Introduction and OverviewEdit
Welcome to German Grammar. Compared with other European languages, German grammar has a reputation for being, let's say, challenging. This reputation is not totally undeserved, but the challenges are not insurmountable. Speakers of English have certain advantages and disadvantages as learners of German, so the trick is to leverage the similarities between German and English while avoiding being confused by the differences. English is, at it's core, a Germanic language so English and German have many fundamental similarities. Let's compare the English and German versions of a simple sentence:
- Ich habe das Buch gelesen.
- "I have read the book."
Note that many of the words are cognates, that is similar sounding words with similar origins, between the languages: "I" vs. Ich, "have" vs habe, "book" vs. Buch. Also note that the word order is nearly the same, except gelesen ("(have) read") is at the end in German. The bad news is that, over the centuries, many of the features that made English a Germanic language have been changed, drastically simplified, or eliminated entirely. (German has gone through changes as well, but in different directions.) This means that while comparisons between English and German are often helpful, just as often they lead to confusion and it's just better to think of German as having its own way of doing things.
A comparison of English and GermanEdit
These are some differences between and English and German grammar that often cause confusion for learners.
German is more highly inflected than English. In other words, German tends to make changes to words according to the function of the word and the meaning of the sentence as a whole. English does this too, for example:
- "I drive to work" vs. "I drove to work"
- "This cat is orange" vs. "These cats are orange"
German does this more, so, for example, while English has a single "the", German has der, die, das, des, dem and den, all inflected forms of a single word.
English has three genders, male, female and inanimate, and they are 'natural' genders, meaning you can easily tell the gender of something: male/female for people and animals, inanimate for everything else. German also has three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter, but they are grammatical genders, meaning it's often difficult to tell the gender without memorizing it. Despite the names, people and animals can be neuter (Madchen — "girl", Pferd — "horse"), inanimate objects can be male and female, (Stein — "stone" is masculine, Schale — "cup" — is feminine) and animals can have a different gender than their actual sex (Hund — "dog" — is always masculine, Katze — "cat" — is always feminine). Fortunately, grammatical gender usually matches natural gender for people (Mann — "man" — masculine, Frau --"woman" — feminine).
Flexible word orderEdit
Because German is more inflected than English, there is less need to put words in a particular order to make the meaning clear. This means that the word order in a German sentence is usually more flexible than the word order in an English sentence. But this is not a license to put words in any order you want in German. There are rules that must be obeyed, customs that should be obeyed, and guidelines that are usually obeyed. Changing word order can affect emphasis and meaning in German, so it's best to follow the rules, customs and guidelines unless you're familiar with the subtleties.
In English the word typewriter is obviously a combination of type and writer, and there are many other of these compound words formed by combining two other words. The meaning of the combined word can often be determined from the meanings of the components, but often it can't because of historical or technical reasons. German takes this process to the next level; German words are often composed on the spot for a single purpose and then thrown away like tissues afterwards. English tends to leave these compounds as separate words but a hyphen can be used to join them as well. While hyphens are allowed in German, they are less common. Sometimes additional letters maybe added to a compound in German so that the entire construction flows more easily over the tongue. German also has a large inventory of prefixes and suffixes which can be added to existing words in other novel combinations. The thing for the learner to remember here is that German dictionaries do not list all these combinations, especially when the meaning can be easily deduced from the individual parts. So if you find a word that is not listed in a dictionary, then try to figure out what the component words are and see if you can find the meaning of the compound from them. Sometimes a compound enters the language as a new word and, as with most words, the meaning evolves over time. In these cases it should be possible to find the compound in a dictionary along with any new meanings that it has squired since entering the language as a proper word. So finding the meaning of a compound from it's parts is not foolproof, but a dictionary can usually guide you through the exceptions.
Why learn grammar?Edit
Despite its difficulty, learning German grammar is really a shortcut to learning the language. Native German speakers seem to know their grammar intuitively without being able to explain it; they generally know when a rule is being broken because something just 'sounds' wrong, just as in the same way a native English speaker can tell that a rule of English grammar is being broken without actually being able to state what the rule is. This comes down to the different ways that children and adults learn a language. Children learn by trial and error, and if they make a mistake then it's soon corrected by a parent. While some adults seem to have a natural ability to pick up the grammar of a language quickly and easily, for most adults it would take years and listening and practice to learn grammar this way, years that they would prefer to spend doing something else. Studying grammar allows you to bypass all the trail and error and learn the rules directly. This way you can use your experiences and knowledge to overcome the disadvantages you have learning the language as an adult compared with learning it as a child. But remember that learning grammar is not an end in itself, unless you like that kind of thing. With each new grammar rule you learn, try to compose a few sentences to practice it. Then pay attention to the German you read and hear for when native speakers apply the rule in their everyday language. It's one thing to learn the rules of grammar, but to turn this knowledge into an actual skill that you can apply to understanding and speaking the language still takes practice.
You don't talk about home runs in soccer, or bicycle kicks in baseball. Similarly, it often makes sense to use different terminology when talking about German grammar than when talking about English grammar. Both have their own set of concepts and while there may be analogies between the two, using the same word to describe two ideas that are not entirely similar is likely to cause confusion and error. For example, since we've already talked about German genders, they have little to do with actual gender, so it's best to think of them as new concepts which requires different terminology — masculine, feminine and neuter, instead of male, female and inanimate.
One problem with the way many grammar books are organized is that they assume the reader already has a very good grasp of the language. If this book was intended for a German speaking audience then that approach would be fine, but we will assume most of the people reading this are in the process of learning German. So we'll be using functional sentences based only on material already covered by the end of the second section. Then we'll slowly build on these sentences by introducing new word types and more complex concepts. This means the way material is organized will seem to meander somewhat; there won't be a separate chapter for verbs and another for nouns. You can't describe every aspect of verbs without being familiar enough with nouns to understand the examples, and you can't explain all the aspects of nouns without knowing how they're affected by the verbs that use them.
Another issue with many grammar books is they tend to assume that the reader is interested in grammar for its own sake rather than as a means to better understand and speak the language. This may be understandable since grammar books tend to be written by grammarians, and they tend to be interested in their subject for it's own sake. While grammar may be as interesting an academic study as any, we're not going assume the reader has any independent interest in it. So we will limit the discussion to the most practical aspects of a given topic instead of giving exhaustive lists of rules covering every conceivable variation. Similarly, we won't assume the reader has more than an intuitive grasp of English grammar, so we'll be defining grammatical terms as we go. A certain amount of jargon is inevitable in any field of knowledge, whether it's surfing, Fortnight, or German grammar. But we'll avoid using jargon unless it helps to crystalize understanding, and try to define each term when it is used for the first time. Once the reader has learned the most basic and practical aspects of German grammar, there are many resources in German available for more advanced study.