-up question: are "da-" words used in the manner of your example common/normal in everyday speech? If not, then what would a native speaker say nowadays?
    – Wayne
    Oct 15 '15 at 17:23
  • These words are perfectly normal parts of everyday spoken language. And in fact some usages are exclusively colloquial.
    – user2183
    Oct 15 '15 at 17:50
  • E.g., consider "I would never have thought of that!" Standard German: "Darauf wäre ich nie gekommen!" Standard colloquial German: "Da wär ich nie drauf gekommen!" Darauf is moved further back in the sentence in colloquial German and is shortened to drauf, but auf would be ungrammatical. (And rauf is similarly short for herauf.)
    – user2183
    Oct 15 '15 at 17:54

You could (colloquially) use the word Dingsbums for an object or name that you do not know

  • Hint: rather than pointing to an external link you could also use an internal link to Dingsbums here on the site.
    – Takkat
    Oct 15 '15 at 18:22

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