While reading some recent newspaper stories as well as book jacket introductions, I noticed that when describing the characters of the story the writers were often using "Personen" and "Menschen" completely interchangeably.

For example, "Zwei Menschen, die unterschiedlicher nicht sein könnten, sind..." followed a little later by "Diese Personen treffen aufeinander und...".

It got me wondering what the real difference in usage might be. What is the preferred time to use "Personen" instead of "Menschen" when simply differentiating between people? Does it narrow down the scope more on each individual person, or is it more just a stylistic preference without a real change in meaning?

  • 1
    As a third option, you have "Leute" (people), which would fit in your second example, too.
    – Landei
    Apr 12 '12 at 7:19

This is a rather typical problem in German - especially for English speakers and in the context of translations from English.

I'd bet that most of the book jacket texts you're referring to are translations from English, right?

Translators often have huge problems translating a perfectly acceptable occurrence of "people" into idiomatic German.

Hubert's answer already contains several good points, but I'd like to elaborate on a few:

  • "Leute" almost never fits - it is rather colloquial, in some times it may even sound derogatory (like in Hubert's last two examples). Note however, that there is a strong parallel between the two languages when you're talking about "his/her people" - here, "seine/ihre Leute" is the typical way to put it (it even has the same slightly archaic feel as in English).
  • "Personen" is tricky - please use with care! As Hubert indicated, its singular can sound very harsh. The usage when talking about characters in a story or about famous people is imo the most common. Note: "person" in English is much more common and neutral than "Person" in German! (e.g. "He's the kind of person..." is "Er ist ein Mensch, der..." or "Er gehört zu der Art von Mensch, die...")
  • "Menschen" unfortunately often has overtones of "do-gooder". This can be appropriate in some contexts (to use the given example, if you're talking about your spouse as the person you want to spend your life with), but could make you sound like a social worker in others.

(I just noticed that my examples make it look as though we mostly use "Mensch" when English speakers would use "person" - but I'm pretty sure this is a coincidence. Perhaps someone else has some thoughts on this.)

  • By far the most common and idiomatic solution is to avoid these altogether and use more context-specific nouns. E.g.:
    Nur fünf Menschen überlebten den Flugzeugabsturz.
    better: Nur fünf Passagiere überlebten den Flugzeugabsturz. (still better: Es gab nur fünf Überlebende.)

"Person" is a term that is often used to describe fully developed characters in a book, a play or a movie. A "Person" has a name, you know his/her relatives, you know what this person likes to eat, you know to whom he or she is fallen in love.

Die Personen in diesem Stück handeln sehr emotional.
"Der Kontrabass" ist ein Einpersonenstück. (singel person play)
Im Verlauf der Handlung verstricken sich die Schicksale dieser Personen auf dramatische Weise.

Also when talking about people who really exists, but who are out of scope of daily life, you use "Personen":

Obama, Merkel und Putin zählen zu den wichtigsten Personen der Weltpolitik.

You also use "Person" (in singular) when talking in insulting manner about people:

Ich will mit dieser Person nichts mehr zu tun haben, schafft mir diesen Verbrecher aus den Augen!

You use "Mensch" (in singular) if you are talking about a person that is very close to you:

Mit diesem Menschen will ich durchs Leben gehen, ich werde ihn heiraten.

"Menschen" are closer to you than "Personen", "Personen are closer than "Leute":

Ich mag die Menschen, die täglich zu mir in die Praxis kommen um sich Hilfe zu holen, aber die Leute auf der Straße mag ich nicht. Das sind zwar vielleicht auch freundliche Personen darunter, aber das bemerkt man ja nicht.

This is a appeal for funds:

Menschen helfen Menschen.

This appeal never would work:

Personen helfen Personen.

In Books, when you are talking about people who you don't know, or about people who met accidentally, and if they later share a common destiny, then "Menschen" is the best choice. Also, if you count them, you use "Menschen":

Zwei wildfremde Menschen treffen einander in der Wüste.
Nur fünf Menschen überlebten den Flugzeugasturz.
Zwanzig junge Menschen, die einander heute zum ersten Mal sahen, betraten das Klassenzimmer, dass sie von nun an vier Jahre lang teilen sollten.

If you are talking about a crowd of interchangeable people who you don't know, who don't know each other, and who do not have a common destiny, then "Leute" would be better ("Leute" has no singular):

An der Haltestelle warteten bereits ein paar Leute.
Die Leute in der Straßenbahn gehen mir auf die Nerven.
Wenn die Leute nur ihren Müll nicht immer auf die Straße werfen würden!

  • Ich mag die Menschen, die täglich zu mir in die Praxis kommen um sich Hilfe zu holen. -> You're not talking about men who are close to you, you're talking about a group of people with a similarity. That's the reason you use Mensch instead of person.
    – Em1
    Apr 12 '12 at 7:18
  • And the example before... I don't know. I would say Mit dieser Person because I'm referring to a concrete one, but I would say So einen Menschen würde ich gerne mal heiraten (apart from the fact, that I would never use Mensch in this context but Frau ;p)
    – Em1
    Apr 12 '12 at 7:21
  • Personenkraftwagen - soviel zu Personen, deren Namen man kennt. Apr 12 '12 at 8:14
  • Ich antworte lieber in Deutsch, da kann ich mich besser ausdrücken weil es meine Muttersprache ist: Wenn ein Arzt sagt "Ich mag die Menschen, die zu mir in die Praxis kommen" dann sagt er das, weil er einen persönlichen Bezug zu seinen Patienten hat. Ein Arzt, der seine Patienten nicht beim Namen kennt, sondern nach deren Krankheiten benennt ("Der Bilddarm, der letzte Woche schon mal da war"), redet eher von "Leuten" die in seinem Wartezimmer sitzen als von "Menschen" die er mag (oder nicht mag). Apr 12 '12 at 9:42
  • "Mit diesem Menschen will ich durch's Leben gehen": Ich würde niemals von meiner Frau als "Person" sprechen. Ich würde nie sagen, "Doris ist die Person mit der ich mein Leben teile." Nein, Doris ist der MENSCH mit dem ich mein Leben teile. Apr 12 '12 at 9:45

Both "Mensch", and "Person" may be used synonymously and interchangeable in some contexts. However there are subtle differences in the meaning:

  • Mensch: A human being characterized by being the intellectually most developed life form.
  • Person: A human being including all aspects of her/his character, and social status.

Thus it is definitely more polite to address somebody as a "Person" than it would be to use "Mensch" as the former includes not only "Mensch" but also all other aspects of a person. This, I believe may be similar in English. We can best see this subtle difference when we look at the corresponding adjectives:

  • menschlich: humane, humanly, fleshly
  • persönlich: face-to-face, individually, personal

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