Language Profile: German

German is a member of the Germanic family of languages (the name Germanic itself deriving from Germanus/Germanicus from Latin), with the family being:

Germanic Languages

The languages with an asterix* next to them are languages that are now extinct. As you can see, the entire East Germanic tree is now extinct. Norn* is perhaps a language that you may not have heard of, this was the Norse language spoken on Orkney and the Shetland islands. Norn developed through Norse settlement over a thousand years ago, like how Icelandic and Faorese came about.

Back to German

German is an inflected language, meaning that it has different endings depending on case. There are four cases in the German language, namely the Nominative, Genitive, Dative, and the Accusative. I haven’t yet written about case but in short the nominative is the subject of the sentence, the accusative is the object, the dative is the indirect object (to someone) and the genitive is possession. In spoken German, the genitive is become less common (due to its slightly more complex nature) and is being replaced by the nominative. There has even been a book published whose name is a play on this “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod” (The Dative is to the Genitive its death) where the title uses the Dative construct rather than “Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs” which uses the Genitive construction. Similar “dativications” appear when using prepositions which are standardly governed by the genitive yet people use dative, for example “wegen dem Wetter” instead of “wegen des Wetters”.

There are also three genders in German: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Combine this with the 4 cases and a plural form and you have 16 combinations. And this is when the articles come in. German, like English, has definite and indefinite articles and because of the nature described above, there are 16 scenarios for each definite and indefinite article. Thankfully there are only 6 distinct forms of each (Der, die, das, den, dem, des and ein, eine, einen, eines, einem, einer), though they usually pose a problem to learners as first.

Adjectives in German decline for number, case and definite-ness. You would think that there are only 2 types, being definite and indefinite, however there is a third: no article. This means learning (though it makes sense why the endings are why they are) three tables of 16 entries and remembering adjective endings is something I sometimes forget!

German  verbs conjugate for person/number and tense, with the people including 1st, 2nd, 3rd person singular and plural and politeness (the same form “Sie” for both singular and plural).
Verbs in German are often supported with an auxiliary verb such as “werden” – to become, “sein” – to be, or “haben” – to have.
Es wurde gegessen – It was eaten (Imperfect passive construction, uses werden as the auxiliary verb)
Er ist gegangen – He went (Perfect tense, uses a verb of motion so uses sein as auxiliary verb)
Er hat gegessen – He ate/He has eaten (Perfect tense, not a verb of motion so uses haben as auxiliary verb)

German has two participles, the present and past participles. The present participle takes the form of infinitive + d for example, the present participle of “essen” (to eat) is essend, and can be translated as “eating”, the “ing” form of the verb and is used to adjectivise (turn into an adjective) a verb for use of avoiding relative constructions.

Present Participle Example (Called Partizipkonstruktionen in German)
Without PresPart.
Die Menschen, die nach Deutschland reisen, sind cool – The people who travel to Germany are cool

With PresPart.
Die nach Deutschland reisenden Menschen sind cool – The people who travel to Germany are cool

As you can see, reisenden acts and declines like an adjective, gaining an +en ending for definite plural (to be distinct from feminine singular).
*Note this is for all active sentences that this can be used and only the main verb is adjectivised. For passive sentences, the Past Participle Construction is used:

The past participle is the verb form used with past perfect tense such as Ich habe das gemacht – I did that, a generalisation is that it is ge+3rd person singular conjugation of the verb – machen is “to do” and the 3rd person singular conjugation is “macht”, “does”, and so following that rule, we get gemacht you can also apply this to spielen and get gespielt however this only applies to the so-called “weak verbs”, these are verbs which don’t have a vowel change – aka regular verbs, “strong verbs” are verbs that do have a vowel change – aka irregular verbs, such as the verb finden, to find, which becomes gefunden. There are many strong verbs and their past participles end in en. There is also a class of “mixed verbs” which are essentially irregular weak verbs.

Past Participle Examples
Without PastPart.
Die Pizza, die gestolen wurde, wäre lecker sein sollen – The pizza which was stolen ought to have been delicious

With PastPart. 
Die gestohlene Pizza wäre lecker sein sollen – The stolen pizza ought to have been delicious
This takes two clauses and makes one singular, more complex sentence – interestingly you can do exactly this with the plain form, instead of with participles, in Japanese! (Though that is a whole other article in and of itself)

Interesting Parts of German

  • All nouns in German are capitalised – all of them! When writing in German, it becomes such a habit that sometimes it just feels wrong not to capitalise nouns!
  • V2 position – Verbs go in 2nd position in German. By this I mean that verbs only ever change their position when acted upon by a subordinating conjunction (see below). This only applies to main verbs so either the auxiliary verb, modal verb (see below), or main verb. Examples of V2, taking the sentence “The woman greets the man every day:
    • Die Frau begrüßt den Mann jeden Tag
    • Jeden Tag begrüßt die Frau den Mann
    • Den Mann begrüßt die Frau jeden Tag

    Die Frau – the woman (feminine nominative, a case, I’ll write about this at another point)
    begrüßt – greets (3rd person singular present conjugation, weak verb)
    den Mann – the man (masculine accusative)
    jeden Tag – every day (this is in the accusative so Tag is masculine like Mann (as they both use “der”) and is in the accusative because temporal phrases take the accusative)

    I would say that the first two are standard word orders and the third is used to emphasise that it is the man whom the woman greets, rather than anyone else, whereas the first two don’t really have any strong emphases. The key thing to note is that in these sentences, the verb begrüßt never changes its position within the sentence.

  • Verb Scarers – In British education of the German language, there are conjunctions called verb scarers, i.e. subordinating conjunctions, words such as because/that/although etc. These are named as such because they scare the verb to the end of the sentence, an example:
    • Ich wusste nicht, dass ich ihn nicht zu meiner Party eingeladen hatte – I didn’t know that I hadn’t invited him to my party.

    The sentence without the conjunction reads:

    • Ich wusste nicht ich hatte ihn nicht zu meiner Party eingeladen.

    The past participle is “always” placed at the end of the sentence (always is in quotations because you can have a fronted participle to stress the action such as Herausgefunden hätten sie das nie! – They would have never figured it out, meaning that they could’ve done anything else other than figured it out – this is only stylism and in standard writing a fronted participle isn’t used). The point I was making is that verbs get forced to the end by the verb scarers! Though I can still remember a sentence from my A Level speaking exam that uses “dass” (that) in a way and such a specific tense that standardly, it doesn’t scare the auxiliary verb, that sentence is:

    Dieser Witz deutet darauf hin, dass die vier Mächter und zwei Länder hätten doch eine bessere Lösung finden können – This joke suggest that the four powers (political) and two countries (West and East Germany) could have found a better solution.

    It was about the joke “2 + 4 = 1” in the film Goodbye Lenin this was part of my analysis of the film that the solution to reunify Germany sounded crazy at the time; two countries plus four world powers (England, France, Soviet Union, and USA – these were powers that controlled a Besatzungszone, an occupied miliarty zone Berlin and the controlling powers of East and West Germany – anyway) come together to form a singular nation. This is about grammar, not film/linguistic analysis.

  • Modal Verbs – In German, as in many languages, modal verbs are used to indicate suggestions, likelihood, ability, permission etc these are all grouped into a term called modality. There are 6, I will list them in their infinive, then their 3rd person conjugation, then their english equivalents.
    • können, kann, can
    • sollen, soll, should/shall
    • wollen, will, want (Remember that in English a “will” is what you want, your final requests/wanting, and in archaic use, “will” can mean “want” as in “I will that he be gone”)
    • müssen, muss, must/have to
    • mögen, mag, may – as in “I may come” in a probabilistic sense – Also means “like” as in “Ich mag das nicht” – I don’t like that
    • dürfen, darf, may – as in asking permission
  • “To know” differences – There are two verbs that are “to know”, namely wissen and kennen and the rule of thumb is that wissen is for knowledge and kennen is for people, though for words for example ich kenne das Wort – I know that word; it gives a more intimate sense to knowing a word, as if you personally know the word and its essence.
  • Separable verbs – Some verbs have a prefix that is “separable” so this goes at the end of the sentence. If the verb has been scared or a modal verb (or is in the future tense, which uses the auxiliary verb “werden” which acts on the main verb like a modal by forcing it into the infinitive at the end of the sentence!) has been used, the prefix is reattached with the original verb! If not, they are a whole sentence apart. An example of such a verb is ankommen this is “to arrive” and can be used in such examples:
    1. Er kommt sofort an – He is arriving immediately
    2. Er wird sofort ankommen – He will arrive immediately
    3. Er ist sofort angekommen – He arrived immediately

    Here you can see that you conjugate the verb and then worry about the prefix, look at the 3rd example, angekommen is the past participle but “gekommen” is the past participle of “kommen” so it is just that plus “an”!

I think that is where I’m gonna end the German profile there! Though I’m tempted to write about German grammar more! And as something extra, look at the name “LinguaLiebender” – the first part, Lingua, you can get that bit but Liebender is “lieben”, to love in German in its present participle form (can be looked on a bit like present progressive, “is loving”) plus the suffix “er” to make it into a male. So LinguaLiebender could be translated as “He who is loving languages” or simply LanguageLover.


3 thoughts on “Language Profile: German

    1. Hi there, Yeah Dutch certainly does have similarities with German! Even down to things like separable verbs! The example of “ankommen” works in Dutch as well with “aankomen” 🙂 I’ll certainly give it a go! I want to analyse several Germanic languages first before moving family! Dutch and Swedish are top of the list at the moment!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Pingback: The Germanic Languages – LinguaLiebender

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