(Related: are "das", "was" and "welch-" interchangeable relative pronouns?) In English the "rule" is that "that" is used in restrictive clauses while "which" is used in non-restrictive clauses. (See the usage note here). For example:

The event featured musical numbers performed by many artists. The song that Ella Fitzgerald sang was written by Cole Porter.

In this case, there were many songs, but only one was sung by Ella, and the clause restricts the sentence to that song. In contrast:

The event included many performances including a musical number. Ella Fitzgerald sang the song, which was written by Cole Porter.

In this case there is only one song and the clause is simply adding an additional fact about it.

I put "rule" in quotation marks above since few native English speakers are aware of it or follow it scrupulously. To my ears

The song which Ella Fitzgerald sang was written by Cole Porter.

sounds fine and has the same meaning. But

Ella Fitzgerald sang the song, that was written by Cole Porter.

sounds odd and I'd probably assume that I'd misunderstood something. So, at least in my Inland Northern American variety of English, the rule seems to be that "which" and "that" are interchangeable in restrictive clauses, but only "which" can be used in non-restrictive clauses.

Translating to German, DeepL seems to think both das and welches work in both sentences:

Das Lied, das/welches Ella Fitzgerald sang, wurde von Cole Porter geschrieben.
Ella Fitzgerald sang das Lied, das/welches von Cole Porter geschrieben wurde.

Wiktionary says that welches would not be used in spoken German, and even in written German it would be seen as overly literary and pretentious. This would mean that welches is, at least in modern, idiomatic German, not used as a relative pronoun at all and you'd always use das regardless of whether it's a restrictive clause or not.

DWDS says that welches would be used either when the word immediately following it is similar, in other words a definite article, or when there are several clauses in succession. Their examples:

das Kind, welches das schönste Bild gemalt hatte (I can understand why das das would sound odd.)
das Geschäft, das mir das Gerät verkaufte, welches mir so viel Ärger bereitete, will es nun doch zurücknehmen (The device, not the business, caused the trouble.)

So does the restrictive/non-restrictive issue make any difference in German? Is welch- used as a relative pronoun in today's German? I've learned to trust neither DeepL or Wiktionary completely. I trust DWDS more but I understand their mission is to define words and not necessarily to delve into issues of usage and grammar. I am convinced though that, whatever may be the case, English and German do not agree on this. English speakers don't seem to agree even among themselves.

  • 1
    Related question (in German): „Welcher“ zur Kennzeichnung explikativer Relativsätze?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 12:07
  • I use welches as Eselsbrücke for the question das/dass. And sometimes I've the feeling that "Was? Das!" is easier to use in "nondiplomatic speech". On the other hand, in everyday talk I guess das wins any counter. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 22:13
  • @Wrzlprmft: Thanks, that's helpful. I gather from the answers that the restrictive/non-restrictive issue makes no difference, but that using welches instead of das may depend on what stress you want to give to the subclause. I think there is still some clarification needed, for example are the rules given by DWDS used in everyday language?
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 5:52
  • @Shegit Brahm: Fun fact - an Eselsbrücke is known to English speakers by the Latin pons asinorum, but it means something completely different. I think I know what you mean though. It also seems that das das isn't avoided that much; even dass das das isn't too uncommon.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 6:08

1 Answer 1

  • "So does the restrictive/non-restrictive issue make any difference in German?"
    No, it doesn't make any difference in German. I also never heard about this difference in English. But English is a foreign language to me.

  • "Is welch- used as a relative pronoun in today's German?"
    Yes, it is used, but only as the unpopular second choice. "welcher/welche/welches" is the out-of-favor alternative for "das" that only is used when the usage of "das" would give two copies of "das" next to each other. But even in this situation most people prefer double-das:

    1. Wir reden heute über das Kind, das das Bild gemalt hat.
    2. Wir reden heute über das Kind, welches das Bild gemalt hat.

    Both sentences are correct. In spoken German most people would use version 1, in written German you will find more often version 2. The same is true for this pair of sentences:

    1. Ich sehe das Geschäft, das mir das Gerät verkaufte, das mir so viel Ärger bereitete.
    2. Ich sehe das Geschäft, das mir das Gerät verkaufte, welches mir so viel Ärger bereitete.
  • "I've learned to trust neither DeepL or Wiktionary completely."
    It's a good strategy to doubt artificial intelligences (DeepL) or groups of amateurs (Wiktionary), but that doesn't mean they're always wrong. In more than 95% of all cases, they are right. Btw: Now you trust German.stackexchange which is a group of amateurs.

Native speakers who already are familiar with the usage of welches often use this word to decide if "das" or "dass" is the right choice after a comma. The replacement of "das(s)" by "welches" only works if the word in question is a relative pronoun, and only "das" can be a pronoun while "dass" is a subordinating conjunction.

Auf dem Tisch steht das Glas, das/dass du mir geschenkt hast.
Auf dem Tisch steht das Glas, welches du mir geschenkt hast. - correct, therefor:
Auf dem Tisch steht das Glas, das du mir geschenkt hast.

Bist du sicher, das/dass das dasselbe Glas ist?
Bist du sicher, welches das dasselbe Glas ist? - wrong! therefore:
Bist du sicher, dass das dasselbe Glas ist?

Bzw: Native speakers have no qualms about producing sentences like this:

Der Philosoph behauptet, dass das das Dasein verändern würde.
The philosopher claims that this would change existence.

  • Thanks for such a detailed and well considered answer. You should know that I'm a proud skeptic and don't completely trust SE either, but if answers match the information that I've been able to gather independently then I'm satisfied. It's good to know that das is sometimes preferred even when "which" is preferred in English; I'm not sure that's well covered in grammar texts.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 13:51
  • @RDBury: You should not believe, that grammatical features of one language also exist in other languages. English and German are very closely related to each other. Both are West Germanic languages and about 1500 years ago they were the same language. But still they didn't develop in the same direction. When you compare Englisch with Swedish (a North Germanic Language), French (a Romance and therefor also Italic language), Greek (a Hellenic language), Russian (East-Slavic, Balto-Slavic), Persian (Iranian) and Sanskrit (an Indo-Iranian language), ... Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 6:40
  • ... you will notice that these languages share less and less common features. But these languages are all Indo-European languages. If you compare English with languages from other families (Arab, Chinese, Swahili, Navajo, Inuktitut etc.) you will notice, that the number of common grammatical features is even smaller. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 6:40
  • Yes, that's all part of the language learning experience. Even different varieties of American English have different grammatical features. In this case the similarities outnumber the differences though, two relative pronouns (das and welches vs. "that" and "which"), welches and "which" are cognates, and they can be used in similar ways. Sometimes cognates are very similar in meaning, sometimes they are very different; it's most confusing when they are similar in some ways but different in others, in which case a detailed explanation is very helpful.
    – RDBury
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 7:14

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