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I wanted to say "I am washing my hands" in German, so I looked it up on Google Translate, which gave me this in return.

Ich wasche mir die Hände.

This sentence makes total sense to me, except for one part: mir. Why is the dative personal pronoun being used here? Other things would have surprised me less. For example, the possessive adjective meinen. Or simply, Ich wasche die Hände. Neither of these would have caused me to blink.

Is the dative pronoun being used here in a reflexive sense? Since the action is reflexive? I have not covered this topic in grammar, so I would much appreciate anyone who could fill me in.

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    "Warum"-Fragen bei sprachlichen Ausdrucksformen sind immer so eine Sache. Man kann da lange herumphilosophieren, "warum" man im Deutschen Ich wasche mir die Hände, im Englischen I wash my hands und im Bulgarischen Мия си ръцете ("Ich-wasche - sich - Hände-die") sagt. Aber was nützt's? So sind halt die alltagsüblichen Ausdrücke dafür. Lernen - anwenden - genießen! – Christian Geiselmann Sep 6 '17 at 9:14
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    just omitting "mir", i.e. saying "Ich wasche die Hände", is not precise enough. You're referring to specific hands (indicated by using "die"), but you're unclear about which hands exactly. Leaving out "die" as well (--> "Ich wasche Hände" is similar, except you could be washing any number of anyone's hands. It's the same in english, "I'm washing hands". You're not clear about whose hands. In fact, all these examples have an english counterpart - "Ich wasche mir die Hände" = "I'm washing my hands"; "Ich wasche die Hände" = "I'm washing the hands", "Ich wasche Hände" = "I'm washing hands" – PixelMaster Sep 6 '17 at 10:07
  • @ChristianGeiselmann True, indeed. Even though my question is phrased as a "why" question, I'm mainly asking about the "how". That is, how does it work, how common is it, etc. Knowing this, I may learn, apply, and enjoy. – ktm5124 Sep 6 '17 at 17:21
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The dative pronoun here means something like "for me". Many German verbs have this sort of construction, more than in English. But English has it too:

He made me some soup
She bought me a loaf of bread

"Waschen" is one example of a German verb that has this construction where the English equivalent doesn't. It doesn't just work with a reflexive construction, but can also be plain old transitive:

Der Papst wäscht ihnen die Füße (The pope washes their feet)
Die Mutter wäscht ihm das Gesicht (The mother washes his face)
Das Kind wäscht sich die Hände (The child washes its hands)

Some other examples of German verbs that have this construction where English doesn't include:

Ich putze mir die Zähne (I brush my teeth)
Ich reibe mir die Hände (I rub my hands)
Ich lackiere mir die Fingernägel (I paint my fingernails)

Generally this seems to be common with verbs that involve doing something to your own body. But there are also other examples:

Ich hole mir ein Brot (I get some bread for myself)
Ich kaufe mir ein Kleid (I buy a dress for myself)
Ich suche mir einen Sitzplatz (I look for a seat for myself)

"Ich wasche die Hände" is not wrong, but it's somewhat ambiguous whose hands it is you're washing. Just like "I wash the hands" in English.
"Ich wasche meine Hände" is correct and means the same thing as "Ich wasche mir die Hände", but it seems more formal and more like written language. Unlike "ich wasche mir die Hände", "ich wasche meine Hände" could also mean that you own some hands that are not actually attached to your body (for example, doll hands) and are washing those.

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    Actually, this construction (sometimes called "possessive dative") could still be found in Old English. It got lost in Middle English, possibly due to the influence of Celtic. – Uwe Sep 6 '17 at 14:48
  • French (as well as other continental European languages) uses this construction too (although French doesn't have a dative): "Je me lave les mains" – RHa Sep 7 '17 at 19:58
  • Romanian has this as well: Îmi spăl mașina. = "To me I wash the car" = I am washing my car. – Kyralessa Sep 15 '17 at 15:24
  • In German you couldn't say "Ich wasche mir das Auto", "waschen" only uses this construction when referring to body parts. But "putzen" (which also means wash / clean) can do it: "Ich putze mir die Brille", "Der Diener putzt ihm die Schuhe" and so on. – KWeiss Sep 19 '17 at 12:47
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Ich wasche meine Hände

would be correct, but slightly unusual as long as nothing follows.

Ich wasche meine Hände in Unschuld/mit warmem Wasser/mit Seife.

is perfect.

Ich wasche Hände

is definitely unusual to the same degree as I would consider the English counterpiece I wash hands. Since there are choices available as the hands of your little son coming from a dig in the dirt the sentence gets complete using the dative object mir.

Summarized:

Ich wasche mir die Hände

is exactly what I would use.

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