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While both German and Danish have different forms of adjectives in definite and indefinite noun phrases, noun phrases with possessive personal determiners pattern with the indefinite noun phrases in German,

Ein guter Mann - a good man
Mein guter Mann - my good man
Der gute Mann - the good man

while they pattern with definite noun phrases in Danish (and presumably Norwegian and Swedish):

En god mand - a good man
Min gode mand - my good man
Den gode mand - the good man

This seems like a curious fact, since AFAIK the words are pairwise cognates. Is there a logical explanation?

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  • It's dainichi's prerogative to simply pair possessive personal determiners with in/definite NPs. If, though, dainichi had paired negative articles with in/definitive NPs, then full parallelism would obtain: en/ingen god mand vs ein/kein guter Mann. So what makes dainichi's choice relevant? Jul 11, 2014 at 16:08
  • @dainichi I don't know if this can help. But in German, possessives are called "ein-words", as they inflect (and sound) like indefinite articles. So maybe the reason of the discrepancy for possessive, despite their determinative quality, is simply analogy of sound with the indefinite articles.
    – geodude
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:20
  • @ThomasGross OP's question is legit. He is asking why in Scandinavian languages adjectives after possessives decline strongly, and in German weakly. Your point that with negative quantifiers the languages do the same makes OP's point even more interesting.
    – geodude
    Jan 7, 2015 at 15:22
  • @geodude, yes, what you say kind of coincides with my own theory as well. The weak/strong adjective choice in German seems to have some kind of dependency on form (there's a pseudo-requirement that either the determiner or the adjective should carry a marker of case), whereas in Danish, it might have come to solely be based on semantics, i.e. definiteness. Just curious if anything is known about the history of this split.
    – dainichi
    Jan 13, 2015 at 2:04

1 Answer 1

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This seems like a curious fact, since AFAIK the words are pairwise cognates. Is there a logical explanation?

The words are definitely cognates, but you have picked two languages with very different adjectival morphology, so it's not so curious that the adjectival suffixes are not the same.

The logical explanation is that all of your German examples explicitly mark the noun phrase as being masculine, nominative, singular. But your Danish examples don't mark any of those (because noun phrases are not marked for case in Danish; Danish is just like modern Dutch, or English, in this regard). But also, German adjective endings mark definiteness as well, which the Danish adjectives also don't do.

But Danish adjectives mark for specificity, which the German adjectives don't do.

So which categories are marked on Danish and German adjectives in the masculine singular:

Category Danish/Norwegian German
specificity Marked Unmarked
definiteness Unmarked Marked
case Unmarked Marked

Consider these examples, (some are the same as yours, but I added vocative and put them in Norwegian since I know it better than Danish, plus I added some sentences)

  • en ung mann

  • min unge mann

  • unge mann (this one's vocative)

  • den unge mannen

  • den unge mannen kommer hit imorgen

  • Ser du den unge mannen i vinduet?

  • Imorges kom det en ung mann med en pakke til deg

  • Jeg skriver et brev til en ung mann som jeg kjenner fra krigen

As you can see, the adjectives don't mark for case as governed by a verb or preposition (the subjects and objects have the same adjective endings) and they don't mark for definiteness (the vocative noun phrase is marked the same way as the definite noun phrase). But they do mark for specificity (a feature implied both by definite and vocative).

So the reason the German and Danish paradigms don't match, is the simple reason that adjectives do not mark the same categories.

Old East Norse had adjectives marking case in the same ways as German does. But clearly, its descendant Danish has eschewed case marking, since it has a somewhat more analytical typology than either of Old East Norse or German.

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  • I don’t really see why case morphology would make much of a difference here. Icelandic is quite similar to German in terms of case morphology (same cases morphologically marked in relatively comparable ways on comparable words), but also pairs possessive pronouns with definiteness (and I’m fairly confident the same was true of Old East Norse). It’s not really about the adjectival suffixes being different, but rather their categories being different. Typologically, possessives tend to entail definiteness, so German is really the odd one out here. Feb 6 at 12:22
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I am using "case morphology" here to mean something like "morphological material occupying the locus where you'd expect Indo-European case marking to happen", as the German examples indeed does, and Icelandic as you say, but I don't mean to imply that Danish has case-marking. Quite the opposite: my answer explcitely says "because nouns are not marked for case in Danish". Maybe that should read "noun-phrases". Feb 6 at 12:27
  • No, I didn’t think you were saying Danish has cases; Danish and German are indeed different in this aspect. I just don’t see how or why the presence or absence of (morphological) case should affect whether or not possessive constructions are treated as definite, which seems to be what you’re arguing here. In fact, having reread it several times now, I don’t understand what you’re proposing is the actual reason for the difference at all – it seems like you’re answering an entirely different question, though I’m not sure exactly which one. Feb 6 at 15:12
  • @Janus, My answer to this question is, that the German adjective endings mark case and definiteness and do not mark specificity, but the Danish and Norwegian adjective endings mark specificity only, and not definiteness nor case. None of these languages treat possessive constructions as definite. Is it confusing? Feb 6 at 16:03
  • Ah, I see I did not explicitely point out that the -e suffix marks specificity and not definiteness. It's possible OP believes that -e means it's definite. Is this what your point of confusion is? Feb 6 at 16:08

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