One of the most common translation errors made by inexperienced students of German has to do with the English word people. Because 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 sentencesand 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 (see below). Yet another possibility is no people word at all, as in die Amerikaner for the American people (see Volk below). 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 (see Volk below). - 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... (See: 'People' Quotations.) 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.
The next time you want to say people in German, remember that there are several ways to do so, only one of which is the right one for what you're trying to say. You may also enjoy the People quotations on the next page.
NEXT > People Quotations - Ihr Völker der Welt...
MORE > Nationalities - Countries and people in German