Word of the Day – “man”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German word of the Day. This time, with a thorough look at the meaning and the use of

man

 

It looks like the English man, and they do have the same origin and the same core. But they’re NOT translations for each other. Because the German man is actually THE word to refer to a generic person, in impersonal statements.
What that means and how to use man, that’s what we’ll find out today.
So let’s jump right in.

So, I said that man is the word to refer to a generic person. But what does that actually mean?
Well, in language sometimes you want to make a statement about a reality without having an actual established protagonist, either because it’s a general statement or because you want to hide a little.
There’s a bunch of ways to do that in English.
One way to do that is to use the English generic person one

  • From the window, one can see the beach.

That use is not overly common in English, because English actually likes to personalize things and often makes general statements by saying you.
Which can be super engaging, because you always put the other person right into the action.

  • That bar is awesome. When you walk in you have to complete a little smelling parcours where they check which smells you‘re sensitive to….

But it can also be a little weird and need some clarification…

  • “Bro… how can you hoard toilet paper like that. It’s anti-social.”
    “Wait …. I…”
    “I mean, not you personally, I mean people in general.

In English, this generic you is super common but other languages have other ways to achieve the same.
Italian for instance actually does it with a special form of passive that, at least to Germans, looks an awful lot like a reflexive. (I thought it was, but some of you guys corrected me in the comments :))

  • Cosa si fotografa con un 50mm?

Translated literally this means What photographs itself with a 50mm lens?” and the actual meaning is the general question:

  • What can I/you/one photograph with a 50mm lens?

Of course you don’t have to remember that. I just wanted to show you that different languages have very different approaches for this.
And German does it with man.

Technically speaking, man is the German counterpart to the English impersonal one.
But it’s misleading to file that in the mental dictionary. Because then, man will always feel strange to you, when in reality it is super idiomatic and people use it all the time. Heck, they even use it sometimes they actually make personal statements about themselves.
But we’ll get to that later.
So yeah, instead of thinking of man as one or even you, try to get a feel for this concept of using a generic person.
Let’s look at some examples…

Aaaand… some more examples.

  • “Ich laufe nächste Woche einen Marathon.”
    “Was?! Ohne Training?”
    “Ja!”
    “Wenn man einen Marathon laufen will, muss man trainieren.”
  • “I’m gonna run a marathon next week?”
    “What?! Without training?”
    “Yes!”
    “If you want to run a marathon you need to train.”
    (“Someone who wants to run a marathon needs to train.”)

Now, some of you might be wondering if you could just always use du, just like you use you in English.
And that can kind of work. In the last example, for instance, there isn’t a clear distinction between the personal you and the generic you. The sentence makes sense with either one and the message is the same.
But Germans are just not that used to hearing du in a purely generic sense. They might understand it, but you might need to clarify more often than in English. And even if not… man is just super idiomatic and it’s actually not that difficult to get used to.
There is one major pitfall, though, that many people miss… and that is man and cases.

“man” and cases

Even if you’re still a beginner, you probably know that German has cases. The cases basically mark what role an entity has in a sentence. The subject for instance, the person or thing that is “doing” the verb is in Nominative case.
And the recipient of something is often in Dative case.
The usual way to mark these cases is to make modifcations to the article or pronoun. Sometimes just an ending, sometimes a little more.

NominativeAccusativeDative
derdendem
eineineneinem
ichmichmir
man______

And the question is, what are the forms of man? If think back to the examples again, there wasn’t any “manen or “manem”. There was just man. But the reason for that is not that man is the same for all cases. The reason is that man was always the subject. That’s why they were all blue. Go back and check if you want to.
But of course, the concept of a generic person can be used for not just the subject, as we can easily see in English.

  • They don’t give you (NOT subject) enough time at the supermarket.

So how do we mark cases with man?
The answer is: we don’t. We can’t.
Man DOESN’T actually have case froms. It only exists in nominative and it can only be the subject.
And that’s why it’s REALLY confusing for a native speaker if you were to use it for a non-subject like in the example.

  • Sie geben man im Supermarkt….

It’s genuinely hard for a native speaker to make sense of that.
Instead, if you have to put your generic person into a case, you have to switch to the masculine article ein.

man – einen – einem  

And yes, that means that man and einen can refer to the same generic person, as you can see in the translation of the supermarket-example:

Let’s look at a few more examples (I’m going to use green for Dative and red for Accusative.)

Oh, and we almost forgot to mention what happens if there’s a possessive involved. Also then, you’ll use the “he”-version, so we need sein-. 

And let’s also mention the reflexive, which is sich.

I think using these “additional” forms in the same sentence as man is actually the real challenge about the whole topic and practice that a bit in the exercise.
But before we get to that, I want to tell you about a weird trend in German, that’s especially common among ….millennials.

“man” – hiding yourself

When I was learning French, I came across a weird phenomenon. In spoken French, it’s kind of idiomatic to refer to we by using their version of a generic person: “on”.
So instead fo saying

  • “That’s Maria. We just married.”

they say

  • “That’s Maria., One just got married.” 

That seemed like a really weird phrasing to me some 10 years ago. But it’s not as weird anymore, because a similar thing is happening in German at the moment.
People use man when they actually talk about themselves.
And to a certain degree, that’s nothing new. For instance, it’s common to use a generic person in contexts of asking for permission.

The person of course wants to know if they themselves have permission to smoke, but it’s common to ask for the “general” rule.
However, more and more often I stumble across this man when people actually express their opinion…

  • “Also, warum genau fühlst du dich unfair behandelt?”
    “Naja, wenn man pünktlich zur Arbeit kommt, dann will man doch, dass das anerkannt wird.”
    “*seufz… Millennials.”
  • “So, why exactly do you feel treated unfairly?”
    “Well, if you show up to work on time, you naturally want that to be recognized.”
    “*sigh… Millennials.”

The speaker kind of hides a bit by making it sound like they’re speaking in general. And it does kind of make sense in this example, because I’d suspect that most employees would agree.
But take a look at the following dialogue…
(I’m using colors just to make it more intuitive who is who, not for grammatical reasons)

  • Person A: “Du hast WAS zu deinem Date gesagt??!”
    Person B:
    “Ja, ja, ich weiß, es ist hart… aber ey, komm, wenn sie mit einem nach Hause kommt, dann denkt man natürlich, man kann einen Schritt weitergehen. Und wenn man dann abgewiesen wird, wird man halt sauer, und dann sagt man halt schon mal Sachen, die man nicht so meint.”
    Person A: “Alter, du musst dich entschuldigen.”
  • Person A: “You said WHAT to your date?”
    Person B:
    “Yeah, I know, it’s harsh… but hey, come on, if she’s coming to your place with you, of course you think like you can escalate things. And if you get rejected then, you get angry, and like… I don’t know, you might say things that you don’t mean that way.”
    Person A: “Dude, you have to apologize.”

Here, Person B said something pretty bad to their date and they’re trying to justify it. But instead of owning up to it and say  “I think that” and “I expect that” they say man, making it sound like it’s a general truth. So basically, it’s not their fault. Anyone would have used an insult. It’s kind of the date’s fault.
Now, of course it’s not really done on purpose by people who talk that way. Maybe they’re just used to it. But there is definitely an element of hiding yourself to it.
In English, Person B  is using you. So they’re virtually putting Person A into the situation, hoping to make them empathize. Which is still not as straight up as saying “I”.
But I find the German man to be more cowardly.
People are hiding behind a presumed generality, so they’re not that exposed to a potential counter. Germans have a tendency to do that. In fact, the word halt is another tool for that, as some of you might remember from last years Advent calendar. Oh man… that feels soooo long ago already :).

Anyway, so yeah… my personal impression is that especially among millennials using man when you actually mean I is getting more and more common and people even start using it if they just describe an event that they were involved in. Like this gem, I recently heard in a Youtube documentary. Two people in their early 20s were dating and when the guy was asked how the date went, he had this to say:

Come on, man!!! What the hell?!?! Why can you not make a direct statement about yourself?
Seriously … let’s all just speak your mind without all this shitty hedging and all the irony and sarcasm to hide behind.

Cool.
So that’s it for today, actually. This was our look at the meaning and use of man and the two main takeaways are:

  • it’s the German generic person, English tends to use you
  • it can ONLY be the subject. All the rest is done by (s)eine/n/m/…

If you want to check how much you understood, you can take the little quizz I have prepared.
And if course, let me know all your questions and thoughts in the comments.
Especially about the last bit. Have you heard people using man? Do you have a similar phenomenon in your own language? I’m really curious to hear from all across the world… because I know for a fact that you guys come from all over.
So speak up :)!
Anyway, hope you enjoyed it. Have a great time and see you next week.

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