Translating the Terms for "People" in German

Translating the Terms for "People" in German

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One of the most common translation errors made by inexperienced students of German has to do with the English word “people.” Since most beginners tend to grab the first definition they see in their English-German dictionary, they often come up with unintentionally hilarious or incomprehensible German sentences, and “people” is no exception.

There are three main words in German that can mean “people”: Leute, Menschen, and Volk/Völker. In addition, the German pronoun man (not der Mann!) can be used to mean “people." Yet another possibility is no “people” word at all, as in “die Amerikaner” for “the American people." In general, the three main words are not interchangeable, and in most cases using one of them instead of the correct one will cause confusion, laughter, or both. Of all the terms, it is Leute that gets used too often and most inappropriately. Let's take a look at each German word for “people.”


This is a common informal term for “people” in general. It is a word that only exists in the plural. (The singular of Leute is die/eine Person.) You use it to speak of people in an informal, general sense: Leute von heute (people of today), die Leute, die ich kenne (the people I know). In everyday speech, Leute is sometimes used in place of Menschen: die Leute/Menschen in meiner Stadt (the people in my town). But never use Leute or Menschen after an adjective of nationality. A German-speaker would never say “die deutschen Leute” for “the German people”! In such cases, you should just say “die Deutschen” or “das deutsche Volk.” It is wise to think twice before using Leute in a sentence since it tends to be overused and misused by German-learners.


This is a more formal term for “people.” It is a word that refers to people as individual “human beings.” Ein Mensch is a human being; der Mensch is “man” or “mankind.” (Think of the Yiddish expression “He's a mensch,” i.e., a real person, a genuine human being, a good guy.) In the plural, Menschen are human beings or people. You use Menschen when you're talking about people or personnel in a company (die Menschen von IBM, the people of IBM) or people in a particular place (in Zentralamerika hungern die Menschen, people in Central America are going hungry).


This German "people" term is used in a very limited, specialized way. It is the only word that should be used when speaking of people as a nation, a community, a regional group, or “we, the people.” In some situations, das Volk is translated as “nation,” as in der Völkerbund, the League of Nations. Volk is usually a collective singular noun, but it can also be used in the formal plural sense of “peoples,” as in the famous quotation: “Ihr Völker der Welt… ” The inscription above the entrance to the German Reichstag (parliament) reads: “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE,” “To the German People.” (The -e ending on Volk is a traditional dative ending, still seen in common expressions such as zu Hause, but no longer required in modern German.)


The word man is a pronoun that can mean “they,” “one,” “you,” and sometimes “people,” in the sense of “man sagt, dass… ” (“people say that… ”). This pronoun should never be confused with the noun der Mann (man, male person). Note that the pronoun man is not capitalized and has only one n, while the noun Mann is capitalized and has two n's.


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