by Richard Peters
German is well known around the world as a language that offers grammar-lovers a rich banquet of rules, syntax and idiosyncrasies – things you can really sink your teeth into. Why not whet your appetite with some modal particles, or perhaps a subordinate clause or two? You can follow them with a rich, creamy blend of tenses in a strong verb sauce, then wash it all down with a satisfying slurp of umlauts. But perhaps the weightiest fare on this groaning, overloaded buffet of linguistic regulations – at least for native speakers of English – is declension: the system whereby nouns, pronouns and sometimes adjectives announce grammatical function by how they are inflected. (By “inflexion” I don’t mean the way words are pronounced, but rather their grammatical inflection, which involves changing or adding letters.)
Unlike many of its relatives in the Indo-European language family, English effectively does without declensions by case (nominative or subjective) and gender. The only obvious role of declension in English is to indicate number: whether something is singular or plural. German, though, is a highly declined language that reflects not just number but also gender and case. This is a source of dismay for learners who have English as their mother tongue. Considering how closely related the two languages are, such a major difference is unexpected – but if you want to master German, there’s no getting around it!
Man bites dog: a case in point
I hope that hefty helping didn’t completely sate your appetite, because it’s time for dessert: I’d like to briefly touch on the question of case. No need to go into it too deeply just now; perhaps it’s a topic to come back to in another post. Suffice to say that where English marks the grammatical function of various parts of a sentence largely through word order, other languages (including German) tag individual words with this information, freeing up word order in the process – as some women, men, cats and dogs will demonstrate for us in just a moment…German makes use of four cases: nominative, genitive, dative and accusative. By inflecting to signal one of these four, German can indicate whether the noun is the subject of a sentence, a possessive, the indirect object or the direct object. Rather than altering the nouns themselves (although it does a little bit of this too), German instead declines the article.
Let’s put case on ice for the moment (maybe we’ll come back to it for dessert) and go straight to gender. English is reasonably unusual amongst Indo-European tongues in not dividing its nouns into classes but rather treating them grammatically all the same way. Many other languages in this family opt to split nouns into masculine and feminine classes. The question of why particular words – other than the obvious ones like “man” and “woman” or “boy” and “girl” – should be regarded as either male or female does not hold up under rational analysis; in the world of nouns, gender just is. Theories abound as to why French chooses to see the sun as masculine and the moon feminine, while in the German weltanschauung the sun is feminine and the moon masculine – but rhyme or reason to it there is not.
While most European languages display a binary worldview, German goes one better, shunting a goodly proportion of its innocent nouns into a third category, “neuter”. It’s not alone in adopting such a tripartite distribution: Russian and the other Slavic languages do the same, as did Latin and Sanskrit. But this is strange territory indeed for anyone who has grown up introducing nouns simply with a unisex “the”. On occasion, German seems to follow rules to determine the gender of its nouns. But these rules are usually little more than attempts to categorise an otherwise random distribution of genders, with enough exceptions to virtually nullify any mnemonic gain.
The “the”: mind bomb
English speakers may well ask: “What’s with all the ‘the’s?” But this splendid sextet of “der”, “die”, “das”, “dem”, “den”, and “des” – along with their indefinite corollaries “ein”, “eine”, “einer”, “einem”, “einen”, and “eines” – represents the ultimate glory of German declension: on the smorgasbord of syllables, it’s the scintillating sparkler atop the sundae of structure. With a little help from their context, these six tiny words for “the” signal to German speakers not only the gender of the respective nouns in a sentence, but also their case. That means you can put German words in almost any order and still end up with a fully functioning sentence (as I mentioned above). If I write “Den Mann beißt der Hund”, only an English speaker might giggle at the thought of Fido or Rex being attacked by their owner; a German can’t be tricked by the sequence of the nouns because “der” is not the same as “den”. (Of course, it’s another story if I write “Die Frau kratzt die Katze” – but here is where context provides a clue as to who’s scratching whom.)
English has retained only the tiniest remnants of this architecture of articles, gathered up and packaged as pronouns: the subjective “I”, “he”, “she” and “it”; a couple of objective counterparts, “me”, “him” and “her”; and the possessives “mine”, “his”, “hers”, and “its”. If I say “he hit him” then it’s clear to all and sundry who the aggressor is and who the aggrieved.
For anyone learning German, the hardest dish to digest is remembering which word for “the” goes with which noun. It’s as if the language gods had conspired to take all the grammatical information English speakers have moved away from – case and gender, and all the affixes they entail – and roll it into one impenetrable thicket of inflexion.
Beyond this thicket, though, lies a fabled land of literary treasures. The richness of German artistic and scientific writing is beyond doubt. From mediaeval troubadours to researchers and developers at the cutting edge of industry and IT, German has the flexibility, accuracy and breadth of vocabulary to express today’s world and any number of imagined ones in all their glory. And the intricacy of German grammar is but one source of the language’s beauty.