In chapter 1 of "Heidi", Dete and her old acquaintance Barbel are leading Heidi up the mountain to meet her grandfather. The author, Johanna Spyri, starts talking about die Dete and die Barbel, for example

Aber die Barbel hätte schon lange gern gewusst, ... .

But sometimes the die is not there:

»Und wenn auch«, sagte Dete trotzig, ... .

The die is included about a dozen times each for Dete and Barbel, and das is used for Heidi once, but more in the next chapter. This was confusing to me at first, but it's covered in SE questions here and here and in a Reddit thread here, and this AdA map. The upshot, as far as Dete and Barbel are concerned, is that in southern Germany it's common to use an article with a first name. (The boundary, which is quite sharp, roughly follows a line from Dresden to Munster. This would seem to include much, if not most, of population of Germany, not to mention Switzerland and Austria, so I'm very surprised this isn't covered more in grammars and German textbooks. Articles other than die also appear in some areas.) I still have a few questions though.

  1. The die is used with Dete and Barbel, but Heidi gets das. I assume that's because Dete and Barbel are both old enough to be called eine Frau, but Heide is still ein Kind or ein Mädchen. Is this correct?

  2. It appears that the article wouldn't be used when addressing the person directly. For example Dete says »Bist du müde, Heidi?« but she would never say »Bist du müde, das Heidi?« Is that correct?

  3. Even in the third person, Spyri uses the article sometimes and sometimes not. Is there any meaning or connotation attached to it? One of the answers talks about it being an "emphasis marker", but I'm skeptical since it doesn't seem to match the way it's used in the book.

  4. I can understand how Spyri, being Swiss, would prefer to use southern speech patterns, but I'm surprised that her publisher (German) would allow it since it's not Standard German. (There was some debate in one of the SE threads about what Standard German is or should be, but I would prefer to leave that can of worms unopened. Let's just say it's the German they teach to foreigners.) J. K. Rowling can give Hagrid a regional accent, but I think her publisher would object if she tried to write an entire book in that accent. So is it common for an author's regionalisms to appear in a nationally published book like this? Or is Spyri trying to give the narration a more homey, less formal feel by including the occasional southern expression? Other than that, much of the narration is rather florid (imo), even by 19th century standards, and especially for a children's book.

  • 1
    Does this answer your question? Using definite article with people's names
    – guidot
    Oct 1, 2020 at 22:09
  • @guidot -- I linked to that question in my question, so no. Please read my entire question before suggesting a similar question. I read both the similar questions and all the answers, and my own independent research before posting, a process that took more than a few hours. Is it a rule here that followup questions are not allowed?
    – RDBury
    Oct 2, 2020 at 11:18
  • @RDBury: follow-up is nice. If the other question answers the same it is just a duplicate. So thanks for editing it in to make your research visible. Oct 2, 2020 at 11:59
  • @Shegit Brahm -- Actually I just changed the title. I find it rather frustrating because I do try to follow the guidelines and research the question as much as I can before before posting here. The guidelines say you should include research in the question, but unfortunately the resulting reaction seems to be "TL;DR Looks similar to another question, so close." I got some very interesting and detailed answers though, so I guess it's a matter of taking the bad along with the good.
    – RDBury
    Oct 2, 2020 at 12:38

2 Answers 2

  1. Yes, that's correct. Heidi is refered to as "es" because she's a small kid at that time, but later, when she grows up more and is still refered to with the article "es" ("Heidi kann zeigen, was es gelernt hat"), it can also be understood as an expression of closeness and affection by authors and readers who have "known" her for so long. Also, what might be a factor is that "Heidi" can be seen in Swiss German as a diminuitive form of her name Adelheid, and diminuitive forms (with -chen, -le, -li etc. depending on region) are mostly if not always neutral gender.

  2. Yes, you would never use an article with a name when addressing the person directly. That's also true for articles used (rudely) with last name of adult persons ("die Merkel", "der Seehofer").

  3. The use of an article with a first name in a book is unusual in itself because it's not normally done in "Schriftdeutsch" or "Hochdeutsch", but Spyri, with her whole language, is probably trying to be close to her young readers by using a more relaxed, more regional, more loving, less strict and less "hochdeutsch" language. So she's sometimes using an article and sometimes not, the latter being the normal way and the article adding a bit of affection or more of a child's view an things here and there.

  4. The way she uses language that is near to a southern/Swiss dialect is artistic. It's not as if she herself is too rural to be speaking proper German, it's an intentional effect. The contents of the book, at least the first book (I haven't read the other ones) AFAIR also romanticizes the contrast between the more natural, open, honest, hard, basic life in the alps vs. the more artificial, strict, distanced, distinguished life in Frankfurt. I'd speculate that her language is intentially supporting her idealization of the simple, rural life, and it might also have been seen at that time to be catering more closely to children as potential readers. Moreover, "Volksdichtung" was always a branch of literature in Germany that catered more closely to some region, using regionalisms from language to locations and special peculiarities of the local people.

  • 1
    Thank you for the detailed answers. I've been trying to think of an English equivalent and I think the closest is the habit of putting "Miss" in front of a first name, as in the movie "Driving Miss Daisy". AFAIK it only occurred in the Southern US and would considered incorrect in formal writing. But as near as I can tell Margaret Mitchell only uses "Miss Scarlett" in dialogs, not the narration in "Gone with the Wind".
    – RDBury
    Oct 1, 2020 at 20:55

zu 1.) Yes, that is my understanding, too. In Northern Germany, I have heard constructions like "die Heidi" oder "der Peter" frequently, although I myself would only used this jokingly, but I have never heard or used something like "das Heidi" which seems very outdated to me. There might be regional differences, though.

zu 2.) Yes, that is correct. You would never used it to address a person directly.

zu 3.) From a Northern German perspective, I would not use it at all. It sounds weird to me, even somewhat pejorativ (especially if used with "das"), and it has no specific function.

Heidi hat mich besucht.


Die Heidi hat mich besucht.

seem identical to me. Maybe one could argue that the second variant puts the emphasises on a specific person like

Die Heidi, die meine beste Freundin ist, hat mich besucht.

or distinguishes her from another Heidi

Die Heidi vom Berg, nicht die Heidi aus dem Tal, hat mich besucht.

However, in both cases the article is not necessary. So, I don't think there is a rule for this.

zu 4.) I can't say anything about Swiss German or 19th century (Swiss) German, but as I said above, at least the combination of die/der with a female/male first name is not uncommon in colloquial (Standard) German.

  • Using "the" to clarify which person you mean is possible in English too: "I'm the Dave from Pittsburgh." "Which Heather did you go out with? -- The Heather with brown hair." Thank for confirming 1 and 2; nonstandard German may have different rules, but it still has rules and it's nice know know what they are. It's really too bad that grammars don't seem to document this kind of thing, even if only to say it might be something you hear but don't use it in formal writing.
    – RDBury
    Oct 1, 2020 at 20:02
  • This is an interesting and funny article about this issue, especially with respect to (2) and regional differences. I did forget about the horrible construction: "Hallo, ich bin der Martin. Bist Du die Heidi?" (spiegel.de/kultur/zwiebelfisch/…)
    – user46310
    Oct 2, 2020 at 13:54
  • This was quoted in one of the answers to the other question. With a lot of help from Google translate (which got very confused) I was able to read it. The bit about Diana being confused with Die Anna is pretty funny. That die is only used with animals in the North was new to me, no wonder Barbara got upset.
    – RDBury
    Oct 3, 2020 at 1:55

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