Definite articles and personal names

January 12, 2024 by Alison Tunley

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One of the first things I noticed many moons ago when working as an au pair in Germany, was the way the definite article was frequently stuck in front of people’s names “Die Petra …”, “Der Klaus …” etc. With certain regional variations, this definite article plus name formulation crops up frequently in spoken conversation and has an informal tone. This distinctive usage sounds very odd or even amusing to English ears, but until recently I did not know it had a name. Use of the definite article in this way is called the onymic article and its usage is broader than simply referring to third-party individuals.

Earlier forms of German applied an article (and different genders) to the names of countries, so Deutschland would have been das Deutschland, and Dänemark would have been die Dänemark. Today, most of these articles have vanished, although there are a few notable exceptions as in die Schweiz (Switzerland), der Irak (Iraq), and die Ukraine (Ukraine).

The difference in functional application of definite articles between languages — and the perils of getting it wrong — is the theme of an article by Mirjam Schmuck, who describes how Donald Trump’s use of the definite article before the phrase “African Americans” prompted accusations of racism for a usage that “would probably have gone unnoticed in German”. Such was the outrage in the USA that screenwriter and author Shonda Rhimes did not even need to reference Trump in a tweet to her 1.9 million followers saying, “I REALLY need him to stop calling me ‘THE African-Americans’ because ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”

Returning to the use of definite article with individual names, Schmuck suggests the usage is most common in southern German dialects, including Swiss German and Austrian-Bavarian. By contrast, she suggests that use of the definite article with a name might have a “derogatory connotation” in the north and remains uncommon, with central German representing a transitional area between these two preferred styles. The definite article can also be used with someone’s full name, as demonstrated in an article documenting different usages by the Leibniz-Institut für Deutsche Sprache. One example they provide includes a passage of reported speech in the newspaper Mannheimer Morgen, in which the German prime minister is referred to with a preceding definite article, “wir gehen davon aus, daß die Angela Merkel ihr Weisungsrecht nutzen wird” (“we assume that [the] Angela Merkel will exercise her right of instruction”).

Why is this feature not simply referred to as a definite article with an unusual function? Damaris Nübling offers an explanation “As names are always inherently definite, the function of this article cannot be to mark definiteness”. Instead, the onymic article is regarded as being part of the name: in some cases, it is obligatory, in other cases — as with personal names — it is more of a regional quirk.


Image: Unsplash

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