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In this article, Matt Crossman of Thrillist claims to have been told the following by a German journalist:

[he] told me that even Germans don’t how to use der, die, das, so they just cheat and say de.

While this is obviously exaggerated (and may be just a little white lie to encourage a beginner), it made me think that perhaps there's some truth to it. I looked on Wiktionary, and came across definitions for de that translate as "the" in Alemannic and Low German. So it's obviously a dialectal thing, but is it limited to northern and southwestern Germany (and Switzerland), or is it used colloquially everywhere?

  • Even your linked article from Wiktionary shows that the alemannic forms are "de, d, s, d" - so "de" is not unique for all forms of "der, die, das". – IQV Apr 8 at 13:30
  • My mother and grandparents come from Schleswig Holstein, I grew up in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) and now live in Hessen (Hesse) and have never heard someone say this. – infinitezero Apr 8 at 13:44
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    That's kind of been my expectation... something that's perhaps meant to sound encouraging to a struggling learner, but not really true. One might as well say that (native adult) English speakers don't know when to use he, him, and his. – JAF Apr 8 at 15:08
  • Presumably he claims this in order to seem an edgy rebel, because both the phenomenon and its explanation are bogus. – Kilian Foth Apr 9 at 6:14
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I can't talk for Germans (I am not German), but for German native speakers from the south of the German speaking area (like me, I'm living in Austria).

The region I'm talking about is Italy (South Tyrol), Austria without Vorarlberg and Bavaria. The dialects spoken in this region are called Bavarian dialects and there are many of them in this area. So it is even hard to generalize across this area (22 millon people living there), but for most of the articles this is possible:

definite articles

  • der → da

    Der Baum wächst. → Da Baam woxt.

  • die → die

    Die Truhe is voll. → Die Truchn is fui.

  • das → des

    Das Spiel ist aus. → Des Spüh is aus.

  • des → -
    There is no genitive case in bavarian dialects, so there is no article that only could appear in a non-existant case
  • dem → n (vocalized n, also in, an but also vocalized m and im, am)

    Der Hut gehört dem Bruder. → Da Huat kheat n Bruadan.

  • den → n (vocalized n, also in, an)

    Ich sehe den Bruder. → I siach n Bruada.

indefinite articles

  • ein → a

    Ein Baum wächst. → A Baam woxt.

  • eine → a

    Eine Truhe ist voll. → A Truchn is fui.

  • einem → aan

    Das gehört einem Bruder. → Des kheat aan Bruadan.

  • einer → ana

    Das gehört einer Schwester. → Des kheat ana Schwesta.

  • einen → aan

    Ich sehe einen Bruder. → I siach aan Bruada.


So for Bavarian dialects you claim proves wrong, and for bavarian dialects you can see, that »de« is not used as any arcticle. But »de« is used for diese (this), but this is a pronoun, not an article:

Diese Truhe ist voll. → De Truchn is fui.

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Reducing der/die/das to "de" is at best dialectal thing (but see the more differentiated view outlined below). It is not common in standard pronunciation, also, and notably so, not in sloppy pronunciation.

Also, even where it occurs, it has nothing to do with speakers not knowing what article to put there. Easy prove: even children growing up in dialect-only regions are perfectly able to use the correct articles (i.e. genus of the nouns) in writing. So they know what genus a noun has, even though they may not differentiate the articles in pronunciation (or alledgedly so, because perhaps they anyway do, but not necessarily in a way intelligible to non-members of that dialectal group).

Exceptions in terms of the one or the other child having general difficulties with writing, or simply with German language, are not relevant here. The group we are looking at are average people with German as first language. It is possible that some adults who learned German as an additional language resort to that method to hide their insecuirities.

Interestingly the topic of replacing der/die/das by only "de" has been discussed broadly in the media as a result of a book

Abbas Khider: Deutsch für alle. Das endgültige Lehrbuch

having become a best-seller recently (spring 2019) and getting many book reviews in the media. The author, who once had come as a refugee from Iraq and struggled a lot with learning German, submits a number of suggestions how to make German more easy to use for foreigners, and one of his suggestions is reducing der/die/das to simnply "de".

Checking dialectal use of articles

In Swabian dialect you may hear

Gib mer mol da Hammer! (Gib mir mal den Hammer)

Dr Hammer isch it dô. (Der Hammer ist nicht da.)

Hosch da Soich scho nausgfirat? (Hast du die Gülle bereits auf die Felder verbracht?)

Hosch dr Mariluise ihre Kender gsäa? - (Hast du Marie-Louises Kinder gesehen?; wörtlich: "der Marie-Louise ihre Kinder")

Kasch mol d'Epfl raholla? (Kannst du mal die Äpfel runterholen?)

Kasch mol dui Epfl do brocka? (Kannst du mal jene Äpfel dort pflücken?)

Breng au mol s Gaddadirle zom Richta! (Bring doch mal bei Gelegenheit das Gartentor zur Reparatur)

Which indicates that even in (this) dialect there is no actual redcation of der/die/das to "de". Rather all forms of standard German have their separate pronunciation in dialect: der becomes "dr" (but accusative den becomse da), die becomes d, and das becomes s or as.

Note that vowels a and e in the above examples (in de/da) are rather Schwa, not clear e or a.

  • As I supposed, the way it was phrased made it sound like a little white lie to make the learner feel better about something he was struggling with. – JAF Apr 8 at 15:14
  • Very interesting... I would have expected it to be an American author who would write and publish a book about how to "fix" a foreign language! – JAF Apr 8 at 15:25
  • It is part of the success story of the book that it was a refugee from Iraq who wrote it. Of course the book is meant as ironic entertainment for people who are interested in (German) language. It drew, however, bitter criticism by our notorious right-wing groups who seem to feel offended that such a dark skinned Arab underling (their idea, not mine) dares to criticize (but also to master) "our" language... which revealed how much they understand of German language, by the way . – Christian Geiselmann Apr 8 at 15:38
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A comedian, if I recall correctly it was Kaya Yanar or someone else riffing on immigrant issues, made that joke over a decade ago, modulo the bit about Germans saying it. If the audience, who were mostly native German speakers, would say de indiscriminately, the joke wouldn't be funny, but a mere observation.

However, while native speakers will try to disambiguate even if reducing the pronunciation, it might sound pretty much the same to a foreign speaker, if the modulation is very slight.

I for one do say (whatever that's in IPA) something like dea Mann, similar to the simplification -er > -a in various renditions of English. The difference to "die" is minuscule at that point especially since articles are rarely stressed. Likewise the t in das ... I mean the t in dit ~ dat can be a silent stop, so that's again no big difference from di' ~ da' to de' and di', although it can be rendered as just a stop "'t", and a clear pronunciation would use "ditte" instead, in some Berlin dialect.

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It may not count as a dialect as there is a national border in the way but you only have to go as far as the Netherlands to find de replacing everything except das. I guess that means you will find this just on the German side of the border as well but whether it is recognised as a German dialect I would not know.

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