In Russian, each noun is either animate or inanimate. Normally, nouns denoting living things are animate, while the rest are inanimate. It is, in fact, not only a semantic, but actually a grammatical category since formation of some case-forms of the noun depends on whether it is animate or not (an interesting minimal pair example is the different declensions of the word мышь (mouse) depending on whether it refers to the animal or to the input device). Therefore, a dictionary lists animacy alongside other grammatical aspects such as gender.
Now, I was just reading an article about da-words. Here’s a quote:
I want to point out again that this whole da-thing is only done when you talk about things… like a table, a dream or a place. If you talk about a living being like a dog or a cat you wouldn’t use it. Those are treated like persons. But let’s do some examples and compare sentences with persons and things.
Several examples are then listed:
- Ich träume von ihr (der Party). — wrong
Ich träume davon (von der Party). — correct
Ich spiele mit ihr (der Katze). — correct
- Ich spiele damit (mit der Katze). — wrong
So it does seem that animate/inanimate distinction is important in German as well. So, my question, at the risk of being too broad, is twofold.
Firstly, what are other, if any, circumstances where the animacy of a noun is important in German?
Secondly, sticking to the example of choosing between preposition+pronoun and the da-preposition, is the distinction of living vs. non-living so clear cut? I am asking because it very much is not so in Russian (for example a corpse (труп) is inanimate, while a dead man (мертвец) is animate). So here are some specific examples:
Ich träume von ihm (dem Toten) or Ich träume davon?
Ich spiele mit ihr (der Computermaus) or Ich spiele damit?
Ich denke an ihn (den Organismus) or Ich denke daran?
Ich denke an ihn (den Käfer) or Ich denke daran? (Living enough?)
Ich denke an es (das Bakterium) or Ich denke daran?
This is not to say that I am interested only in these five words. I am interested in any corner cases where the distinction of living/non-living might be hard to determine mechanically.