The rise and fall of the German language


Kyle James reports for a variety of public radio programs and networks, including Deutsche Welle via Worldview (see March 26), NPR, and PRI's Marketplace. His English grammar is perfect, the pronunciation impeccably American, but if you listen, you'll still notice something odd about his voice. It may even take you a few listens before you figure out what it is.

It's the cadence.

Even though Mr. James is speaking in English, the shape of the sentences—the rise and fall of the pitch, the changing velocity of the words—is characteristically German. The German language has a particular shape to it. It's hard to describe in words; you have to listen to a lot of spoken German to start to get a feel for it. For example, in an "if, then" type of sentence, American English takes the important word of the "if" part (typically the last word) and starts it at a higher pitch, dropping it rapidly to a very low pitch, and holding it there for the remainder of the clause, perhaps with a very small uptick at the end.

da -
If it rains to - .
  .
- ay,

German, on the other hand, tends to take the important word and raise its pitch, holding the pitch high until the end of the clause.

heute regnet,
Wenn es

(On the other hand, if the emphasis were not on the day but on the weather, then the pitch would rise on the word "rain" or "regnet".)

I remember listening to an English-language Deutsche Welle broadcast where the native German newsreaders were speaking with a BBC cadence. (The BBC end-of-sentence cadence, in particular.) It worked for a while, but after a minute I simply couldn't bear to listen any more and had to shut it off. The problem was that they were using that one sentence shape over and over again instead of varying as the flow of the article demanded.

Getting the right sentence flow is one of the things you almost never learn formally when studying a language. Rather, it's something you simply have to pick up as you go. And it's often so subtle that you never perfect it. For example, when I'm speaking German—which happens almost never nowadays—I often get so worried about declining my adjectives correctly (how hard can it be? there are only 48 scenarios to worry about) that I pay almost no attention to getting the right sentence shape.

Here's a chart of the 48 adjective endings, as applied to the regular adjective weich, which means "soft". Don't worry about the last six charts; they are just repeats of the first three with a different root. It wouldn't be so bad if adjectives didn't come in three "strengths"... Then again, I'm sure other languages like Finnish or Icelandic can put German to shame. (And I have to admit, after working with German adjectives for a few years, I eventually developed a quasi-instinctive feel for how they should work, although the plural adjective endings always fool my intuition. When I learned that Swedish adjectives come in only two strengths, I felt kind of cheated.)

Comments (32)
  1. Adam says:

    I’ve been sucked into NPR myself… the news from NPR is really interesting.

    Any of my friends or family who ride in my car end up getting sucked in too.

    At first they make fun of it… as I did too.

    Then a week or two later I see them again and they can’t stop talking about how they can’t turn it off.

  2. uber1024 says:

    People that hail from the Pennsylvania Dutch (originally called Pennsylvania Deutch, but it transformed into "dutch" somehow) speak the same way.  It took me years of living outside the region to start to break that cadence.

    It’s also especially pronounced when we ask questions.

  3. Sudsy says:

    As far as cases go, German isn’t as bad as some, like Finnish, Latin, Russian, and many native American languages. I think that cases are very hard for someone whose native language is a word order language, but not vice-versa.

    The way to explain this is that word-order languages show who’s doing what to who by the order the words appear in the sentence. With case languages, the word order isn’t as important because the relationship between the words is made clear by the declensions. In these languages word order is used for stylistic flavoring, not for semantic clarity.

    There’s some evidence from ancient Chinese that languages go through a cycle from word-order to case and back over and over. English has just a few traces of cases (who vs. whom, those vs. them) but they’re disappearing and many native speakers aren’t sure what the difference is.

  4. Luis says:

    Actually, when I was learning English I studied the cadence of sentences (very boring, listening to a tape and saying does it go up or down). If truth is to be told, I’ve learnt English for 11, so I guess I am not so typical :-)

  5. Bryan says:

    I remember having been trained to prounounce the rise-fall method back in kindergarten.  Part of learning the alphabet phonetically, I suppose.  I was told that the pitch should follow the shape of a question mark, with a rise and drop at the end.  Made no sense at the time, but yes its something  you learn by listening to others, then forget that you’re doing it.

  6. Nik says:

    Those tables with dozens of adjective endings are insane.  Native speakers don’t memorize those tables, and I doubt anyone else can memorize them (except maybe Raymond).  I just go by what "sounds right".  After reading enough sentences in a language (hundreds of thousands ?), you can remember what kind of constructs sound right, and which ones sound "wrong".

  7. sebmol says:

    The purpose of those tables is to help learn the language fast by memorization. It’s not really meant as a way to get fluent in the language at a native speaker’s level, it’s just a crutch to make up for the fact that what the foreigner tries to comprehend, the native speaker has an entire lifetime to learn.

  8. Stefan Kuhr says:

    Raymond,

    I don’t think you are a 100% right with the way you describe how a native German speaker would phrase the melody of "Wenn es heute regnet". I tried it several times now (I am a native German speaker) and this is what comes closest to how I would describe the melody (hey I am a musician, so I am also :-) competent with respect to melody).

           heu    reg

    Wenn es    -te    -net

    I hope that this editor respects the line breaks and spaces I made. If not: The melody falls on the second syllable of the words heu-te and reg-net.  If kids want to sound real assertive like adults, they often exaggerate this difference in melody between these syllables. At least my 5 year old niece does so very often.

  9. oldnewthing says:

    Stefan: I defer to your native knowledge. But I definitely notice a "held high tone" in German; maybe I used a bad example.

    sebmol: As I noted in the article, I get the endings right most of the time just by instinct, but sometimes I have to go back to the table to double-check. I usually mess up the mixed plural (using -e instead of -en) and the strong genitive singular masculine and neuter (using -es instead of -en). Of course, now that I’ve embarrassed myself in public with this admission, I will be less likely to make the mistake in the future.

  10. Stefan Kuhr says:

    > But I definitely notice a "held high tone" in German;

    This I can definitely confirm.

  11. Leo Petr says:

    Native speakers of Russian memorize precisely that sort of tables all through grade school. It’s really the only effective way to figure Russian out.:P

  12. sandra says:

    interesting post!  

    thanks for linking to Canoo.net

  13. Anthony Wieser says:

    Raymond,

    The technical term for what you call cadence is actually prosody.

  14. Phylyp says:

    Raymond,

    Could you maybe put up a short audio clip illustrating the cadence (Anthony – prosody!) differences?

    I’m able to grasp the cadence of ‘If it rains today’, but am slightly unsure of how the German version goes.

    And no, I don’t get (AFAIK) any German programmes here (Bangalore, India)   :(

  15. Frandsen says:

    See http://video.greatestjournal.com/node/4279 for a good (and very funny) example of this.

  16. Michi says:

    I must say I don’t quite get what you mean by strength of an adjective. Surely it’s not the sequence "strong, stronger, the strongest" you’re refering to, since this has three elements in at least most european languages…

  17. oldnewthing says:

    Michi: The strength here is grammatical, not semantic. It describes how "hard" the adjective must work to indicate the noun’s gender, number and case, and how much of the work can be given to another word like "a" or "the". It’s hard to describe, but it makes sense when you learn it.

    Strong inflection – Starke Flexion: "heavy rain" (adjective working alone – does all the work)

    Mixed inflection – Gemischte Flexion: "a heavy rain" (the work is shared between "a" and "heavy")

    Weak inflection – Schwache Flexion: "the heavy rain" ("the" does nearly all the work, "heavy" helps out just a little bit)

    Anthony Wieser: Thanks for the correction.

    Phylyp: Timecode 2:38, "Jedes Fahrzeug, das in Deutschland zum Straßenverkehr zugelassen werden soll…"

    http://mp3.dw-world.de/dwelle/sprachkurse/marktplatz/markt-04.mp3

    The pitch goes up at "Straßenverkehr" and stays up all the way through the end of the clause ("soll").

  18. mirobin says:

    You know you’ve lived in Seattle for too long when your example sentences talk about rain … :)

  19. Michael Puff says:

    @Raymond: Wenn du mal nach Deutschland kommst, lass es mich wissen, dann treffen wir uns mal und sprechen nur Deutsch. ;)

    For those who do not speak German:

    @raymond: When ever you come to Germany, tell me and we will meet and we will talk in German only. ;)

  20. sebmol says:

    Raymond: I listened to the tape and I think I know what you are talking about. The increase in pitch actually serves a purpose here, because it binds the phrase "zum Straßenverkehr zugelassen werden soll" together so, to the listener, it appears as basically one very long adjective.

    German has the tendency to do this a lot, where, instead of using a subordinate clause, it tacks the entire attribute of an object in fron t of it. The vocal change helps keep track of that. English of course doesn’t allow you to do something like "the licensed-to-be-used-on-public-roads car". At least that’s my initial analysis.

  21. Hmm. I’m a German and I’ve never heard of that adjective strength stuff before :)

    It’s weird how you learn foreign languages in such a theoretical way. Of course, I’m sure it’s not any different the other way around. I wonder what parts of the English language I had to learn explicitly that you’ve never even thought about.

    You’re right that the tone of German is very different from the tone of English. I’m having a hard time speaking English precisely because of it. Grammar, vocabulary — no real problem if you’re not too careless. But the tone? I guess you have to really experience it for quite a long time to learn using it properly. Reading and thinking about it doesn’t seem to help at all.

    The fact that you can order parts of sentences in a relatively arbitrary way in German (well, not quite arbitrary, of course; it depends on what you are trying to express) might contribute to the difference in tone, too. That might also be linked to our frequent use of commas (compared to English), although the Rechtschreibreform has already started to even the field out in this regard (which I find horrible, to be frank: it makes German frequently much harder to read, because it just doesn’t fit our language).

    But back on topic. German usually conveys much more meaning using the tone than does English. For example: »wenn es HEUTE REGnet« = »if it rains (just) TODAY« (hoping that it won’t; sounds a bit like sarcasm). »WENN es heute regnet« = »if it REALLY rains today« (maybe hoping that it won’t; warning; emphasizing the consequence). »Wenn es heute REGnet« = »but if it rains today« (e.g. when trying to make a plan, taking into account the possibility of rain, seeking an alternative). And so on. I hope I at least got everything right. It’s kind of hard to explain something that you don’t really think about consciously at all.

  22. Michael Puff says:

    I once had to taken an English test (English was my major class at school.) and we had to translate the followig sentence into German:

    "It may fairly be said that English is among the easiest languages to speak badly, but the most difficult to use well." English seems not to be that easy either according to the author of that sentence. ;)

  23. Phylyp says:

    Ah, the mp3 helped! Thx, Raymond.

  24. Ged says:

    Who is to say American cadence is correct. There are many English speaking nations, including ‘England’.

  25. Marcel says:

    As a German fellow, all I can say is kudos for trying to master it. English is in some parts not trivial either, but I still think German is another dimension. I know I tried to learn French, another language where the only regularity you can count on is the irregularity, for 5 years and failed miserably.

    Matthias: nice thesis about the sentence emphasis, but I think most of it can be applied to the English sentence, too ("*IF* it rains today…" vs. "If it rains *TODAY*…" etc). At least in my understanding of the English language, which could of course be flawed.

  26. Juan says:

    Finnish puts German to shame in the number of cases, but not in the number of endings.  It makes up for the complicated cases (12 spoken, 16 written, or so I’ve heard) with a complete lack of prepositions, and only one gender.  I’ve found German prepositions complicate the cases a good bit.  Now, I don’t claim to have really learned Finnish (I only learned enough to speak to my best friend’s daughter when that’s all she spoke, at age 2) but I didn’t find the grammar nearly as daunting as I assumed it would be.

  27. Helga Waage says:

    Here is a chart of the Icelandic version of the word weich (mjúkur) http://www.lexis.hi.is/beygingarlysing/lo/mju1kur.html  I think these kind of charts are mainly useful to scare people off because once you start looking at the forms you will see that most of the variations are the same or very similar.  

  28. Carol Melancon says:

    Here’s a website on prosody with audio examples (in English). http://www.eptotd.btinternet.co.uk/pow/powin.htm

  29. Carol Melancon says:

    Forgot to mention I once read a mystery story where the detective’s understanding of prosody helped him identify the killer. He knew the person was lying about their identity (they were not a native English speaker).

  30. This is where the instinct comes in.

  31. Michael J. says:

    > German, on the other hand, tends to take

    > the important word and raise its pitch,

    > holding the pitch high until the end of the clause.

    Ah, this is why I am often asked am I German. I am Russian, and we have the similar thing. There are three hardest things in English:

    * proper usage of articles (the hardest ever);

    * the cadence (prosody, whatever);

    * the articulation.

    Is it true that speaking with mouth shut is considered hard in English? Because it is very simple in Russian. I guess this explains why so many Russians don’t articulate properly, they got used to mumble.

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