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Headscratchers: German Language
  • The German language has different articles for masculine (der), feminine (die) and neutrum (das) nouns. So why does it employ masculine and feminine articles for things and ideas that cannot have a gender? Why is it "die Zeitung", "die Politik", "der Bottich", "der Nebel"? What makes a newspaper and politics feminine? What makes a vat and the fog masculine? Logically, the article should be DAS in all those cases! Also, the other way around: why is it "das Fräulein" and not "die Fräulein", when "Fräulein" clearly refers to a woman? The same for animals: why is it always "der Hund" and "die Katze"? It should be "der Hund" and "der Katze" if you talk about a male dog or cat; "die Hund" and "die Katze" if you talk about a female dog or cat!
    • Actually, you can use the words "die Hündin" for a female dog and "der Kater" for a male cat. Although der Hund/die Katze are much more frequently used.
    • Because grammatical gender and actual gender and biological sex are only loosely connected in German (as in most Indo-European languages, btw, because it all goes back to PIE). As for 'Zeitung' and 'Fräulein' (and also 'Mädchen'), their gender can be attributed to their endings. -ung, -lein and -chen all demand a certain grammatical gender.
      • In practice, everything ending in -ung, -heit, or -keit is feminine gender (die), always.
    • The main thing that makes German gender so annoying is how unpredictable it is; you don't have the luxury of a language like, say, Spanish, where most nouns' gender is clear from their endings (-o is masculine, -a/ción/dad is feminine, etc.) Au contraire, German has der Bau, die Frau, and das Tau. A few endings like the ones mentioned above demand a certain grammatical gender, but they're few and far between in comparison to the number of nouns that don't have them, and it's normally a stab in the dark. Additionally, because German has cases and many of these cases "reuse" the same articles (der is not only the masculine nominative but the feminine dative and genitive and plural genitive as well) getting the gender wrong can change the entire meaning of the sentence if you get unlucky, not to mention the nouns that mean entirely different things with different genders without any ending change at all (die Kiefer, "pine tree; der Kiefer "jaw"). No one gets confused if you talk about el puerta or la carro in Spanish, it's just mildly embarrassing.
      • People might get confused if you say “el cólera” (“the cholera”) instead of “la cólera” (“the anger”), “el coma” (“the coma”) instead of “la coma” (“the comma”), “el cometa” (“the comet”) instead of “la cometa” (“the kite”), “el corte” (“the cut”) instead of “la corte” (“the court”), “el cura” (“the priest”) instead of “la cura” (“the cure”), “el editorial” (“the editorial”) instead of “la editorial” (“the publisher”), “el frente” (“the front”) instead of “la frente” (“the forehead”), “el parte” (“the message”) instead of “la parte” (“the part”), and so on and so forth.
      • If it is any consolation, even a lot of German's I know get annoyed at Der/Die/Das. My sister (born/raised in Bavaria) said that we English speakers (don't ask) are lucky because we just have 'The' heh.
      • What's more with your example, "die Kiefer" kann also be taken as the plural form of "der Kiefer" (jaw). Plural form of "die Kiefer" (the pine tree) would be "die Kiefern". So it all comes down in what context you encounter those words.
    • It may help to explain that you've got it a little backwards. Best as we can tell, the ancient predecessor of modern German (and English, Spanish, Russian, Hindi, etc.) had three basic kinds of noun—call 'em A, B, and C. Every noun was either an A-noun, a B-noun, or a C-noun, and each class shared certain broad characteristics and rules of agreement. Today, we call these classes "masculine," "feminine," and "neuter," mainly because pronouns of the "he, she, it" variety HAPPENED to fall into class A, B, and C respectively. So it's not that the German language considers a chair (der Stuhl) manly, a bottle (die Flasche) ladylike, or a girl (das Mädchen) sexless. The three words simply belong to three different noun classes that got dubbed "masculine," "feminine," and "neuter" AFTER the fact.

  • The word order. Seriously. What's with the weird-ass verb placement?
    • I could ask the same about english. In fact, i'll do that right now: What's with the weird-ass grammar in the english-speaking world?
    • English word order is actually quite consistent and straightforward. German's may be consistent, but it's confusing. For example:
      • Independent clause: Ich bin glücklich. (I am happy.)
      • Subordinate clause: Er weiß, dass ich glücklich bin. (He knows that I am happy.)
      • V2 Example: Wenn ich sie sehe, bin ich glücklich. (When I see her, I am happy.)
      • In German, the verb falls all over the place; in English, it sits nice and tight between "I" and "happy" through thick and thin. English has its quirks, but Headscratchers pages are for people venting about something that confuses or irritates them.
      • It is not really true that the verb in German "falls all over the place". English is an isolating language; word order is semantically important. That is also true in German, but to a lesser extent. Every sentence that begins with a (conditional) adverbial clause ends with a independent clause with VSO word order. Perhaps more confusing for english speakers are sentences like "The dog bites the child", which can be rendered as [S-VA-O3-VP],[S-V3-O4],[O3-VA-S-VP],[VP-VA-S-O3],[O3-VP-VA-S],[VP-O3-VA-S], with subtle semantic differences, also dependent on the stress the speaker uses with the word order. It can mean everything from "The dog bites the child" to "It is the dog that bites the child [implied: it is the horse that kicks it]" or "It is the child that gets bitten by the dog [implied: it is I who gets bitten by the wife]". As you can see, english sentences can be very complicated, too, and even if english is more likely to use words with only grammatical meaning ("by", "that", ..), it is not that different.
      • German and English verbs each follow well-defined rules of placement; they're just different rules. Both languages also have several exceptions to those rules. However, German is more likely to move the ENTIRE verb. In the same context, English is more likely to subcontract to a helping or modal verb, leaving the main verb at home. Still, though, English tolerates more verbal inconsistency than we usually notice: "Had I but known"; "were I in your shoes"; "camo trousers do not a soldier make"; "couldn't that be quickly done?"; etc.]
      • There's two major differences between English and German syntax concerning verbs: Basic word order and movement into specific positions. Words like "if," "when," "although" and "after" can be used as complementizers (also known as subordinating conjunctions), and a main clause is thought to have an empty complementizer position C in English. English normally has an SVO word order, but the inflected verb of the sentence is moved up to C for questions (or in some cases, an inflected "do" shows up there instead). An extra position before C is filled only for Wh-questions. In German, the sentence structure is basically SOV but the inflected outermost verb always moves up to C when the position isn't already occupied, and the extra position before C must be filled with one other element of the sentence (usually the subject). The other verbs stay at the end of the sentence when C is filled, either by an inflected verb or an actual complementizer:
      • Er hilft mir heute. ("He helps/is helping me today.")
      • Er kann mir morgen nicht helfen. ("He can't help me tomorrow.")
      • Morgen kann er mir nicht helfen. ("Tomorrow, he can't help me." — In both languages, "tomorrow" is moved into the initial position before the empty C position.)
      • Kann er mir morgen nicht helfen ? ("Can't he help me tomorrow?")
      • Warum kann er mir morgen nicht helfen ? ("Why can't he help me tomorrow?")
      • Ich weiß nicht, warum er mir morgen nicht helfen kann. ("I don't know why he can't help me today." — In the subordinate clause, "warum" is in position C to connect the two clauses. The first position of the subordinate clause must remain empty.)
    • The habit of moving the verb to the end is an annoyance for interpreters. For the sentence Er kann mir morgen nicht helfen translates word-for-word as "He can me tomorrow not help" and thus an interpreter must wait until the last word of the sentence for it to make sense.
      • The last words of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden were Ich bin der König von Schweden - gewesen. which literally means "I was the King of Sweden." But he paused before saying the word "gewesen", and without this word, the sentence would have instead meant "I am the King of Sweden." A better translation of the sentence would be "I am the King of Sweden - no more."

  • Separable verbs, with the prefix going at the end of the sentence. As brought up in Mark Twain's The Awful German Language: "The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can any one conceive of anything more confusing than that? These things are called "separable verbs." The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance. A favorite one is reiste ab — which means departed. Here is an example which I culled from a novel and reduced to English: 'The trunks being now ready, he DE- after kissing his mother and sisters, and once more pressing to his bosom his adored Gretchen, who, dressed in simple white muslin, with a single tuberose in the ample folds of her rich brown hair, had tottered feebly down the stairs, still pale from the terror and excitement of the past evening, but longing to lay her poor aching head yet once again upon the breast of him whom she loved more dearly than life itself, PARTED.'
    • ...but the ''parted'' comes first. Anyways, the fun part are those that have a different meaning depending on whether you can separate the prefix or not. umfahren - to run sth over v umfahren - to drive around sth. If you wanna complain about something, choose that!
    • Not only is parted first, and de at the end, instead of viceversa, but also the de at the end doesn't have to be right before the dot, it just has to be at the end of the sentence (1 verb=1 sentence). So it can be "The trunks being now ready, he PARTED after kissing his mother and sisters DE," and then the rest of that long ass thing you wrote.
    • It could actually be "The trunks being now ready, he PARTED DE after kissing his mother and sisters". Clearly, the author wanted to stretch the sentence over three lines and move part of the verb to the very end, which German speakers generally HATE because of it being confusing and only being used in literature.

  • What's with capitalizing the first letter of every noun?
    • Can't give you a scientific answer (or an answer based on real linguistics), but there are many homonyms... Look at this nominal clause (written without any capitalization): "der junge, der floh und die stadt erreichte. Once you read the verb at the end, it's clear that this clause means "the boy who fled and reached the city". Before you reach the verb, however, it could also mean "the boy, the flea and the city", which might make a nice novel title. So imagine you first read 'floh' as the noun 'flea': once you reach the verb, you have to go back to read the clause again to get the actual meaning. Knowing about capitalization of nouns, you instinctively read it as a verb in a normal, capitalized German text that would look like this: "der Junge, der floh und die Stadt erreichte". It might even get naughtier than you wanted. Oh btw, the feeling of having to go back in the sentence/clause to get the meaning once you reach the end can also be provoked by "The horse raced past the barn fell." in English!
      • Exactly. Germans can feel infinately confused when reading certain english sentences, and many students learning English will re-read lots of sentences because their meaning is not immeadiately clear to them. That leaves less room for Double Entendre, but not having to puzzle out sentences is handy when reading something aloud (and having to get the stress right) or when sentences get convoluted.
    • Also, there has been research into reading speed that showed that german capitalizing actually makes it easier to read fast, because your brain can categorize words easier that way.
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