In defense of the German language


Some commenters deplored the inflectional complexity of the German language. I find the complexity reassuring rather than offputting, because it means that you always know where to find the functional parts of the sentence.

The lack of inflectional complexity in English is made up for by its much more complicated structural form. English word order is nuts.

  • "I rarely go."
  • "I don't go often."
  • "I don't usually go."

Why does the temporal adverb go in front of the verb in one case, but after it in another? And it comes in the middle of the verb in a third case!

(Okay, technically you can put the adverb in any of those places, but it sounds stilted or changes the meaning of the sentence subtly. Try explaining that to a student of English and they will merely shake their head in frustration.)

Or consider the placement of the verb particle in English (which corresponds to the German separable prefix):

  • "I picked it up."
  • "I picked up the ball."
  • "I picked the ball up."
  • but not "I picked up it."

Now put these two rules together and you find that seemingly minor changes to a sentence (changing one temporal adverb for another, replacing a noun with a pronoun) has a radical effect upon sentence structure.

  • "I rarely pick up the ball."
  • "I don't pick it up often."

The sentence structure goes from

  • <subject> <frequency> <verb> <particle> <object>

to

  • <subject> <verb> <object> <particle> <frequency>.

How is anybody expected to learn this?

In German, the word order is predictable. All of these sentences would be structured as "<subject> <verb> <object> <frequency> <prefix>".

For added fun, add "carefully" to the sentence and watch everything moves around again: "I don't often pick it up carefully."

I find it ironic that when a Germanic language discards inflectional complexity (making it harder to see the relationship among the words in a sentence), it compounds the difficulty by adding greater structural complexity (making it even harder still to see the relationship among the words in a sentence).

Twain complained about all the exceptions. Actually I find that German is comparatively lacking in exceptions; the rules tend to be followed fairly uniformly. Twain complains about "parentheticals", but it is the parentheticals that make English so crazy. In German, the rule is very simple: "The adjective comes before the noun". Even if the adjective happens to be complicated. "The to-its-winter-home-flying goose."

Whereas in English, the rule is "The adjective comes before the noun, unless the adjective would sound better if it came after the noun." "The goose flying to its winter home" but "The slowly-flying goose". Try explaining that to your dad.

English, now that's where all the crazy exceptions hang out.

For example, the adverb can be moved to the front for emphasis

  • "Sometimes I go."
  • "Usually I don't go."
  • but not: "Rarely I don't go."
  • but not: "Always I don't go."

"Rarely" is one of those exceptions that require inverted word order.

  • "Rarely do I go."

And "always" is an even weirder exception: You can't start a declarative sentence with it at all! (Though you can start imperatives with it. Go figure.)

Swedish used to be a more heavily inflected language, but it has been shedding its inflectional complexity over the centuries. (The number of genders reduced from three to two; special inflective forms for plurals have been removed; the dative case is now obsolete...) To compensate, Swedish (like English) has been making the verb forms and word order more complicated. The word "inte" ("not") goes immediately after the finite verb, except when it doesn't. And sometimes it changes to "ej" or "ikke" for reasons I have yet to determine.

Comments (24)
  1. Regarding why "inte" sometimes changes to "ej" or "icke" (note that you always write "ck" and not "kk"):

    "Icke" is rarely used. It is an older word and is almost only used in more formal or older texts.

    "Ej" is very similar to "inte" but is used far less than "inte". Perhaps it’s a bit sharper, more commanding.

  2. AndrewSeven says:

    I think word order of has an effect on context, it make subtle but significant differences.

    In going from "I rarely pick up the ball." to

    "I don’t pick it up often.", the feel has changed a lot. They don’t mean exactly the same things.

    Words set the stage for other words to follow them.

    I am fluent in French as a second language, but I often have problems expressing which part is important, because the order doesn’t change as easily.

    Not much knowledge of German (numbers/colors/letters) but I remeber how few rules there are.

    I have an interesting book by Simeon Potter, tittled "Our Language" (published circa 1950).

    It delves the history and evolution of English.

    In the further reading, he also refers to the following.

    – Eugene Albert Nida; Morphology, The Descriptive Analysis of Words (Univ of Michigan Press 1949).

    – Zellig Harris; MEthods in Structural Linguistics (Chicago Iniv Press 1952)

  3. Raymond Chen says:

    Phooey, sorry about the icke/ikke mixup. Ikke is Danish (and Norwegian).

    One liguistic evolutionary note that I find interesting is the gradual erosion of the formal/informal distinction in Germanic languages.

    In most of the languages, the formal "you" has either virtually disappeared (Norwegian, Danish, Swedish) or has become eroded . When I addressed German college students as "Sie", they went so far as to say I was speaking German incorrectly.

    In English, the trend is exactly the opposite. The informal "thou" has disappeared and the formal "you" is now used both in formal and informal situations.

  4. Note that swedish still has four genders:

    masculine: "han" (he)

    feminine: "hon" (she)

    "reale": "den" (it)

    neuter: "det" (it)

    I would like to know what "reale" is called in english, though.

  5. Raymond Chen says:

    In English, "reale" is called "common gender".

    While there are technically four genders, for practical purposes there are only two (masculine, feminine, and common having merged). Aside from the personal pronouns and the masculine -e ending for adjectives, are there any other places where it makes a difference?

    In my experience, the older "Swedish for English-speakers" textbooks refer to the two noun classes as "gender nouns" and "neuter nouns"; the newer textbooks call them "en-words" and "ett-words".

  6. TLKH says:

    In Russian all the following words orders are vaild:

    I rarely pick-up the ball (pick up – one word in Russian)

    I pick-up the ball rarely

    I the ball pick-up rarely

    I the ball rarely pick-up

    The ball I pick-up rarely

    The ball I rarely pick-up

    The ball rarely I pick-up

    Rarely the ball I pick-up

    The ball rarely I pick up

    Pick-up I the ball rarely.

    Pick-up the ball I rarely.

    Pick-up rarely the ball I (too poetic)

    Pick-up the ball rarely I

    Rarely I pick-up the ball

    Rarely pick-up I the ball

    It depends on which of "I", "pick-up", "rarely" or "the ball" you want to accentuate in the sentence.

    For example "Pick-up the ball rarely I" actually means "It’s me who rarely picks up the ball".

    Of course, not all of them are used equally frequently.

  7. foo says:

    While in German,

    <subject> <verb> <object> <frequency> <prefix> (Ich hob den Ball oft auf)

    works in all these examples, so do

    <object> <verb> <subject> <frequency> <prefix> (Den Ball hob ich oft auf)

    <frequency> <verb> <subject> <object> <prefix> (Oft hob ich den Ball auf)

    These forms can be used to stress the first part of the sentence, or to introduce syntactical variance.

    I assume that this flexibility is part of what makes German so hard to learn (I’m just guessing – German is my native tongue, so it’s easy for me :-) ). In order to read any of these sentences, one would first have to decipher the cases (mmhm… "den Ball" is "Akkusativ" – so what?) just to find out whether "I" am picked up or picking up. In English, the subject always goes before the object, so you don’t have to guess which is which. Now that’s what I call predictable word order.

  8. TLKH says:

    (in addition about Russian)

    Such flexibility may lead to confusion.

    The russian sentence "A has captured B" usually means "A has captured B" but sometimes may mean "B has captured A"

  9. Raymond Chen says:

    True, most of the Germanic languages permit inversion for emphasis, but in English it is much less common. The amount of emphasis placed on the object in "The ball I often pick up" is almost unheard of in English. Perhaps in a sentence like "I leave the bat on the field, but the ball I often pick up." but even then it sounds pretentious.

  10. >In English, the trend is exactly the opposite.

    >The informal "thou" has disappeared and the

    >formal "you" is now used both in formal and

    >informal situations.

    Not to mention that "you" was the *objective* case! ("Ye" was the subjective.) And I think that, before they were informal and formal, they were singular and plural, but people began to use them as informal and formal forms once class distinctions gained importance.

    Oh, the history of English… ::faints::

  11. Louis Parks says:

    TLKH,

    Can you give me an example of – The russian sentence "A has captured B" usually means "A has captured B" but sometimes may mean "B has captured A".

    I’m relatively fluent in Russian, though I haven’t spoken it much in the last few years, and I can’t think of an example.

    Your first post made perfect sense to me. That ability, in Russian, to arrange your sentences in any order is one reason why I love the language. I love it for the structure (of the grammar), for the lack of defined sentence word order, and for the ability to add emphasis without altering your voice.

  12. I think the formal version of "you" has disappeard in many languages because the social status is no longer witheld in many countries, for good or bad.

    "Ej" is only used in modern Swedish as a written command: "Beträd ej spårområdet!" (sign at the train-station). I can’t remember when I last heard it spoken. There are a few times I feel compelled to use "icke" instead of "inte", but I can’t really say when. Mostly when I want a (negative) command to end in a high pitch (which sounds nicer/gentler), especially when written (because you can’t mark the pitch then). I also use it when I speak to Danes/Norwegians.

    It’s funny that the genders in Swedish are called the "en-words" and the "ett-words" in the modern text-books. It kind of signifies how we see them. I’m not aware of any rules for which words are "en" and which ones are "ett" (unlike German). I always feel sorry for people learning Swedish because you really have to learn this on a word to word basis.

  13. Raymond Chen says:

    For some reason I’m developing a good feel for "en eller ett". Maybe my previous exposure to German is making this easier. Like German, there are some guidelines: Abstract nouns are "en". So too are nouns ending in "a" – I’m guessing that they were feminine nouns under the old system.

    I continue to be amused that the Swedish counterpart to English "going to" is "kommer att" (literally: coming to). I’m sure this means something psychological about the two languages, but I’m not sure what.

  14. TLKH says:

    Louis Parks,

    Example:

    "Dobro pobedit zlo". Without context, it means "good will win over evil". But with the context: "Kto mozhet pobedit’ dobro? Dobro pobedit zlo" – "Who can win over good? Evil will win over good".

    This inversion can be used not with all words, and of course it is usually avoided and rather artificial.

    But in sentences where it cannot lead to confusion it is perfectly legal:

    "Eto mesto zaimyot predsedatel’"

    "Predsedatel’ zaimyot eto mesto"

    ("Chairman will take up this place")

    In this case the inverted order seems even more natural.

  15. Pramod says:

    Even the Indian language Sanskrit has a very large collection of inflections – for every gender, case, tense and number, all systematically enumerated.

    Rather than making the language complex, it actually makes for easier and more precise communication, of course only if u manage to learn all of them in the first place. The result is far fewer prepositions and auxiliary words than English.

    And same thing with sentence order, since the inflection denotes all the information and each word has all its meta-data, sentence order is arbitrary.

  16. Tom says:

    I think English is less demanding for the listener than German. When reading something like "the to-its-winter-home-flying goose", you have to push all modifiers on the stack and then pop them off it when you finally get to "goose".

    In English, you can’t have too complicated adjectives in front of a noun, so your stack won’t overflow. It’s easier on your short-term memory.

  17. Louis Parks says:

    TLKH,

    Thanks! I wasn’t thinking of neuter nouns in accusative case having the same form as neuter nounds in nomnitive case. This same issue would also exist with masculine inanimate nouns.

  18. Louis Parks says:

    Tom,

    Lol! Great technical evaluation.

  19. Raymond Chen says:

    Tom: In casual conversation, German also tends to avoid stacking too much in front of the noun (to forestall stack overflow). Big-time stackage is more likely to be seen in formal writing (newspaper articles, etc.)

  20. Tom says:

    Ray, you’re right about nouns, but whenever you’ve got a (formal or not) sentence with "dass" or a relative clause, the verb is always at the end, which means that you everything that before comes on the stack push must.

  21. Moi says:

    "swedish still has four genders"

    Whereas english doesn’t have sex at all :-)

  22. An amusing anecdote regarding the swedish genders:

    My grandmother: "Nu kom hon!" ("Here she comes!")

    Me: "What? Who? Where?"

    My grandmother: "Why, the sun of course!"

    The sun came out of the clouds… i see your point about "den" and "det" mostly replacing "han" and "hon".

  23. James says:

    >In English, the trend is exactly the opposite. >The informal "thou" has disappeared and the >formal "you" is now used both in formal and >informal situations.

    You may think that "thou" has disappeared but that’s not entirely true. It is still in use in Northern parts of England (particularly rural parts of areas such as Yorkshire).

    "Thee", "thou", "thar" (or it could be "tha" not sure never seen it written only spoken) are regularly used in informal, casual conversation in those parts.

    It has died out in the South and in the more urban areas but out in the country its still used regularly. (I don’t know if you get it out there but a TV series like "Last of the Summer Wine" would be a perfect example of almost every character talking that way).

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