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German has horrible grammar

No, really, it does. I hate German grammar. It uses both case and word order to specify subjects and oblects, which is horribly redundant and annoying. It uses the present tense to specify future actions sometime. It's very, very tiring. Not at all easy like English, where word order does everything, or Latin, where it's all in the cases. No, no, German has to be different. Now, this means there's very little you have to figure out from context, but it also means there's lots of stupid little rules to follow all the time.

Maybe when I can speak German a little better I'll appreciate it more. Right now, I don't like it so much. It's an order of magnitude harder to learn than French, Spanish, or Italian. Oh well, it's a challenge. And I like those.

I fear hogdepodge is right here. This is a sentence from the german translation of "Thus spoke Golem" by Stanislav Lem. This long style of sentence was intentionally aplied by Lem, but if you read german texts older than one hundred years you will stumble on beasts like this:

So können die Kosmologen nicht anders, als sich irgendeine anschauliche Vorstellung von der Metagalaxie zu machen, obgleich sie genau wissen, daß hier von Anschaulichkeit keine Rede sein kann; die Physiker helfen sich insgeheim mit Spielsachen, wie etwa jeden Zahnrädchen, die Maxwell sich vorstellte, als er seine im übrigen nicht üble Theorie des Elektromagnetismus aufbaute , und wenn die Mathematiker glauben, sie würden von Berufs wegen ihrer eigenen Sinnlichkeit entsagen, so täuschen sie sich ebenfalls, doch davon vielleicht ein andermal, denn ich möchte euch nicht dadurch bekümmern, daß ich mich mit meinem Horizont von eurem Begriffsvermögen entferne, vielmehr möchte ich, um das (recht amüsante) Gleichnis des Dr. Creve heranzuziehen, euch auf eine lange, nicht unbeschwerliche Wanderung führen, die jedoch der Mühe wert ist, und so werde ich euch - langsam - auf dem Weg nach oben voranschreiten.

Translation is left as a exercise to the reader.

Something else:
Ich hasse dich. I hate you
Ich hasse euch. I hate you
Ich hasse sie. I hate her
Ich hasse sie. I hate you
Ich hasse sie. I hate them
Ich hasse sie. I hate it

Oh, and you should read the Awful german Language by Mark Twain.

Wait, wait. "It uses both case and word order to specify subjects and oblects (sic), which is horribly redundant and annoying." Not exactly.

Near as I can tell, German only uses case marking to specify, well, case. There is a prefered word order, namely SVO, but that's not required. The only situation where word order is required is when no articles are used, but that doesn't happen very often. I don't think I've ever encountered it.

I'm no German expert, but I've been studying German for two years, and I've never encountered a situation where word order is required along side case to describe a words function.

Of course, I can't deny the long sentences, although I've yet to encounter anything as bad as the example cited by brutha.

I can't speak for people with other first languages, but for English-speakers, German grammar does have some pretty difficult features to get around. Aside from some miscellaneous stuff, I would say that the difficulties fall into two major categories: inflection and word order.


In grammatical (rather than phonological) terms, inflection is the process in which a word is changed to specify some further information about it, rather than to alter its basic meaning. Some languages use this extensively for all sorts of words, while in others it barely features at all. Latin, Finnish and Old English are examples of highly inflected languages; Chinese is at the opposite end of the spectrum. English lies strongly toward the uninflected end, while German by comparison is highly inflected.

An example of inflection in English is this. If you were talking about yourself, you may say "I got up this morning," or you may say "My sister woke me up this morning." The words "I" and "me" refer to exactly the same person, yet they are clearly different - the former specifies that you were the subject of the verb (the doer), while the latter shows that you were the object (the verb was done to you).

A more obscure example is the distinction between "blond" and "blonde" in English. One is used for males, the other for females - the use or absence of the letter "e" does not change the meaning of the word, but rather makes it more specific.

Inflection in English, which was once extensive, is now used almost exclusively for pronouns, as in the distinction between "I" and "me", or "he" and "him". German, however, still uses it for verbs, nouns and adjectives to indicate gender, case, number, and a fourth property of adjectives so hopelessly obscure and pointless I'm not even sure if it has a name.

To take these four in turn:

Gender is a property of nouns found in almost all European languages, but not English (except for pronouns, i.e. he/she). Nouns in German can be either masculine, feminine or neuter. To indicate this distinction, you must use the correct definite/indefinite article, and the correct ending for any adjectives preceding the noun. Thus "an old man" is "ein alter Mann", but "an old woman" is "eine alte Frau". This concept is alien to the English-speaker.

Case is a property of nouns found in all languages, but to a greatly varying degree. The case of a noun indicates its role in a sentence - whether it is doing a verb, having a verb done to it, possessing something, or whatever. The distinction between "I" and "me" in English is a case distinction, as is the use of "'s" at the end of words to indicate ownership, e.g. "Barry's house".

German nouns have four cases - nominative, accusative, dative and genitive, for the subject, object, indirect object and possessor respectively. To indicate case, you must always use the correct articles and adjective endings, as with gender. For example, "he is an old man" is "er ist ein alter Mann", but "I have seen an old man" is "ich habe einen alten Mann gesehen". "Ein alter" has transformed magically into "einen alten", because the man is now having a verb done to him. Get this wrong and you will look stupid.

Case always applies to articles and adjective endings, but for a certain class of masculine nouns, known as the weak nouns, it also alters the noun itself. Take "Polizist", meaning "policeman". "I am a policeman" is "ich bin Polizist". But "I know a policeman" is "ich kenne einen Polizisten". "Ein" has changed to "einen", but "Polizist" has also gained an -en and become "Polizisten", because it is having something done to it - it is in the accusative case.

Additionally, all plural nouns in the dative case must end with an "n", which for most of them means they change. "Männer", for "men", becomes "Männern" when in the dative case. The exception is those nouns, usually foreign imports, which add an "s" in their regular plural - "Radio" is an example.

Number indicates whether a noun is singular or plural. In English this is done by adding "s" to nouns to make plurals. German also makes plurals by adding a word ending, although there are several of these, including "e", "n", "en" and "s". What is unusual about German, from an English-speaking point of view, is that it also inflects verbs and adjectives according to number.

In English, conjugating a verb is child's play - "I sing", "You sing", "He sings", "We sing", "They sing". Apart from the added "s" to the third person singular, the verb form - sing - stays the same. In German, plural verbs are distinguished by adding a "t" or "en" to the verb stem. "I sing" is "ich singe", but "we sing" is "wir singen", "they sing" is "sie singen", and you (plural) sing is "ihr singt".

Number also comes into play for adjectives. "An old man" is "ein alter Mann", as we've seen, but "old men" is "alte Männer". Because the long-suffering old man has brought some friends along, the adjective changes. As far as adjective endings are concerned, plurals effectively behave like a fourth gender.

One final aspect of inflection, which really makes you understand why the Germans got so pissed off around 1914, has to do with the words preceding an adjective. Depending on whether an adjective is preceded by a definite article, an indefinite article, or no article, its ending will change. These three different types of inflection are called "strong", "mixed" and "weak".

"The big house" is "das große Haus". But "a big house" is "ein großes Haus". An "s" has been added for no reason discernible to mankind. (Actually there is a reason, but it's not a very good one.) Meanwhile, standing impatiently outside the house, are our friends the old men. "The old men" is "die alten Männer". But "old men", without a preceding "the", is "alte Männer". At the risk of editorializing, this is a pointless waste of mental energy.

Word order

This is the other big thing you have to worry about. There are some minor aspects of idiom that differ from English - for example, in German you say "I'm going next week home", rather than "I'm going home next week". This is to be expected in any language. There are however some standardized differences that are prone to confuse the English-speaker.

The first thing you learn is that infinitives and past participles must go to the end of the clause. In German you say "I have a new house bought", or "next week I will a new house buy". This can take some getting used to.

Additionally, there are certain clauses in which the finite verb must also go to the end. Consider the English clauses: "The man who owns the house"; "He told me that it might work"; "Because he works there". In the German translations, the finite verbs - the words "owns", "might" and "works" - would go to the end of the clause. Thus in German, you do not say "because I have bought a new house", but "because I a new house bought have". This is perhaps the silliest aspect of all German grammar.

The abundance of case-indicators in German also means that the key nouns and verbs in a sentence can be moved around with more freedom than in English. The example I learnt in school was this: to say "the dog bit the postman", you can use the same word order as in English - "der Hund biss den Briefträger". But because "der" and "den" are case-specific, you can also choose to say "den Briefträger biss der Hund". The meaning remains the same, because the definite articles show which noun is the subject and which the object. It can't be done in English, because "the" expresses nothing about case; but to the Germans it is second nature. This is alien to the English-speaker, but it can also be useful, particularly for creative or expressive writing.

There are various other aspects of the German language that can also leave the foreigner high and dry, but these for the most part come under idiom rather than grammar.

Many of these are common to most European languages, and English is often the exception. One example is the use of two levels of formality - "du", "dich", "dir", "ihr" and "euch" for the informal second person, and "Sie" and "Ihnen" for more formal address. Another is the tendency to drop the indefinite article - a German would say "I am doctor", not "I am a doctor". A third is the use of "be" as an auxillary, rather than "have" - for example, a German (or Italian or Frenchman) would say "I am never been there", not "I have never been there".

German has an intrinsic word order of SOV, i.e. it shares many linguistic characteristics with other SOV languages, such as Japanese. However, German has an interesting feature, V2, which takes precedence over its SOV feature. The primary inflected verb, is always the second phrase (in the linguistic, phrase structure tree sense) in the sentence. Note that auxiliary and modal verbs can be primary verbs too. When a verb occurs in its infinitive form, it is at the end of the clause, thus exposing the underlying SOV pattern in German. This reasoning explains sentences such as "I have a new house bought". Other than the fairly rigid rule of V2 and SOV word order, the other constituents of a sentence may be shuffled around arbitrarily. Sentences such as "I killed a man from Vienna yesterday" and "A man killed I from Vienna yesterday", would mean the same thing, as a somewhat extreme example.

Interestingly, English used to have V2 sentence structure somewhere in the shrouds of antiquity, but lost it sometime during its evolution. We still see vestiges of V2 structure in questions -- "When would he come to visit you?", or "How can I help you?". Note, however that English is an SVO language, which is why our questions don't sound like "How can I you help?"

In addition to the excellent node above mine explaining the differences between English and German, here is an additional pertaining to the use of case versus word order.

It was explained to me as follows:
Der Hund biss den Mann.
Den Mann biss der Hund.

Both mean "The dog bit the man", yet to the casual observer, the meaning is inversed. The former is prefered to make things easier.

The problem becomes worse when using non-masculine nouns, such as:
Die Ratte biss die Frau.
Die Frau biss die Ratte.
This is "The rat bit the woman", obviously there is no difference in the words for "the" for Frau and Ratte (both are die), therefore it is harder to discriminate. This should be resolved by context though, as it is most likely that the rat bit the girl. In this case, the second form should be discouraged as it would cause confusion.

The above examples use only the nominative and accusative cases, which are very similar, but there are other cases, most importantly in the context, the dative:
Die Frau biss die Mutter
Die Mutter biss die Frau
These are ambiguous, so SVO should be used to sort it out, but suppose the Woman didn't slap the Mother, but tripped her up (figuratively - it's the only example I can find at the moment, without changing the structure of the example too much)
Die Frau stellte der Mutter ein Bein.
Der Mutter stellte die Frau ein Bein.
The use of the dative in this sentence has removed the dependancy on word order, even though the objects are of the same gender, which caused a problem in the accusative above.

Finally, German has a lot of redundancy in it's language, I agree, but the redundancy is a way of compensating for the limits of the German class system, both are not always used, it depends on the sentence.

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