Word of the Day – “werden – Future and Passive”

werden-future-passive-pictuHello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our look at  werden.
Last time we were cut short quite abruptly right in the middle of the explanation, so if you haven’t rea… er I mean listened to it yet you  can find part 1 here:

What we’ve learned so far is that werden originally meant to turn before it .. ahem… turned into a word that expresses self development; just like to become. And it is not a weird change of meaning because it happened with the English to turn, too.

Then, we started talking about the second usage of werden – a helper verb for the future tense.
And that’s where we’ll pick up today. And first we’ll explore how and why werden became the German counterpart of will. 

Why “werden” and “will” express future


Latin had a grammatical future tense 2000 years ago, but the Germanic languages actually didn’t. They did not bother expressing future with a special tense at all. They just made a distinction between things that are past and all the rest. And German is still very Germanic about that, because in daily conversation, it uses present tense for future events about 80% of the time.

The Germanic tribes then started to have more and more contact with Latin and long after the Roman empire had fallen, Latin remained THE language for science and the church. Kind of ironic actually, since the two hated each other for quite a while.
But yeah, so the Germanic languages came under the influence of Latin and at some point, they were like “Hey, I want my own future tense.” and so they came up with ways to express the future-ness of some action using grammar.
English ended up used the word will, which was originally doing nothing more than stating an intention. This:

  • will have another beer….

used to mean (and in German still means) this:

Maybe English speaker were just incredibly optimistic about achieving whatever they wanted and so will changed from expressing intentions into expressing the future . 

  • Thomas will become bald because his dad is too.

Today, the intention-part has almost disappeared…. just like Thomas’ dad’s hair. But if you really look closely you can find some left overs of the old intentional-will.

  • Make of that whatever you will. 

By the way… the shift of will from intention to helper is the reason why English, unlike German or French or Spanish, does NOT have a modal verb that expresses desire anymore. English uses to want for that but this is NOT a modal verb in English.
Yes, you may use that info to impress people at the next party. Work great.

Now, in German, they didn’t change their version of will (wollen). Instead they used werden to do the job of expressing future. And unlike the English will, werden didn’t even have to give up its “normal” meaning. Both functions exist side by side.
And now the big question is: why? How? What has becoming, which is the “normal” meaning of werden to do with the future?
Well… it is not that big of a stretch because…  becoming implies that something isn’t YET but it’s on its way.

You’re not tired yet, but you’re in the process of becoming it, so in the near future you will be.  There you have it –  being is the future of becoming, if that makes sense.
So it is completely understandable that people would start using such a verb to express future…. I mean … why not?
In English, they expressed it using intentions. In German, they expressed it using the process of self development. And to give you some other options – in Swedish, they are using “shall” and “comes at, arrive”, in Dutch they also use “shall” and “to go” .
All those do make sense and there is  no better or cooler. It is evolved differently. Do the different ways tell us something about the way of thinking, about ways of looking at the future? I really don’t know… I’d actually say no. Maybe it does tell us something about the people who lived when these forms evolved…  for us today it is mainly a grammatical concept that we have hard wired in our brains.
Anyway … here’s the core of what we’ve talked about in the best form – the example form :)

and here is the future-werden back to back with the becoming-werden

Notice something? We’re talking about the exact same event :). In first sentence we’re using the future, in the second we don’t. That is to say, in German we don’t because German doesn’t use the future tense that much.
But the example leads us to an interesting question: how would we build the future of werden itself?

future-werden in practice

How would we say this for instance…

  • The students know very well that they will become tired when the professor talk about grammar.

Could it possibly be a double werden? Wouldn’t that be too strange even by German standards? Let’s take a look…

Ohhhhhh… and it is a double werden… and it is at the end. German, you language you, you did it again!
Seriously though, this sentence is a little contrived and it is definitely bad style. And since it wouldn’t make any noteworthy difference in meaning anyway, people would just leave out one werden. Which one? The blue one of course. Keep that in mind for your next test… don’t leave out the green one ;).
Now… although this very example was weird the combination of becoming-werden and future-werden is actually acceptable. When there is no context, we even need the double werden to make clear that it is future.

Does that sound weird or funny? Not so much actually… no more than this…

  • I will want to remember that…
    (at least to me, with my German “ich
    will”-glasses on, that is a bit like intending to intend)

or this…

  • Next week,I am going to go to Berlin.

All right. Now, I don’t want to discuss all the grammar of the German future tense here, or give you loads of examples because… you don’t really ever need to use it. In daily conversation, German really mostly do it the old way and just use the present.
Maybe also because we have yet another opportunity to use our beloved werden… the passive voice. But before we get to that I want to quickly mention one very common idiom, which is a good example for how close the becoming-werden and the future werden really are…

This is used to reassure people when they stress about something… for instance your classmate is worried that he or she might not pass the test… then you can say “Das wird schon”. It sounds really nice. It kind of has a built in “Don’t worry”… . Now, although I translated it using the English future tense, to me this is actually more the becoming werden... mainly because there is no other verb in there. But it doesn’t matter after all.

  • I become…
  • I will be…

Those are the same just with a different focus… become focuses on the process of “evolving”, will be focuses on the result. And with those 2 points of view, we can now dive right into the passive.

werden – the passive

The passive voice is a grammatical role reversal. Sounds abstract. Is abstract. In fact, passive is one of the last things kids learn in their native language BECAUSE it is so abstract. Imagine a 3 year old watching mom open the box of the frozen piz… mix flour, yeast and olive oil for the pizza dough… what does the toddler see?

  • Mama makes pizza.
  • A pizza is being made by mama.

The second example is soooo much more complicated because the passive artificially switches grammatical roles while the real roles remain the same. What do I mean by grammatical roles? Well, for many activities, like reading, seeing, buying or opening we have to have at least 2 participants. First, we need someone who does it. In linguistics they call that agent but we’ll call it the do-er. On the other hand we’ve got to have something that is being read, seen or bought and we’ll cal the done to-er. Do-er and done to-er are roles in the real world. They have little to do with grammar.
Now, in a normal sentence the do-er will have the grammatical role of a subject and the done to-er will be in the role of the direct object.

  • I read a book.

And the passive reverses the grammatical roles.

  • The book is being read by me.

The book is still the done to-er but it is the grammatical subject now.
Okay… and… why should we do such a thing anyway? Why make things complicated?
Well, for this example it is not really useful, but passive is neat and handy whenever the do-er is unknown or uninteresting or if the effect, the result matters…. I’ll just do one example…

  • The diamonds were stolen last night…. sound more elegant than
  • Someone stole the diamonds last night.

So… passive may be abstract but it’s good to have it. And all languages I know of do have a way to build it. English as well as all the Roman languages (I don’t know how it works for Slavic languages) use the helper verb to be to form the passive.

  • Thomas painted a picture.
  • A picture was painted by Thomas.

German uses werden.

There are 2 questions that we’ll talk about the first one being of course this:

Does that tie in with the werden we already know?

Yes. It totally does. Let’s recall. Werden has at its core the idea of self development. Now, when a picture is painted it also kind of develops… just the cause is external. So it’s really not that far away. What? Oh it is?… Okay… let me try again then. We’ve seen that werden can also be a translation for to get because to get sometimes expresses development. But what about this:

  • The president got elected.
  • The movie got made for the fans…. THAT’S why it blows… hahahaha.. sorry… … I … I  couldn’t resist

Now, what’s up with this got here? Sure, we could say that it is kind of “a change of state” which would be the same got as in “I got tired”… but the reality is, that we can simply replace it by was. Then, the sentences would be a pure passive but the meaning wouldn’t change a bit. So I hope you can see, that from “changing a state” and passive is actually the same when the reason for the change is external.
And if you’re still like… meh, I don’t get it… well, let’s remember that werden used to mean to turn.

  • The sky turns dark.

Now… what is that? It is a change of state, that’s for sure. But we can also read future into this because it is obviously not dark yet. And we can even interpret this as a passive because the sky isn’t doing much. It is clouds that do the work. They cover the sky. Or let’s take this…although I don’t know if that is proper English:

  • He watches the streets turn wet.

This is a change of state from dry to wet. It is also future because the streets are not wet yet. And it is clearly also passive because the street itself doesn’t squeeze out water. The rain is the do-er.
So… I hope you can see that it is not too far fetched to use verb that expresses the change of state as a helper for the passive AND the future at the same time.  And that is werden.

This would be the literal translation… and it is not that wrong… the only thing is that to become doesn’t really work with an external cause.
All right.
Now the second question that is interesting is this:

So… German does it differently than many other languages…
does that have any effect on the meaning?

And the answer is yes. Using to be and using werden leads to 2 major differences.
To understand the first one we need to make a short detour… it is really short, I promise. So… for most of the actions we can put a focus either on the on going process or the completed process/ the result.

  • was doing the dishes.
  • have done the dishes.

Both sentences are set in the past but the first one focuses on my doing the dishes much more than the second one. The second one is all about the result. The dishes are done now.
Now, to be is a verb of state. It talks about how something IS. Werden on the other hand talks about how something becomes – how it IS CHANGING. So to be stresses the resultwerden stresses ongoing process. That also affects the passive, mainly in present tense.

This is all about the process and if we want to express that in English using the state-ish to be, we must somehow add this process idea and our sentence will seem a bit complicated.

  • The pizza is being eaten.

Or we could also say this, I guess…

  • The pizza gets eaten.

You can try it with your own mother tongue. If passive is built using to be, then you will have to use a work around to express the German version. Now… as soon as we leave present tense, the differences begin to blur but let’s keep this for when we actually learn passive. Just keep in mind that the German werden adds this idea of ongoing change to the passive that is not there if you build it using to be.
Cool… now, there is another difference between German and languages that use to be for their passive which is really fascinating.
The thing is… to be is a pretty busy verb because in most languages it is also used for the past in one way or another. So there is a lot of overlap and that restricts the use a bit. The German werden doesn’t have that problem.
And maybe that is the reason why in German you can do some funny stuff… and by funny, I mean stuff that will drive you INSANE if you build your passive using to be.  How about a passive of wollen

Too easy, you say? Well how about a passive of schlafen then

Yep…the passive voice of to sleep. Try that in English. If you can do it, I you will get* one case of the best German beer (*for money in a store).
But there is more about this passive of schlafen.  Can you tell me, where the subject is in the German sentence? No… well that’s because there is none. If you’ve learned that German always has a subject in the sentence… well… just forget it…

All right. I think we’re done for today and we’re done with was our German Word of the Day werden. It started of as to turn but soon changed into a word with the meaning of to become. English speakers had it too, but the didn’t like it that much. Germans loved it and started using it for the future and the passive. Seems random at first but hey… as we can see by looking at the word to get, all those things are closely related and they all share the idea of change of state.
If you have any questions or suggestions about werden, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.