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So I've been looking at some German quotes and came across one by Nietzsche that goes like this:

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die, die gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als die, die anders denken.

What are the "die's" in this sentence referring to? Is it "Menschen?" Also, when continuing a single main clause with several subordinate clauses, do you need to constantly carry forward the relative pronoun as shown here where "die" appears to be a relative pronoun four separate times?

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    Does it help you if I rewrite the sentence just a little? Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die Leute, welche gleich denken (wie der junge Mensch) höher einzuschätzen als die Leute, welche anders denken.
    – YPOC
    Oct 18, 2023 at 13:29
  • Note that at least in contemporary German, a comma is expected after the first instance of denken, since "die gleich denken" is a subordinate relative clause embedded into the matrix clause "die […] höher einzuschätzen" (Duden reference: duden.de/sprachwissen/rechtschreibregeln/komma#D118)
    – Schmuddi
    Oct 18, 2023 at 13:33
  • The quotation may be false.
    – David Vogt
    Oct 18, 2023 at 14:02
  • To clear up one point that's confusingly phrased in your question, some of the "die"s do refer to people (plural) in general (we know that from context, not grammar). They don't refer to the young "Mensch(en)" (singular accusative) that appears in the sentence.
    – Joooeey
    Oct 20, 2023 at 11:45

5 Answers 5

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The German words der, die and das are very often used as articles, but they are also very often used as pronouns (relative and personal pronouns)

Here is an example that is a little bit shorter than your sentence, but displays the word die in all three flavours:

Zwei Männer werden in den Arrest gebracht. Die Polizisten sagen zum Gefängniswärter:
»Hier sind die, die die Diebstähle begangen haben.«

Two men are taken to the detention center. The policemen say to the jailer,
"Here are those who committed the thefts."

  • hier = here
    A local adverb that indicates where the action is going on. "Hier" and "here" mean: next to the speaker.
  • sind = are
    Verb of the main clause.
  • 1st die = those
    Subject of the main clause. This word is a demonstrative pronoun. There is also an alternative form for it: »jene«
  • 2nd die = who
    This is the first word of the relative clause »die die Diebstähle begangen haben« which describes the subject. And since every relative clause starts with a relative pronoun, the 2nd die in this sentence is a relative pronoun. It can be replaced by an other relative pronoun in its plural form, like »welche«.
  • 3rd die = the
    This word is the plural definite article of the noun Diebstähle (thefts). The only way to replace it would be to turn the definite phrase »the thefts« into the indefinite phrase »thefts«, but then the article disappears completely in English and also in German.
  • Diebstähle = thefts
    A noun.
  • begangen haben = committed
    "Begangen" is the main verb of the relative clause and "haben" the auxiliary verb needed to create the German tense Perfekt.

Using the optional replacements, we get:

Hier sind jene, welche die Diebstähle begangen haben.

This is clearer, but its not idiomatic. German native speakers do not like jene and welche very much. They prefer the demonstrative pronoun die and the relative pronoun die (and if the word is used as a definite article, you have no choice anyway).

You can also create examples with der and das, using the same pattern:

Hier ist der, der der Derbheit entsagt.
Hier ist das, das das Dasein erleichtert.

Here is the one who renounces rudeness.
Here is that which makes existence easier.


So, here is you sentence:

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die, die gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als die, die anders denken.

The four die's are:

  • 1st and 3rd die = those
    Two demonstrative pronouns. Both can be replaced by »jene«
  • 2nd and 4th die = who
    Two relative pronouns opening two relative clauses. Both can be replaced by »welche«.

With replacements (correct, but not idiomatic):

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, jene, welche gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als jene, welche anders denken.

In English:

The surest way to corrupt a young person is to teach them to value those who think alike more highly than those who think differently.

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    To a non-native speaker, German punctuation rules don’t exactly make the quote easier to parse either – the abundance of commas especially around “… korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die, die …” is quite overwhelming. I don’t know what the asker’s linguistic background is, but to me, the following would be much easier to parse (albeit not correctly punctuated by German rules): “Der sicherste Weg einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren ist ihn zu lehren die, die gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als die, die anders denken.” Oct 18, 2023 at 11:42
  • (Incidentally, shouldn’t there be a comma after the first denken in the quote, even according to normal German rules? Aren’t relative clauses usually delimited by commas at both ends?) Oct 18, 2023 at 11:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: You are correct, a comma was missing. Since punctuation was not the subject of the question, I corrected both BlauKakapoW's question and my answer. If you have a questions about punctuation (like "How can correct punctuation help to easier parse a German sentence?"), feel free to ask it here: Ask Question. The comments are not appropriate for discussing this issue. Oct 19, 2023 at 6:18
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet: I disagree. I think, commas make it easier to parse a sentence. They bring structure into the mess of words ("Professoren sagen, Studenten haben es gut." vs "Professoren, sagen Studenten, haben es gut." or "Wir empfehlen, ihm zu folgen." vs "Wir empfehlen ihm, zu folgen.") (Translations: "Professors say students have it good." vs "Professors, students say, have it good." or "We recommend to follow him." vs "We recommend him to follow.") Oct 19, 2023 at 11:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet Commas in German help you to identify grammatical structures (because they are solely driven by them). Commas in English help you to identify where to breathe. Both are important, but from a grammatical viewpoint, breathing is not that important. ;)
    – tofro
    Oct 21, 2023 at 12:14
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Let me rephrase with the real pronouns instead of their definite article shortcuts, and let's skip the relative clauses for now:

… ihn zu lehren, diese höher einzuschätzen als jene.

Those diese and jene are alternatives. They are demonstrative pronouns, not relative pronouns. So they aren't referring to anything in the sentence. You have to derive their meaning from context. It's again humans of course. But not junge Menschen but other humans in general.

Let's add the relative clauses that explain both alternatives:

… ihn zu lehren, diese, welche gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als jene, welche anders denken.

(Mind the comma after denken. It's missing in your transcript.)

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    The words der, die, das, when used as in this sentence, are not »definite article shortcuts« but absolutely »real pronouns«. The first »die« in »Die Milch, die ich trank, war sauer.« is a definite article, but the second has nothing article-like on it. It is an absolutely proper relative pronoun that does what any relative pronoun does, but no article can do: It introduces a relative clause. And the word »die« in »Ich habe Martins Freundin getroffen. Die ist mir vielleicht ein Fürchtchen!« is a perfectly correct personal pronoun, also without anything resembling an article. Oct 18, 2023 at 6:51
  • That's hair splitting.
    – Janka
    Oct 18, 2023 at 16:18
  • I think most people (including me) wouldn't call it "hair splitting" but "grammar". Oct 19, 2023 at 6:20
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No, the dies do not refer to Menschen. The dies before and after a comma each serve a different purpose, the first being a demonstrative pronoun, the second being a relative pronoun referring to the first. So "... die, die ..." translates to "... those who ...".

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  • Du meinst, wenn statt "Menschen" im ersten Teil "Studenten" stünde, dann würden sich die <i>dies</i> danach nicht automatisch auf Studenten (Studenten, die) beziehen? Wenn es sich nicht auf Menschen bezieht - aus was denn sonst? Lebewesen? Oct 18, 2023 at 10:32
  • Das jeweils erste die ist, wie ich schon geschrieben habe, ein Demonstrativpronomen. Ein Demonstrativpronomen muss sich nicht auf etwas beziehen. Es wird näher bestimmt durch den nachfolgenden Relativsatz.
    – RHa
    Oct 18, 2023 at 17:00
  • Und "those" muss sich auch nicht auf etwas beziehen? Unterscheidest Du hier Satzelemente und Semantik? Ich meine, es muss sich semantisch schon auf etwas beziehen. Oct 20, 2023 at 16:11
  • @userunknown Ein Demonstrativpronomen muss sich tatsächlich auf nichts beziehen (und tut es hier auch nicht). Das weiß schon ein Kleinkind, das auf irgendwas zeigt und "das" sagt. Der Zeigefinger ist hier der Relativsatz.
    – tofro
    Oct 21, 2023 at 12:23
  • Ein Kleinkind zeigt auf etwas, sagt "Das!" und will sich dabei auf nichts beziehen? Wo zeigt es denn hin? Auf das Nichts? Oct 23, 2023 at 2:25
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Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die, die gleich denken höher einzuschätzen als die, die anders denken.

This sentence is like an onion: layers upon layers. The easiest way to deal with such sentences is to peel them apart bit for bit. First, the main sentence:

Der sicherste Weg ist, ihn zu lehren.
The most fool-proof way is to teach him.

The next layer is the answer to the question the most fool-proof way - to do what? The answer is a relative sentence:

einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren.
The most fool-proof way to corrupt a young person is to teach him.

Now, this begs a question: to teach him - what? The answer to this is another relative sentence:

die höher einzuschätzen als die

The first "die" hier means "the [ones]" and the second one "the [others]". If you ask now who or what the ones and the others are: we will come to that.

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die höher einzuschätzen als die.
The most fool-proof way to corrupt a young person is to teach him to hold the [ones] in higher esteem than the [others].

Finally, we need to adress who the ones and the others are. This is explained in two other relative clauses, following the respective "die":

die, die gleich denken
die, die anders denken

So, the first "die" are "the ones thinking the same" and the second "die" are "the ones thinking differently". In English one would always use "the ones - the others" and in German that is possible too, but not necessarily so. In German it is possible to define what is meant in a relative clause and have the respective Demonstrativpronomen1) - here "die", because it is Akkusativ Plural in the sentence higher up in the hierarchy stand in for the rest of the clause. For instance:

Das, was man nicht selbst produzieren kann, muß man kaufen.
[That] what one can't produce himself, one has to buy. - One has to buy what he cannot produce himself.

The main sentence is "Das muß man kaufen." (One has to buy that.) and what "Das/That" exactly constitutes is explained in the clause following the Demonstrativpronomen: "was man nicht selbst produzieren kann".

Now, here is the whole sentence again:

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die, die gleich denken höher einzuschätzen als die, die anders denken.
The most fool-proof way to corrupt a young person is to teach him to hold the ones who think the same [way] in higher esteem than the others who think differently.


1) Notice that "die" is NOT an article here, although it looks like and is inflected like one.

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Der, die, das are multi-purpose words in German that occur in quite a number of flavors which can confuse non-native speakers:

  1. A simple article. It helps clarifying the Genus of a noun as well as its state of individualism (because they are definite articles, they denounce a definitive item).
  2. A demonstrative pronoun, translating to this in English - Pronouns don't stand with the noun like articles, but rather for the noun and are demonstrative as in pointing at something.
  3. A relative pronoun, translating to which or that in English - Here they stand for a noun typically found in the main clause

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, die(DP), die(RP) gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als die(DP), die(RP) anders denken.

A sure way to identify a demonstrative pronoun as in your example sentence is: if you can replace "die" with "diejenigen" without changing the meaning, it surely is a DP.

Der sicherste Weg, einen jungen Menschen zu korrumpieren, ist, ihn zu lehren, diejenigen, die gleich denken, höher einzuschätzen als diejenigen, die anders denken.

A demonstrative pronoun doesn't necessarily need to refer to something (while a relative pronoun needs to). In your example, the DP doesn't. It's like pointing into a specific direction and saying "this one". So, the DP die do not reference a noun, while the RP die reference the DP.

A proper translation would be

The safest way to corrupt the youth is to teach them to value the ones that think alike higher than the ones that think different.

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