Originally, I thought the Wortart for a word is determined by how it is used in a sentence. (I will limit this question to Pronomen, with some noun/verb/adjectives for motivation.)

In English, one can say

I drink the drink.

It is not sufficient to know the type-of-speech for "drink". The first instance is a verb, and the second is a noun.

(There are even examples of purposefully using a word as a different part of speech, as in

I have an ask to request from you.

Whatever one's feeling is about this kind of word (ab)use, it is undeniable that in that particular sentence "ask" is a noun.)

So I was surprised to see that "den" is identified as a Pronomen even in the sentence

Die Schüler haben den Ball gesucht.

[Richtiges Deutsch, Heuer et. al. p.111]

I guess I'm OK with memorizing the list of words that arr intrinsically Wortart=Pronomen, but that seems useless if there is no functional benefit to apply in actual writing/speech.

To highlight my confusion, consider

Rosa Einhörner fliegen schnell. Blaue fliegen langsam.

While it may not be ideal, I assume it is passable to write this in German. If so, what part of speech is "Blaue"?

Is Pronomen an intrinsic property of a word? ; of some words?


  • I don't really understand the question. At the beginning you say that you "originally .. thought" that the part of speech can be inferred from how the lexem is used in a sentence. Then you say you are "surprised" to see den identified as a pronoun. What does that have to do with the first point? Isn't your question really: What is the definition of a pronoun? Or: Can den be considered a pronoun?
    – johnl
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 12:03

2 Answers 2


The German Wikipedia article lists quite a lot of different types of pronomina. Among those are the ones classified as Demonstrativpronomen, which include the articles (der, die, das) and their respective conjugates (especially the accusative cases den, die, das).

Die Schüler haben den Ball gesucht

means they were looking for a specific ball. Not any ball. Perhaps, specifically that ball, which they used to play with a minute ago, before it went over the hedge into the neighbour's garden. It might become more apparent, by saying

Die Schüler haben jenen Ball gesucht(, der über die Hecke geflogen war).

However, as Wikipedia mentions, in everyday language jener/jene/jenes is often replaced by the definite articles.

Going on, we find der, die, das also listed as Relativpronomen, e.g.

Der Ball, der über die Hecke flog

Thus it can be concluded, that it is not an intrinsic property of the word itself, but as stated by you, is determined by its role in the sentence.

Rosa Einhörner fliegen schnell. Blaue fliegen langsam.

This is a perfectly valid German sentence. And I'd describe the construction as commonly used [albeit not the content ;) ]. Blaue is a nominalized adjective. Since it is a noun itself, it is not a pronoun. This is possible, because German declines adjectives. We do not need an additional word here, to make the distinction between the noun and regular adjective form. A literal (and cumbersome and wrong) translation to English would read

Pink unicorns fly quickly. Blues (=blue ones) fly slowly.

  • I think adjectives can be used as nouns in English too (e.g. The dead = Die Toten), although it's common to add "one"/"ones".
    – RHa
    Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 12:41
  • It is possible with the definite article, but not with indefinite plural. And it might slightly change the meaning. Compare: Living birds fly high, the dead rest at the ground vs Living birds fly high, the dead ones rest at the ground Commented Sep 21, 2020 at 12:51

I do agree with your sentiment.

Are parts of speech a category that is intrinsically fixed to every word?

That's more of a general question about linguistic theory, not specific to German. And not one that is universally agreed on.

I'd say, no, obviously not. Any token has a syntactic function only within a syntactic context. Sometimes, the same token can have different functions, although we consider it to belong to the same lexeme. Articles are a good example of this: they can function as determiners, all kinds of pronouns, quantifiers, and maybe more (there's even a certain semantic ambiguity there).

There's a legitimate view that this is too loose an approach, and we do associate to each lexeme a syntactic function that is the "typical one", and which it will have in most contexts. This would be what is called the part of speech of that lexeme. Those categories are a rather loose kind of equivalence class of lexemes under syntactic function. But they need not be unique or uniquely identifiable in every context. Or can have exceptions for certain idiomatic constructions.

Rosa Einhörner fliegen schnell. Blaue fliegen langsam.

Blaue functions as a noun here. I'd still say that it is an adjective in this context, as blau is prototypically an adjective, and the sentence can be considered an ellipsis of blaue [Einhörner]. Contrarily,

Schwarze lehnen die Einführung einer Erbschaftssteuer ab, während Rote sie befürworten.

Here, I'd say, both Schwarze and Rote can be considered as proper nouns. Even when they have arisen from an elliptical adjective constrution, the common usage for conservative and social-democratic politicial opions has given them a certain standing on their own.

Sometimes it is still completely ambiguous.

Ich habe einen Apfel gekauft.

Einen can be interpreted at least as quantifier/numeral, determiner/article,j or indefinite pronoun.

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