Relative pronouns are used to combine two sentences together that have an identical noun or pronoun element in them. For example:
The man is a friend of mine. You met the man in Chicago.
The man whom you met in Chicago is a friend of mine.
There are three categories of relative pronouns in English: (1) who and which, which introduce a nonrestrictive relative clause that gives parenthetical information, (2) that, which introduces a restrictive relative clause that helps define the antecedent, and (3) an elliptical relative pronoun, which is understood but not spoken or written. All three types of English relative pronouns can be translated into one type in German: the German definite article.
German definite article
Like so many other elements in German, the relative pronouns always conform to the gender, number, and case of the nouns they refer to.
masculine feminine neuter plural
nominative der die das die
accusative den die das die
dative dem der dem denen
genitive dessen deren dessen deren
As you can see, the declension of the relative pronouns resembles the declension of the definite articles. The genitive and the plural dative are the only exceptions. The genitive relative pronoun, it must be remembered, is used to replace a possessive adjective (mein, dein, unser, etc.).
When two German sentences have the same noun or pronoun element in them, a relative pronoun can replace one of those elements and the two sentences can then be stated as one. Let’s look at some examples:
Der neue Lehrer ist aus Darmstadt. The new teacher is from Darmstadt.
Sie kennen schon den neuen Lehrer. They already know the new teacher.
In the first example, der neue Lehrer is in the nominative case. In the second example, it’s in the accusative case. If the first sentence is made into a relative clause, the relative pronoun that replaces der neue Lehrer must be the same gender, number, and case. Therefore, the relative pronoun is der.
Sie kennen schon den neuen Lehrer, der aus Darmstadt. They already know the new teacher who is from Darmstadt.
If the second sentence is made the relative clause, then den neuen Lehrer, which is in the accusative case, must be replaced by den.
Der neue Lehrer, den sie schon kennen, ist aus Darmstadt. The new teacher, whom they already know, is from Darmstadt.
Since relative clauses are considered subordinating clauses, the verb in the relative clause stands at the end of the clause. Let’s look at relative pronouns as they appear in all the cases, sometimes as subjects, direct or indirect objects, or objects of prepositions.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, die Amerikanerin ist. Felix is dancing with the woman who is an
American. (relative pronoun = nominative subject)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, die Gudrun eingeladen hat. Felix is dancing with the woman whom Gudrun invited. (relative pronoun = accusative direct object)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, für die Johannes sich interessiert. Felix is dancing with the woman whom Johannes is interested in. (relative pronoun = object of accusative preposition)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, der Johannes eine Blume gab. Felix is dancing with the woman, to whom Johannes gave a flower. (relative pronoun = dative indirect object)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, von der Maria gesprochen hat. Felix is dancing with the woman whom Maria spoke about. (relative pronoun = object of dative preposition)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, der Herr Schneider sehr imponierte. Felix is dancing with the woman whom Mr. Schneider really impressed. (relative pronoun = object of dative verb)
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, deren Mutter Physikerin war. Felix is dancing with the woman whose mother was physicist. (relative pronoun = possessive adjective)
The definite article used as a relative pronoun is sometimes replaced by welcher. Look at its declension in all the cases.
masculine feminine neuter plural
nominative welcher welche welches welche
accusative welchen welche welches welche
dative welchem welcher welchem welchen
genitive dessen deren dessen deren
Note that the genitive form consists of the possessive adjectives dessen and deren. Welcher does not replace these words. In sentences, welcher is used as follows:
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, welche Amerikanerin ist.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, welche Gudrun eingeladen hat.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, für welche Johannes sich interessiert.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, welcher Johannes eine Blume gab.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, von welcher Maria gesprochen hat.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, welcher Herr Schneider sehr imponierte.
Felix tanzt mit der Frau, deren Mutter Physikerin war.
In some cases was is used as a relative pronoun. This occurs after alles, etwas, nichts, viel(es), and das when used as a demonstrative pronoun. For example:
Ich verstehe alles, was du sagst. I understand everything you’re saying.
Sag doch etwas, was ich glauben kann! Say something I can believe.
Sie hat nichts, was sie verkaufen will. She has nothing she wants to sell.
Er sagte vieles, was er jetzt bedauert. He said a lot that he now regrets.
Sie liest viel von dem, was er in seiner Jugend geschrieben hat. She reads a lot of what he wrote in his youth.
In addition, was becomes the relative pronoun when its antecedent is a neuter adjective used as a noun.
Ist das das Beste, was Sie haben? Is that the best you have?
Das war das Letzte, was er zu sagen hatte. That was the last he had to say.
A complete sentence can be the antecedent of the relative pronoun was. For example:
Sie ist Ärztin geworden, was ihre Eltern sehr erfreute. She became a physician, which pleased her parents very much.
When a preposition is needed with the relative pronoun was, it forms a compound with wo(r)-, or example: (von) + was becomes wovon and (auf) + was becomes worauf. In sentences, they appear as follows:
Er hat etwas, wofür du dich interessieren wirst. He has something that you will be interested in.
Sie verreisen nach dem Süden, worauf die Kinder sich schon freuen. They’re traveling to the south, to which the children are looking very much forward.
The pronoun wer is also used as a relative pronoun, but it tends to introduce a sentence rather than the second clause of a sentence. Unlike was, wer can be declined: wen (accusative), wem (dative), and the possessive-adjective form wessen. This relative pronoun is often combined with a form of der. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Wer einmal lügt, dem kann man niemals glauben. He who lies once can never be believed.
Wem das Buch nicht gefällt, der soll es nicht lesen. He who doesn’t like the book shouldn’t read it.
The translation of wer is often he who but can also be stated as whoever. The case required for wer or der in such sentences depends upon the use of the pronouns in those sentences. In the first of the previous examples, wer is the subject of the sentence; therefore, it is in the nominative case. In the second example, wem is the object of the dative verb gefallen and therefore is in the dative case.