Translation Corner: article jumble
Posted 5. September 2009on:
Just recently I got a nice little comment to my article about, ahem, articles.
Just a quick question for you, but I’ve often wondered about to what extent articles differ from region to region. There are a few examples I’ve come across, such as arguments over der/das Joghurt, der/die/das Butter, der/die/das Sieb etc. but it’s difficult for me as an English speaker to imagine how striking these differences are. Could you for example place where someone was from just based on the articles they used, disregarding any accent?
There are words where people cannot decide, or disagree strongly, what articles are to be used. For instance, the word „Schild“ (meaning shield, or sign, depending on context) could either have the article „das“ or „der“ – back in ye olde days when „Schild“ only meant shield, it was accompanied by „der“ – it was considered part of the arms men wore to war, so it was something masculine. The added article (together with the added meaning of „sign“) only came into being, when knights used their shields to show their allegiance in battle (displaying their specific coat of arms, for instance) – since then the new meaning & article gradually took hold. And since the invention of modern firearms, sword & shield are less used, which meant the first, original meaning wasn’t as important anymore.
However, back to the original point – words and their articles are more affected by change through time than through specific dialect usage. In fact, I can’t think of a specific word that uses a different article in another dialect (which doesn’t mean there isn’t one, it just means it is not a very noticeable factor, if one at all).
What is affecting article-usage in Germany is the continuing spread of Anglizismen – since we usually only adopt the word, and not its grammatical usage (such as how to form its plural, or its articles, etc) we basically decide which plural version of the word and which article sound the best – for most words, that is decided quickly enough and most people agree with it („Die Mailbox“, „Die Mailboxen“ especially used in online-context), however there are quite a few words that are either too new to have an established German article and plural, or are only rarely used, so they never developed a proper article in the public eye (I can’t give you a good example for that since most germanized English words only are in that phase for a short time, because sooner or later we have decided upon an article, and then it is common usage – you’d have to get a new word to spread for the phenomenon to happen again ;))
For more (German) background on etymology of words (in this example, „Schild“), you might want to read the following: