Most grammars of German only call the definite and indefinite articles by the term Artikel. This appears as utter nonsense to me, and I wonder whether someone can explain to me the reason for this convention.

There is a couple of words or word combinations like

jeder, alle, mein, dein, einige, solche, manche, manch ein, besagter, kein, irgendein, welcher, derlei

that grammatically work perfectly like the definite and indefinite articles, but are curiously called pronouns by most grammars, which appears to me like the result of completely twisted thinking – in particular, the definite and indefinite article can be used as independent pronouns, too. Some use the term Artikelwort, but this rather appears like a belated correction to the distinction between articles and the so-called pronouns in article usage.

Can somebody explain this to me?

  • “the definite and indefinite article can be used as independent pronouns, too”: You may have been fooled by partial homonymy here. In particular, the definite article “der” and the pronoun “der” are declined differently: den Bauern vs. denen, des Hauses vs. dessen. – chirlu Jun 3 '13 at 10:10

The reason for this is the possibility to define word classes by either

  • function in a sentence or
  • abstract definition disregarding the actual function in a given sentence.

A good example to show this are adjectives, for example langsam (slow):

Martin ist langsam. – Martin is slow.

Martin rennt langsam. – Martin runs slowly.

In German, langsam is an Adjektiv by definition. But it can be used as an adjective (first sentence) or as an adverb (second sentence).

Coming back to articles:

In German der, die, das, ein, eine, and ein are Artikel by definition. If that name is sensible or not lies beyond my knowledge.

Jeder, mein, alle, … are Pronomen by definition, but can be used as articles.

So, when speaking of Artikel, usually the word class by definition is referred to. But sometimes the function is referred to. I guess, aiming to clarify this, the term "Artikelwort" was invented, but this only made the confusion worse.

  • But in German, adjectives and adverbs are generally identical words … quite unlike languages like English which mark adverbs explicitly (-ly). – Jan Jan 15 '17 at 21:21
  • @Jan That's why they are perfect for demonstration. schnell rennen und schnell sein are the same word by definition: adjectives, but not by function: adverbial (attribute to a verb) vs. adjective (attribute to a noun). In English, this difference in function is mirrored by a difference in wordly definition. Definition and function are separate aspects. – Toscho Jan 20 '17 at 22:05

There is a clear distinction between the definite and indefinite articles on the one hand and the other words you list¹ on the other hand: The articles can only appear in conjunction with a noun, whereas the other words can also appear on their own. This merits giving them different names, whatever those names may be.

When you say that “the definite and indefinite article can be used as independent pronouns, too”, you are mistaken. The confusion is probably caused by the fact that there is a demonstrative pronoun “der” that is in several cases homonymous to the article “der“, as well as an indefinite pronoun “einer” that is partially homonymous to the article “ein”. However, compare den Bauern and denen (dative plural), des Hauses and dessen (genitive singular neuter).

¹ The words based on ein(er), i.e. kein, manch ein, irgendein, may actually be a special case.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.