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QUESTION

Der Mann hilft der Frau.

Why is the same definite article used for male nouns in nominative and female nouns in dative? Is there a deep connection, or just a coincidence? Have they always been the same historically?

       m   n   f
    +-------------
nom | der das die
akk | den das die
dat | dem dem der

{ asked by Tim N }

ANSWER

I second deceze's comment on your question. Der (nominative, masc.) and der (dative, fem.) are just homophones that are the result of the declination of the article.

German definite articles grew out of the old demonstrative forms dër, diu, daz and have also been used as relative pronouns.

There are even more cases (no pun intended) of articles that cline to der:

Singular  | männlich weiblich sächlich | Plural    | m/w/s
-----------------------------------------------------------
Nominativ | der      die      das      | Nominativ | die
Genitiv   | des      der      des      | Genitiv   | der
Dativ     | dem      der      dem      | Dativ     | den
Akkusativ | den      die      das      | Akkusativ | die
{ answered by splattne }
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