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The German language bears many similarities to English, due to their shared origins as Western Germanic languages. Students are often lulled into a false sense of security by the generally accurate spelling, not entirely foreign grammar, and occasionally recognizable words. The first major stumbling block which rouses them out of this stupor of ease is the German past tense. They are presented with two versions of the same tense, one of which looks immediately recognizable to the relatively painless method of English, the other a horridly complex bundle of shuffled word order, fine semantic distinction, and cringe-inducing irregularity. They are then told that they will need to be intimately aware with the latter to hold a normal conversation, whereas the former is really only necessary for written language. But while the students may nurse growing grudges against The Awful German Language, with a little examination it's easy to make a linguistic case for the use of one over the other as a colloquial tool of conversation (against the initial assumptions one would make based on English).

Students are usually taught the Perfekt tense first. Much spitting and gnashing of teeth commences. The first problem is that it appears somewhat like a tense that English itself possesses, the present perfect. It's constructed with a conjugated form of the verb haben (to have) and the past participle of a verb, for example, geliebt (loved) for lieben (to love). So, where we say "I have loved," the Germans say, "Ich habe geliebt," right? Wrong. The Perfekt in German is a preterit tense, it has no connection with the present. The translation of the above tense should be "I loved" (this sounds as artificial in German as the bare sentence "I loved" does in English, but it's a simplified example).

So, alright. The Perfekt means something slightly different, but that isn't any major problem, is it? Sadly, this is just the beginning of many problems. I simplified the actual formation of the tense in the above paragraph. The Perfekt tense is not always formed with the helping verb haben. Verbs which indicate a change of state, phase, or a journey towards something must use sein (to be) instead. So, the past tense English sentence, "I drove," finds its German Perfekt equivalent to be, "Ich bin gefahren," instead of "Ich habe gefahren." You're going somewhere, thus sein. Likewise for, "I woke up," "Ich bin aufgewacht." You've changed from a state of sleepiness to wakefulness. This doesn't sound too unreasonable, there are actually remnants of this in colloquial English such as, "He is fallen," and "She is gone," used on equal terms with, "He has fallen," and "She has gone." Except that it's devilishly hard to remember in the middle of a sentence, with all the other elements of German grammar of which one must keep track, whether the verb you're going to use requires haben or sein. And sometimes the use can be counterintuitive, for instance, "I remained," rendered, "Ich bin geblieben." What? There's no change there!

Ok. So there's gonna be some memorization required, but all languages require that. What's next? Well, I purposely brushed over this whole business of the past participle. You may have been curious as to why the past participle of lieben was geliebt whereas the past tense of fahren was gefahren? Wherefor the two endings? This is the tip of an iceberg called 'strong and weak verbs.' When German was an off-shoot of the Indo-European language family, it performed a fair massacre of the complex simple temporal tenses, reducing them to just present tense and preterit tense. This is why Germanic languages have multi-verb constructions for tenses like the future while other Indo-European languages just have conjugational endings like any other tense. In any case, these two tenses were further modified so that their conjugation occurred solely due to ablaut. Ablaut is the process by which take in the present tense becomes took in the past tense, a sound change to the stressed vowel. There were a complex series of sound changes dependent on the primitive root vowel and the surrounding consonants, as if every form was like to take. Over time, the Germanic languages began to regularize these verbs by picking one vowel and sticking with it, then attaching an ending of some sort to indicate past tense. The verbs that were regularized are called 'weak verbs' (Schwache Verben), since they surrendered their distinctiveness to the system of rules. Those that didn't lose their ablauted past tense forms, however, are called 'strong verbs' (Starke Verben).

And the relevance of all this? Lieben is a weak verb. It meekly submits to the rules and forms a past participle by attaching ge- + root stem + -t or -et if the stem ends in d or t. Thus, lieben, ge-lieb-t. Kaufen, gekauft. Legen, gelegt. And so on. Fahren, however, is a strong verb. It aggressively demands its own set of rules uniquely suited to showing off its lovely ablauted root vowel by attaching ge- + ablauted root stem + -en, just to make sure you know it's strong. For fahren, one is lulled into a false sense of security, since in its ablaut it retains the -a- of the original verb. Fahren, gefahren. But how about, bleiben, geblieben? Trinken, getrunken? Helfen, geholfen? Fliegen, geflogen? A mite unpredictable, innit? And this is not even to speak of the 'mixed verbs', which look weak but are actually strong, like bringen, gebracht!

Rrrg. So if you memorize which verb is strong, which weak, which requires sein, which requires haben, then you'll finally be homefree to talk in the past tense to your heart's content. Nope. There's something more to consider; the issue of word order. German, as a language which employs grammatical tenses such as nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive, has much more flexibility in word order available to it than English. In simple sentences, this flexibility is underused. Everything conforms with the normal subject, verb, object pattern. But once any complex verb tense comes into play, trouble looms. The problem is that German only allows a verb to be one of two places: the second element of the sentence (as in right after the subject or right after a prepositional phrase and then followed by a subject) or at the very end of a clause. The second position is prime real estate, only one verb can occupy it. That means everything else is shunted to the end. So, "Ich bin gegangen," is fine, but if you want to add some more to that sentence, such as an object or prepositional phrase? "Ich bin zum Bahnhof gegangen." A little more? "Ich bin um elf Uhr zum Bahnhof gegangen," or, "Ich bin um elf Uhr mit meiner Freundin Katja zum Bahnhof gegangen," or, "Ich bin um elf Uhr mit meiner Freundin Katja, die ich sehr gern habe, zum Bahnhof gegangen." You can see the verb growing rather forlorn, thrust so far from its companion. Again, this doesn't appear too difficult to manage in writing, but to an English speaker a sentence soon loses all grounding when the verb has to be placed at its end. And what happens if you have a more complicated sentence, such as "I wanted to be woken up by the telephone around five o'clock." "Ich habe mich um fünf Uhr vom Telefon wecken lassen wollen." That's three verbs at the end of the sentence you're seeing. Ugh...

At this point you may begin to see why your typical student would be rather to the brink of despair that he'll never be able to talk about anything that's happened before the present moment. But then, a shining beacon! There's another past tense, one that works just like its English counterpart, with none of this business of word order, haben or sein?, and such. Joy! Sweet rapture!

The aforementioned 'alternate past tense' is the Imperfekt (also called the Präteritum). It correlates exactly with the English past tense. Its endings are even similar to the English -ed marker. So why wouldn't the Germans continue working with their own past tense, simple and lovely, instead of the bulky, horrendous Perfekt? Well, first of all because the Perfekt is no more bulky or horrendous than English's own excessively complex method of negating verbs, but that's beside the point. There are subtle linguistic reasons for prefering the Perfekt over the Imperfekt in rapid conversation.

The conjugation of a weak verb into Imperfekt is laughably simple. It follows the exact same patterns as present tense conjugation, save for the addition of a -te or -ete ending. So, for example, machen in the present tense is:

ich      | mache
du       | machst
er/sie/es| macht
wir      | machen
ihr      | macht
Sie      | machen
sie      | machen
Its Imperfekt counterpart is:
ich      | machte
du       | machtest
er/sie/es| machte
wir      | machten
ihr      | machtet
Sie      | machten
sie      | machten
So there's the good news. "Ich machte meine Hausaufgabe," is the same as, "I did my homework." Same word order. No fuss. But I've only mentioned weak verbs, what about strong verbs? Here things are difficult. In the past participle, you saw that a strong verb would sometimes retain the vowel from its infinitive form. This never happens in past tense. The stem-vowel always changes, often in very strange ways. For example, fahren:
ich      | fuhr
du       | fuhrst
er/sie/es| fuhr
wir      | fuhren
ihr      | fuhrt
Sie      | fuhren
sie      | fuhren
And just as you'd expect, there's a whole raft of possible vowel changes one could encounter in the Imperfekt

So there isn't anyway of speaking in the past tense in German that doesn't require a good bit of memorization. And in terms of usage, one will nearly always stick with the Perfekt. It's the conversational past tense. In Northern German, the Imperfekt can be used for relating narratives that occurred long in the past, but otherwise it doesn't enter into conversation and it can't be mixed with the Perfekt. Even in writing, using the Imperfekt in letters or chatting sounds extremely impersonal and strict; as if one refrained completely from any abbreviations, contractions, or colloquail words in writing informal English. The Imperfekt is, however, the past tense of choice for formal writing.

Now, as to why. If both sets require memorization, why the Perfekt as the colloquial tense? The key lies in the German dialects, often overlooked but extremely important to both German culture and government. In Southern German dialects, including those spoken in Austria and Switzerland, there is no schwa. They either lost the sound, or never developed it in the first place. Since all final -es in German are pronounced as schwas, one is presented with a problem. How do you differentiate, "Er macht seine Hausaufgabe," - "He's doing his homework," from "Er macht' seine Hausaufgabe," - "He did his homework"? You can't. They sound exactly the same. Thus in most cases the Imperfekt is indistinguishable from the present tense in spoken language. Now, all Germans learn Hochdeutsch and are capable of speaking it. Southern Germans could technically pronounce the final -e to the best of their ability (I've been told it usually sounds like an 'aayy' sound instead), but that's missing the point. They speak their own regional dialects, developed for hundreds of years, and why should they conform to a regional standard imposed upon them from the North and only standardized some 100-200 years ago?

The Perfekt's usage can differentiate by more than just frequency. For example, in a far Southern dialect of German which my professor illustrated to my class, the sentence "Ich war," (I was) becomes "I bi k'si." Huh? What happened? Well, first off, the Imperfekt tense isn't used in spoken language, so the sentence becomes "Ich bin gewesen." Then the dialect never transformed its past participle from the original verb's infinitive form, sein, so "Ich bin gesein." The dialect never underwent a vowel shift in which pure vowel sounds were rendered into diphthongs, so "Ich bin gesin." The fricative is not pronounced on the end of "ich" and nasal consonants were absorbed into the word, so "I bi gesi." And finally... no schwa. "I bi k'si."

It seems a little contrived, but there's actual an analogue for this whole business of 'formal' past vs. 'conversational' past in English. Think about circumstances when you're talking about something you're doing right now. Let's say you're going to the store. Even though the present tense of 'to go' is 'go', you don't say "I go to the store," do you? That would sound silly, archaic, even a bit pretentious. Instead, you say, "I'm going to the store," using the present progressive. In conversation English, most statements of things happening at the present moment use the present progressive. It's the 'conversational present'. When writing about something that's happening in the present, however, we switch over to the simple present tense, the 'narrative present'. And then imagine some dialects of English in which the simple present tense was indistinguishable from the past tense. They would only use the present progressive. This isn't a totally accurate comparison, because our present progressive makes a specific distinction between complete and incomplete actions, but it's close enough for you to get the gist of how the narrative and conversational past tenses work in German as well.

Sources used:

Moeller, Adolph, Mabee, and Berger. Kaleidoskop: Kultur, Literatur, und Grammatik, 6th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
Lecture notes, Professor Robert Howell, German 203, University of Wisconsin.
Siobhan kindly helped me refine some of my German examples.

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