Imagine all German articles were combined to just one article, for example: der, die, das, den, dem, des → dör.
Would this make some sentences impossible to understand?
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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
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...
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.
The thing you wear around your waist and store your revolver in.
The thing your horse wears around its head.
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.
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.
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
- *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