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Relativpronomen: A Quick and Easy Guide to German Relative Pronouns

"Relative pronouns” may not ring any bells for you. It may sound complicated, but in English, you already know what they are without realizing it. Don’t worry, we’re here to make German relative pronouns or Relativepronomen easy!

What is a Relative Pronoun?

A relative pronoun is intended to connect two sentences that contain the same noun or subject. They replace the original noun. In English, our relative pronouns are: who, whose, which, that, whom and where.

Examples:
  • “I had lunch with someone who really loves cheesecake.” The ‘who’ is describing the noun ‘someone’.
  • “Does anyone know whose book this is?” ‘Whose’ describes ‘anyone’.
  • “I want to see the fish that has bright colors.” ‘that’ describes ‘the fish’.
  • “Don’t make the meal which makes me sick.” ‘which’ describes ‘the meal’.
  • “Do you remember the teacher for whom I worked?” ‘Whom’ replaces the ‘teacher’.
  • List “I want to go to that school where I learned how to write.” ‘Where’ describes ‘the school’.

Sounds simple, enough right? But, when you get to the moment, you may be struggling to figure out which relative pronoun to use!

In German, there are two forms of relative pronouns: the definite articles which are der, die, and das, and welcher in its declined form.

There are some others, but we’ll get to that later! All of the relative pronouns will mean either that, who, whom, whose, or which. But they change according to the case in which they’re used.

The definite articles decline exactly the same as when they’re used as relative pronouns. But, it can still be a little tricky.

Here’s a quick overview

Nominative Case

Masculineder
Femininedie
Neuterdas
Pluraldie
Meaninghe/ she/ it/ that/ who/ which

Accusative Case

Masculine

den

Feminine

die

Neuter

das

Plural

die

Meaning

he/ she/ it/ that/ who/ which

Dative

Masculine

dem

Feminine

der

Neuter

dem

Plural

denen

Meaning

he/ she/ it/ that/ who/ which

Genitive

Masculine

dessen

Feminine

deren

Neuter

dessen

Plural

deren

Meaning

whose

Via Flickr

1) Der

Der is the masculine pronoun, so it will only be used with “masculine” nouns. It can be used to talk about people or things.

For example, these are masculine nouns:

der Mann (man)

der Computer (self-explanatory)

der Käse (cheese)

der Hund (dog)

But, when used as a relative pronoun, der can change from den to dem to dessen, depending on the case in which it’s used.

For example, if it’s the direct object, it will change to den (Accusative case). If it’s the indirect object, it will change to dem (Dative case), and if it’s used like ‘whose’, it will be deren or dessen (Genitive case) .

2) Die

Die is the feminine pronoun, so it will only be used with “feminine” nouns. Examples of feminine nouns are:

die Frau (woman)

die Katze (cat)

die Blume (flower)

die Kleidung (clothes/clothing)

As a relative pronoun, die changes from der to deren, depending on the case. Die is also used for plural nouns, so for example, a masculine noun can be used with die when there’s more than one.

Example: der Mann (1-man) and die Manner (plural-men). So die will change to der only when it’s the indirect object (Dative case), and if it’s used like ‘whose’, it will be deren. (Genitive case)
3) Das

Lastly, das is the neutral pronoun, so you will often see it linked to things/objects, but it will also be paired with people too!

das Mädchen (girl)

das Hemd (shirt)

das Kleid (dress)

das Haar (hair)

As a relative pronoun, das changes from dem to dessen, depending on the case. Das will remain the same in the Accusative case, but it will change to dem as the indirect object (Dative case), and dessen if used as the word ‘whose’ (Genitive case).

4) Welcher

Welcher in German means ‘which’, but as a relative pronoun, it will translate to ‘whom’ in the sentence. And it can be used if you don’t want to repeat a definite article. For example,

Example:
  • Das ist die Köchin, die die beste Suppe macht. (This is the cook who makes the best soup.)
BETTER:
  • Das ist die Köchin, welche die beste Suppe macht.

Here, you can change the relative pronoun from die to welche if you don’t want to repeat the same word. Or it can be used as the word ‘whom’ or ‘whose’.

Welcher will decline the same way as the relative pronouns do except for the Genitive or possessive case. Check it out here:

Nominative Case

Masculine

welcher

Feminine

welche

Neuter

welches

Plural

welche

Meaning

whom

Accusative

Masculine

welchen

Feminine

welche

Neuter

welches

Plural

welche

Meaning

whom

Dative

Masculine

welchem

Feminine

welcher

Neuter

welchem

Plural

welchen

Meaning

whom

Genitive

Masculine

dessen

Feminine

deren

Neuter

dessen

Plural

deren

Meaning

whose/whom

Welcher examples:
  • Wo ist der Anzug, welchen Sie anprobieren wollten? (Where's the suit you wanted to try on?)
  • Wo ist der Hund, welchem wir den Ball geben wollten? (Where is the dog to whom we wanted to give the ball?)
  • Wo sind die Schuhe, mit welchen ich joggen wollte? (Where are the shoes I wanted to run with?)
  • Ich habe einen Neffen, dessen Lieblingsfarbe ist pink! (I have a nephew whose favorite colour is pink!)

German’s Four Cases

But, in order to use the relative pronouns correctly in German, we need to figure out what to do in all the different cases. We know, the cases can be confusing (too confusing, in fact!)

A case in grammar is just about the function of the noun in the sentence, and when its function changes, the verbs and pronouns also change, and the words all connect together differently.

There can be a lot of different parts to remember, so let’s try to make it easy for you.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the different cases in German and how the relative pronouns change for each case!

Nominative case

This case is probably the easiest one to get your head around because the noun is in place of the subject.

  • Example: The shark eats the seal. The seal eats the fish.
  • Der Hai frisst die Robbe. Die Robbe frisst den Fisch.

Here the cat and the dog are the subjects. In a nominative case, the definite articles/relative pronouns will be in their base form.  

  • Relative pronoun example: Die Kinder, die Fußball spielen, wohnen dort drüben. (The kids who play football live over there.) The relative pronoun here is ‘die’ which translates to ‘who’.

Accusative case

Remember: only ‘der’ words will change in this case. ‘Das’ and ‘die’ words remain the same. The accusative case focuses on when the noun is receiving the action from the verb or the direct object. 

  • Example: She takes the ball. We watch the movie.
  • Sie nimmt den Ball. Wir schauen den Film.

Remember: only ‘der’ words will change in this case. ‘Das’ and ‘die’ words remain the same.

  • Relative pronoun example: Der Berg, den ich besteigen will, ist der Mount Everest. (The mountain that I want to climb is the Mount Everest.) The relative pronoun here is ‘den’ which translates to ‘that’.

Dative case

The Dative case is used to identify the indirect object of the sentence.

  • Example: The boy gave the dog a ball. The teacher gave the student a good grade.
  • Der Junge gab dem Hund einen Ball. Der Lehrer gab dem Schüler eine gute Note.

Here, the child and the patient are receiving the action, so ‘das’ and ‘der’ change to ‘dem’.

  • Relative pronoun example: Wo ist der Kellner, dem ich ein Trinkgeld geben will? (Where is the waiter who I want to tipp?) The relative pronoun here is ‘dem’ which translates to ‘who’.

Genitive case

The Genitive case is used to show possession.

  • Example: I’m reading this author’s book. That’s my father’s car.
  • Ich lese das Buch dieses Authors. Das ist das Auto meines Vaters.

Here. the person who is possessing the item goes after the thing they are possessing and der and das change to ‘des’ and die changes to ‘der’ for both singular and plural nouns.

  • Relative pronoun example: Wo ist die Lehrerin, deren Kinder so gut lesen können? (Where is the teacher whose children read so well?) The relative pronoun here is ‘deren’ which translates to ‘whose’.

More examples for each case (the more practice, the better, right?).

Nominative:

Emil, der ein schwarzes Hemd trägt, ist meine Freund.

Emil, who wears a black shirt, is my boyfriend.

Accusative:

Sarah, die nebenan wohnt, ist sehr hübsch.

Sarah, who lives next door, is really beautiful.

Dative:

Das sind meine Freunde, mit denen ich Skat spiele.

Those are my friends with whom I play Skat.

Genitive:

Laura, deren Wohnung sehr schön ist, lebt in Berlin.

Laura, whose flat is really beautiful, lives in Berlin.

Additional Tips and Advice

When constructing a sentence which uses relative pronouns, the conjugated (changed) verb moves to the end of the sentence or last spot in the relative clause.

That can be a bit tricky to remember since English doesn’t operate that way. But, once you get into the swing of it with German, you’ll know what sounds right!

For example, check out these sentences:

  • Kennen Sie die Bäckerei? Die Bäckerei liegt an der Straßenecke. changes to: Kennen Sie die Bäckerei, die an der Straßenecke liegt? (Do you know the bakery which is on the corner of the street?)
  • Ich habe einen Freund, der Fußball spielt. (I have a friend who plays football).
  • Das ist der Mann, der Tischler ist. (That is the man who is a carpenter).

Extra possibilities for relative pronouns:

Was er mir gesagt hat, war nicht richtig.

What he told me wasn’t correct.


Also...

Wo: where (this word does not change its form when its used as a relative pronoun.)

Weiß er, wo die Post ist? (Does he know where the post office is?)

Was: what

Was er mich gesagt hat, war nicht richtig (What he told me wasn’t correct.)

Quick recap

  • Relative pronouns in German or “relativpronomen” can be a little tricky to learn, but once you know what they are and the cases which change them, you can get it!
  • The relative pronouns in German are ‘der, die, das, and welcher’.
  • These pronouns decline in mostly the same way they would as definite articles. Check the charts above!
  • The 4 cases in German are Nominative, Accusative, Dative, and Genitive cases
  • Remember, depending on the case (what function the noun has in the sentence), the relative pronoun will change its form!
  • And...you can also use ‘wo’, ‘wer’, and/or ‘was’ as relative pronouns: ‘where’, ‘who’, and/or ‘what’.
  • When using a relative pronoun, the verb will go at the end of the sentence or the relative clause such as Das sind die Freunde, von welchen ich dir erzählt habe. verb: to have). (These are the friends I told you about.)
  • And, don’t worry, practice makes perfect! The more practice you do with relative pronouns, the better you will understand relative pronouns and be able to write and use them comfortably!

Good luck on your relativpronomen journey!!


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About the Author Keri Nickles

Keri Nickles is a freelance writer currently living in Taipei, Taiwan. She loves traveling, baking, and laying on the beach. While living in Taiwan, she has learned some Mandarin, but German is her first love!

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