Imagine all German articles were combined to just one article, for example: der, die, das, den, dem, desdör.

Would this make some sentences impossible to understand?

  • 4
    "der, die, das": Not as such, but as you would lose most inflections in this case as well, you would run into misunderstandings due to the relatively high degree of freedom in the word order in a sentence much more frequently. As for removing the cases: here you would lose quite a lot of information, which you would need to replace with something else.
    – Gerhard
    Oct 24 '16 at 7:08
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    "Dör Kinder laufen in dör Haus". Hmm, sind dör Kinder bereits in dör Haus oder laufen erst hinein?
    – Eller
    Oct 24 '16 at 7:33
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    A partial answer can be found by studying the history of English, which is a largely Germanic language which has lost both gender and case markers. The ambiguity is generally resolved by having the word order indicate the relationships, which leads to a very different set of rules from modern German.
    – IMSoP
    Oct 24 '16 at 9:08
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    @Eller: May I take your example as additional -very good- example in my answer?
    – Tode
    Oct 24 '16 at 9:09
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    Voted to close as "unclear". "Negative effect" is a loaded concept - it will have many effects, but how to assign some of them to be positive, others negative, and how do we calculate a net effect? The body specifies "impossible to understand" which is similarly poorly defined. Many languages miss grammatical distinctions present in others, which can make sentences more ambiguous. But all sentences of all languages are ambiguous to some degree, and increasing this ambiguity doesn't suddenly make them "impossible to understand". Russian has a single past tense and people understand Russian.
    – rumtscho
    Oct 24 '16 at 10:42

In cases where the article is nominative and just there to define the gender of the noun: Yes, there would be very small effects to the language.
But as stated in the comments: Some times the article is the only thing that can be used to identify the case, then sentences may be completely missunderstood.

e.g. in German both sentences (though a little constructed for the sake of the answer) will absolutely make sense:

Der Mann bot dem Händler ein Geschäft an
Dem Mann bot der Händler ein Geschäft an

First one means: The man offered something to the trader
Second means: The trader offered something to the man...

Dör Mann bot dör Händler ein Geschäft an

is ambigious in that case, though in most cases one would guess, that the first noun is the subject of the clause.

Another completely different example from Eller in the comments would be:

Dör Kinder laufen in dör Haus

This sentence could mean:

Die Kinder laufen in das Haus
The children run into the house

oder eben

Die Kinder laufen in dem Haus
The children run around in the house

Of course, one would usually use im unstead of in dem and ins instead of in das, but these abbreviations would be obsolete as well, if der, die, das did not exist anymore...

  • 1
    Indeed, languages which don't have case-dependent articles (or don't have cases at all) use suffixes after the nouns instead .
    – vsz
    Oct 24 '16 at 13:40
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    If you deliberately seek ambiguity, you can find that within the current grammatical framework as well. Since the articles for the feminine and neuter gender do not differ between the nominative and accusative cases, a sentence like 'Die Frau bot dem Händler ein Geschäft an' is strictly speaking ambigious and could be read both as 'the woman offered the trader a deal' and 'an establishment offered the trader a woman'.
    – jarnbjo
    Oct 24 '16 at 15:08
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    @deponensvogel: It is ambiguous, as by purely looking at the grammar, it is not clear whether die Frau or ein Geschäft is the subject of the sentence. Consider the same construction in this sentence: "Die Suppe bot dem Gast eine Kellnerin an." In this case, it is even clearer what is probably meant due to the meaning of the words, but it cannot be determined purely by looking at cases. And then, there are sentences where the meaning of words provides no hint, either: "Die Sanitärfirma kaufte die Elektronikfirma auf." Who bought whom? Your first guess will depend on what was asked before. Oct 25 '16 at 7:41
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    @deponensvogel: German is my native language, too. In German, emphasis is delivered in speaking by intonation, and thus, to some extent, can get lost in written form. "If you want to put emphasis on the object of a sentence you have to change normal SVO order." - that isn't true. A sentence like "Herr Meier backt Frau Müller ein Brot." can be meant to emphasize any of its components. In spoken form, you would hear whether the emphasis is placed on "Herr Meier", "backt", "Frau Müller", "ein Brot", or something else. In writing, it only becomes clear from context, such as a preceding question. Oct 26 '16 at 10:57
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    @deponensvogel: By the way ... "that's just constructing fantasy sentence that have never been spoken. Linguistics only investigates historical sentences that have been said already." - I suppose that makes "linguistics" pretty much useless for language learners and users, unless they want to exclusively recite sentences that someone else has said before. Oct 26 '16 at 11:06

I would also like to add, that in some cases, the article adds additional information by itself, by making clear what word you refer to exactly.


Das Halfter

The thing you wear around your waist and store your revolver in.

Der Halfter

The thing your horse wears around its head.

Die Halfter

The plural of any of the above.

Admitted, it's a rare case that words are only differenciated by their articles, but it happens.

For grammatical confusion about sentence structure and noun relations, please refer to Torstens answer above that already covers this very nicely.

  • Are you sure about the articles in your example? Duden says das oder die Half­ter = Tasche für Pistolen and das oder der Half­ter = Zaum ohne Gebiss und Trense für Pferde und Rinder mit Riemen zum Führen oder Anbinden des Tieres
    – Iris
    Oct 24 '16 at 11:26
  • Here are more examples: cafe-lingua.de/deutsche-grammatik/…
    – Iris
    Oct 24 '16 at 11:28
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    @Iris oh my god, thanks. I actually messed those up, seems i wasn't fully awake yet. I edited my answer. Oct 24 '16 at 11:54
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    I disagree. It is not uncommon that words (even using the same gender) have different meanings and that you need a context to determine the exact meaning of the word. If gender was truly required to avoid ambiguity in the German language, the plural articles would also have to distinguish between genders and there would not have been common articles for the masculine and neuter genders in the dative case.
    – jarnbjo
    Oct 24 '16 at 14:59
  • Die Sprache kommt auch gut damit zurecht, dass Parkbank und Investmentbank nicht qua Artikel unterscheidbar sind. Oct 24 '16 at 23:11

Yes, some phrases would become ambiguous and therefore harder, perhaps impossible to understand.

Articles (ART) share much of their inflection with adjectives (ADJ) and pronouns (PRON) and where most nouns (SBST) have endings, i.e. genitive masculine and neuter (GenStd) and dative plural (DatPl), they often also agree. It’s not possible or realistic to change just the (definite) articles.

Overview table of German attributive inflection

As you can see from the table – and probably know already – there are many syncretisms, i.e. some combinations of case and gender/number are not distinguished morphologically. This works for the most part because the class is determined by another part of the phrase, e.g. number usually shows in the verb.

    • Der Vater hört den Sohn. – Nom + Acc
    • Den Vater hört der Sohn. – Acc + Nom
    • Der Sohn hört den Vater. – Nom + Acc
    • Den Sohn hört der Vater. – Acc + Nom
    • Der Vater hört das Kind. – Nom + Nom/Acc? → Nom + Acc
    • Den Vater hört das Kind. – Acc + Nom/Acc? → Acc + Nom
    • Das Kind hört der Vater. – Nom/Acc? + Nom → Acc + Nom
    • Das Kind hört den Vater. – Nom/Acc? + Acc → Nom + Acc
    • Die Mutter hört das Kind. – Nom/Acc? + Nom/Acc? → ? → SVO: (Nom + Acc)?
    • Das Kind hört die Mutter. – Nom/Acc? + Nom/Acc? → ? → SVO: (Nom + Acc)?

The question seems to suggest folding all genders, numbers and cases at once – this would require even more adjustments in other places, e.g. every noun should then have its plural differ from its singular form and word order should always be SVO. One important reason why the feminine can have mostly the same determiner endings as the plural is that there are hardly any feminine substantives with ∅ plural, so the number shows in the noun instead of the attributes. Since only E (as well as ∅ and R), but not N or S plural words have the +n in dative, it makes some sense that the strongest attribute

  1. *da Löffel, *da Messer, *da Gabel
    • der Löffel, die Löffel
    • *da Löffel, *de Löffel
    • *da Löffel, *da *Löffels/Löffeln
    • das Messer, die Messer
    • *da Messer, *de Messer
    • *da Messer, *da *Messers/Messern
    • die Gabel, die Gabeln
    • *da Gabel, *de Gabel∅
    • *da Gabel, *da *Gabels/Gabeln

Furthermore, some prepositions, e.g. frequent in, have their exact meaning determined by the case they are used with (usually Dat or Acc, rarely Gen). One could counter this by introducing new prepositions or widening the scope of existing contractions like im and ins (cf. English in/into), but that’s mostly just transferring the inflection to another place:

    • *Da Kinder laufen in Haus.
    • *Da Kinder laufen in *da Haus.
    • Die Kinder laufen in das Haus. – article showing Nom/Acc
    • Die Kinder laufen ins Haus. – contracted preposition showing Acc
    • *Da Kinder laufen ins Haus. – preposition showing direction
    • *Da Kinder laufen ins *da Haus. – with required article
    • Die Kinder laufen in dem Haus. – article showing Dat
    • Die Kinder laufen im Haus. – contracted preposition showing Dat
    • *Da Kinder laufen im Haus. – preposition showing location
    • *Da Kinder laufen im *da Haus. – with required article

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