The name

Two businesspeople in office with a handshake.

At times, the smallest word can make a world of difference. We’ve looked at the indefinite article before (‘Ich bin ein Berliner’). Today, let’s look at the power of the definite article. Not thrilled? Wait ‘till you meet Birgit!

Imagine you’re a Brit who’s just moved to Germany. On your first day at work, you meet the colleague with whom you’re going to share an office. She smiles at you, extends her right hand and says, ‘Ich bin die Birgit.’ The Birgit??? What Birgit? ‘If she’s the Birgit, why have I never heard of her before,’ you will rightly wonder.

To all other readers, whose native language is not English, it’s helpful to know that, in certain contexts, the definite article can equal a label of universal significance. It denotes something or someone of which or whom there is only one at a time in the world. Like the Dalai Lama, the Pope or the Pommes Buddha.

In colloquial German, however, it is rather common to place the definite article in front of a name. This conveys an air of, often anticipated, familiarity. It makes the situation more casual and the other person feel more at ease. You would never siezen die Birigt. (Compare the once-popular song Ich bin der Martin ‘ne.)

It’s not compulsory, of course. Many Germans use their name without an article. This can be confusing if the name of the person introducing herself sounds like it starts with a definite article. If you hear, ‘Ich bin Dilara,’ you may identify it as die Lara. The same is true for Diana (die Jana).

By the way, the pronunciation of the in English (/ðə/ vs /ði/) is largely a matter of emphasis. To lend special weight to a word, say /ði/ (‘thee’), otherwise /ðə/ (‘tha’).

The variant /ði/, however, is also used whenever the subsequent noun starts with a vowel sound (ocean, end, internet ‒ but not year, ewe or Europe because the starting sound in all these cases is /j/).

In these cases, the indefinite article, too, changes from a to an. In this respect, I love the grammatical consistency of Cockney, the London accent. Londoners drop the letter h at the beginning of virtually every word, turning words such as history, hotel, house etc. into words beginning with a vowel sound. Consequently, they say an ‘ouse instead of a house. That’s just brilliant!

So, here’s a new entry for your book of the most German phrases ever. Next time you want to come across particularly German, just say, ‘Aber der Dieter hat gesagt, ich soll das so machen!’

Next week let’s meet a very special Australian bus driver.

The Pommes Buddha says: My favourite band? The The. The who? No, The The.

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