A German friend wrote once

“Sind das Kängurus im Hintergrund?”

I would have thought that the question should have been

“Sind sie Kängurus im Hintergrund?”

But who am I to argue with a native speaker (I am an Australian who learnt German at school and who enjoys the complexity of the German language).

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    Well, by the way, as there are no Känguruhs in Germany, the sentence should properly be Sind das Rehe im Hintergrund? – Christian Geiselmann Dec 12 '17 at 13:44
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    @ChristianGeiselmann But there are many in Australia! Read the question carefully. – Eller Dec 12 '17 at 13:58
  • @Eller Now, that's a question: do we want a literal translation, or do we want a culturally adjusted one? – Christian Geiselmann Dec 12 '17 at 15:51
  • @ChristianGeiselmann There is nothing to adjust. Think about it: an Australian guy shows his German friend a photo (obviously it is more probable a photo of an Australian landscape, not of some Schwarzwaldlandschaft). So the German friend asks "Sind das Kängurus im Hintergrund?" Or do you think German friend cannot recognize Kängurus and thinks those are Rehe? Well, that might be a cultural adjustment. Not a flattering one for the German friend though. – Eller Dec 12 '17 at 15:57
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    "Sind dies" would be fine, too, and also not flexed ("ist dies") unlike English "is this" / "are these". "Sind sie Kängurus im Hintergrund?" and "Are they kangaroos in the background?" both sound slightly wrong to me, btw. – Georg Dec 12 '17 at 17:30

The sentence with "das" is right.

To explain, note that "das" is not an article in this case, so it is not "das Kaengurus", that would indeed be wrong. Instead, here "das" is a pronoun that can be translated as "that", as in

Are that kangaroos in the background?

For a long list of examples of der/die/das as a pronoun in German, you can look at the Duden.

If you want to use an article here, that would be

Are that the kangaroos in the background?
Sind das die Kaengurus im Hintergrund?

This implies that you already know (of) the kangaroos, e.g. because you mentioned before that you have seen some on your trips.

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    The question was not about das being an article or pronoun but why the singular is used instead of the plural. – RHa Dec 12 '17 at 12:53
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    Sagt man nicht eher "Are those kangaroos?" – user unknown Dec 12 '17 at 14:37
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    @Rha there is no plural of "das" in German. In this case "das" points to a group of objects. You could replace the kangaroos with anything and it would (mostly) still be right. Also the second sentence just sounds wrong for native Germans. – XtremeBaumer Dec 12 '17 at 14:48
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    @AngeloFuchs I mean the second sentence OP posted `“Sind sie Kängurus im Hintergrund?”``. This one sounds very wrong – XtremeBaumer Dec 12 '17 at 21:11
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    Note also that for this use of "das" the German might in principle refer to an unidentifiable smudge in the background, in which case the "that" is totally right ;) In general "das" is simply referring to a shape/area/thing - it might be a single object or multiple ones, but since the asker isn't sure about the identification at the time of asking it's just an unidentified something, thus no plural required. – Frank Hopkins Dec 12 '17 at 21:14

You are probably confused by the apparent lack of congruence. However, the demonstrative pronoun in the construct in question is "das" (or "dies") without congruence:

Dies (or "das", but not "dieser") ist Onkel Herbert. Das (or "dies", but not "diese") ist Tante Hedwig. Das (or "dies", but not "diese") sind Tick, Trick und Track.

But compare

Das sind meine drei Kängurus. Dieses [Känguru] hier kann gut boxen und diese beiden sind noch ganz jung

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I actually don't know on what rule this is based upon, but here are a few further examples:

Sind das Kängurus im Hintergrund?
Ja, das sind Kängurus im Hintergrund.
Das sind Kängurus und das ist ein Eichhörnchen.
Ist das alles?
Das kann man so nicht sagen.

"Das" verhält sich hier eher wie ein "hier", "dies(e)" oder "dort". Es ist also nicht der bestimmte Artikel, sondern vergleichbar mit "that/this/these" im Englischen.

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  • Saying "indeed, this is possible", what are you referring by "this"?? – Eller Dec 12 '17 at 12:42
  • To the question title. – RoyPJ Dec 12 '17 at 12:45
  • So , "Can “das” be both singular and plural?" - "yes, "das" can be singlar and plural"? Sorry, that is wrong. – Eller Dec 12 '17 at 12:46
  • Maybe the "be" is a bit confusing there. "Das" can refer to singular and plural, but it "is" not in plural. I just delete that sentence.. – RoyPJ Dec 12 '17 at 12:49

As Dirk Liebhold wrote "das" is no article in this sentence. It does not refer to the "Kängurus" but to the scene the speaker sees. There is only one scene he means. As an article "das" is singular, every time.

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    Eine Szene wäre ein Sonnenuntergang, oder vielleicht bei Kängurus ein Paarungstanz. "Die Szene" ist auch Einzahl, und dann wäre es nicht Sind das ... sondern Ist das .... "Ist das Paarunngstanz?" o. "Ist das der Paarungstanz der Kängurus?" Das das könnte man durch dies ersetzen. – user unknown Dec 12 '17 at 14:41
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    "Das" absolutely refers to the "Kängurus" here. The same way you could say "sind das meine 3 bestellten Kuchenstücke?" oder "sind das deine drei Kinder" oder "sind das die Nachbarn?". There does not need to be more context (as in a "scene"). – AnoE Dec 12 '17 at 14:44
  • Wer oder was sind möglicherweise Kängurus? "das" Wer oder was sind das? Es sind Kängurus. – Stefan Wilms Dec 13 '17 at 10:51
  • I don't see a question with the answer "das Kängurus". Thus I'd say "das" is not the article of "Kängurus". I could say "Sind das, worauf ich mich beziehe, Kängurus" and called the reference a scene. – Stefan Wilms Dec 13 '17 at 10:59

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