How come it is "man" in some indefinite pronouns, and "mann" in others? Why is it this inconsistent?

  • 7
    Expecting consistency in language, especially in orthography, actually is a bit moot.
    – tofro
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 10:27
  • I know of no German word where n before d is doubled, so one could argue that writing niemannd is inconsistent.
    – RHa
    Commented Sep 3, 2023 at 16:17
  • @tofro in German maybe. There are languages where orthography makes sense (Turkish, Finnish,...) Commented Sep 8, 2023 at 15:26

2 Answers 2


The German words man and der Mann and the parts man or mann contained in words like jedermann and jemand derived all from the same root, which is same root where the English word man and the part man inside of woman and human comes from:

  • Old High German (8th century): man
  • Old English (about the same era): mann
  • Proto Germanic (common root of all Germanic languages): mann

The spelling of this word changed many times between man and mann (and later also its capitalized version in German) over the centuries and it changed different in different variations of germanic languages, and at some time this word merged with other words or fragments (woman, jedermann), and then this new words developed independently from the original ones. Or to say it shortly: It just happened accidentally.

This is a phenomenon that we can see also in other words: The German word for bread is »Brot«, but not long ago (150 years or so) it was »Brod«, and so there are many people with the surname Brodschneider (which means: bread cutter or bread slicer), and I know an old bakery in Graz, where I was born with the inscription "Brod und Semmeln" engraved in the door beam.

Another example is Geld (money) which shifted between Gelt and Geld (or gelt and geld) over the centuries, and so we today have Geld with d but Entgelt and gelten with t, although all these word derive from the same root. (Btw: The english words guild (the write's guild) and guilty derive from the same root end exhibit the same d/t-variation.)

The reason for all this is, that we have an identical (man/mann) or a very similar (brod/brot; geld/gelt, guild/guilt) pronunciation, the spelling of which is not so clear, and so different versions of the spelling have evolved, and as different variants of these words have evolved, they have evolved independently. And for German, I can say that the very first time that spelling was standardized was in 1876, so only about 150 years ago, and then it was reformed in two major steps in 1901 and 1996, and also in smaller steps at other times. But before 1876, spelling was more or less free.

  • 6
    "The German word for bread is »Brot«, but not long ago (150 years or so) it was »Brod«" — so this is why we have бутерброд instead of бутерброт in Russian! I've wondered about this for a long time, since it made no sense to me to change an unvoiced final consonant to a voiced one when borrowing a word.
    – Ruslan
    Commented Aug 11, 2023 at 19:06
  • 1
    @Ruslan This seems frightfully close in both form and meaning to smørrebrød in Scandinavia, which is roughly equivalent to belegtes Brot, though nowadays mostly more elaborate and fancy and mainly served in restaurants. Smørrebrød can be described as being (højt) belagt ‘with (high) toppings’, which fits with the German term belegtes Brot. (The less elaborate type shown in the Butterbrot image above would be simply known as en macka in Swedish or en mad [lit. ‘a food’] in Danish.) Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 14:49
  • 1
    @HubertSchölnast Well, the Wikipedia article says basically the same as you: _"In the dictionaries of the Russian language the word «бутерброд» borrowed from German is noted no later than the last third of XIX century, but the original «Butterbrot» in German to this day still means exclusively «bread with butter», and if it also has a piece of sausage, cheese, ham etc., then it'll be named «covered bread» (german "belegtes Brot") or «шту́лле» (german "Stulle").
    – Ruslan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 16:52
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet It looks like smørrebrød is a separate concept, at least there's a Russian Wikipedia article Смёрребрёд. I hadn't heard of it before though, and it's explicitly described in this article as a traditional Danish dish (unlike бутерброд, which is no longer considered a foreign dish).
    – Ruslan
    Commented Aug 12, 2023 at 16:56
  • 2
    @Ruslan: The word »Stulle« is used only in Germany (or pars of Germany?). It is not used in Austria and I think that Bavarians won't use it too. Germany and Austria use different standardvariations of German, and the food & kitchen vocabulary is the most divers part. I guess that more than 50% of words used for food in Austria are unknown in Germany, and about the same amount of terms used in Germany are known, but not used in Austria. Commented Aug 13, 2023 at 12:22

The spelling of man and Mann is consistent with pronunciation, but the difference is phonotactic or prosodic and not phonemic.

The pronoun is unstressed when enclitic, "Das kann man mal so machen." contracted kam-ma-ma-machn. This and similar phrases are likely the original construction which dictate the pronoun's underlying phonology.

The noun on the other hand is usually stressed on the first syllable and it bears conjugation, which dictates the phonotactics of the underlying stem. "So machen die Männer das." Since the vowel is not long, the geminate spelling is preferable in order to indicate a short stressed accent in the noun and to indicate that the medial consonant becomes ambisyllabic because of the maximal coda onset principle, Män‧ner.

Suffice to say that German spelling is not entirely consistent, but it is of course useful to distinguish inclusive man from masc. Mann. This is audible when somebody stresses that the common noun is actually intended, "Mann kann", by means of prosodic stress. This has lead to alternatives using any common noun as indefinite pronoun, Frau kann, Mensch kann, which is true to the fact that the distinctions just described are typically not realized.

I am not at all sure of the details, or how much this reflects the original situation. The cognate Mensch shows a different vowel. Old English mann, pl. menn, indef. pron man (normalized spelling) makes the same difference although "This noun was inflected as a consonant stem, but the daughter languages disagree on the form of the nominative singular." – Also, it's not entirely clear if this relates to human and (Bräuti)gam (en.WT). Chances are the story of the pronoun is no less complicated, while it is widely agreed that the Indo-European pronomina are exceedingly difficult to analyze.

en.WT: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Reconstruction:Proto-Germanic/mann-

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