Spoken German Bits – “Da-Words Undone”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of Spoken German Bits. In this series, we look at all the stuff that you can only find in spoken German – weird grammar, new phrases, slang and colloquinsali.. colonilasi… man this word and beers really don’t go together very well. I mean all the stuff that people say every day but that isn’t part of those stupid textbooks.

Today, we’re gonna be dealing with one topic you all reeeeaaaally love. No, not gender. No, not cases either. What? Adjective endings?! No, we’re not gonna be talking about those.  Oh no and it’s not word order… man you really love quite a bit about German :).
The thing we’ll look at today are what in jargon is called “pronominal adverbs”. We know them as …

The da-words 

Sigh, the da-wordsdarauf, darum, daraus, dafür and so on.
The da-words are basically a twisted way to combine a preposition with an article. Instead of saying of that or about that like a sane language would do in German you say thereof and thereabout like you’re some sort of poet or something.
We’ve taken a detailed look at the da-words so if you feel like you want to get the theory down, then check out this post here:

They actually do have a big benefit and they’re really not that difficult once you get the hang of them.
But even if you have the black belt in Da-Word-Fu, you might get really really confused when you talk to native speakers because… there’s a new twist in town.

You see, Germans are really good at splitting things. They split their verbs, they split hairs, they were heavily involved in first splitting the atom, heck they even split their own country once. But it’s never enough. And so they’ve come up with something new. Drumroll please:

the da-word split

And this is how it looks like.
Hmmmmmmm… soooooo tasty. I’d sure love me some da-word split rig…. oh wait, wrong split. Haha.
The da-word split looks like this:

Da……………… mn.
So let’s take a look at this mess.

The da-word split – What it is

The idea is as simple as it is annoying for the learner. The da-word gets split apart and then stuff gets put between the parts. Here’s an examples with the standard da-word.

This is proper German and people do say that, but they also say this

or this

This works with all the da-words and all kinds of contexts and sentences, as long as it is spoken.

Now, looking at these examples, I’m sure many of you have a few questions so let’s take a look at how the da-word split works in detail… because… there are still some rules, even though it’s strictly colloquial. Grammar gone rogue is still grammar, right?
I mean… it’s not like you’d need to do a proper da-word split in a test or something. Technically you don’t need the mechanics. But I think it’s still interesting because we can get a glimpse into the deeper structures of German.
So, we’ll do kind of a little da-word split Q&A and  after that we’ll have a good impression of the whole thing.
Or we’ll be pretty confused and awfully tired :). So let’s find out.

What’s up with the dr-stuff?

The first thing we’ll talk about- and I’m sure you all noticed it in the examples – is the weird dr-stuff. What do I mean by dr-stuff?
Well, I said that the da-word gets split into two parts. So, davon becomes da… von, dafür becomes da…für and so darauf should become da…rauf.  But it doesn’t. It becomes da… drauf.

And believe it or not… saying rauf here would sound pretty wrong. That’s what I mean by dr-stuff. All the da-words where the preposition starts with a vowel, so all the ones that have an r in the middle will get an extra d. Darauf becomes da… drauf, daraus becomes da… draus, darum becomes da… drum and so on.
Now you might be like “Wait, isn’t drauf short for darauf? Do we have a double da now?”
Well, yeah… that’s pretty much how it is.  And in fact, doubling down on da is sometimes even done when the preposition alone would be enough

or if there’s no da-word split at all.

This is not only super colloquial, though, it’s also super not nice. Like… it sounds a bit dumb.
Anyway, so if the da-word has an r, then the da-word split will get an extra d. Cool.
Now let’s talk structure for a bit.

Where do the parts go?

Looking at the examples, you can quickly see the following trend: da comes somewhat early in the sentence. But where exactly?
Well, of course it can come in position 1.

But position one is NOT a regular part of the sentence and kind of a free for all. What’s more interesting is the area after the verb.
As usual with word order, there are tendencies and defaults and special emphasis and we could spend a whole article discussing all the finer points of where da- goes and how it sounds. But as a wise man once said: finer points are not as cool as finer pints. So we’ll just pick the one aspect that most resembles a fixed rule and leave it at that :).
To sound idiomatic, da- should come AFTER all the pronouns, especially ich, du and es.

If you’re interested in why this is the case then I’d suggest the mini series on word order (I’ll add a link below) but yeah… if you want to do a da-word split yourself, either put da in position 1 or right after all the pronouns like ich, mich, dir, ihm, es and so on.
Cool. And what about the other half?
And this is is pretty simple and coherent. The second part of a da-word split comes pretty much always right in front of the final verb slot. So it’s either in front of ge-forms or prefixes or other verb left overs or, if the final verb slot is empty, it is at the very end.

My god, “...da aber von auf”... this must be soooo confusing for a beginner :).
Anyway, so the second part comes right before the verb. And that actually makes sense. The second part is the preposition and the preposition completely depends on the verb. Warten auf, freuen über, reden von… the preposition is almost a part of the verb so it makes sense that this part comes so late.
And that actually brings us to the last, and maybe biggest question of all.

Da-word Split – Why the hell?

I already mentioned that German has a penchant to splitting thing… like… with the whole verb stuff and all. The native speakers’ brains are trained to this kind of “arch of suspense” and I think Germans subconsciously kind of dig that moment of resolution and closure at the end. So splitting the da-word is not all to crazy a concept to begin with.
But I think there’s more to it. Splitting the da-word fits very well with the underlying structure of German. That’s a huge topic and I don’t want to get into it too much so I’ll just put out there the following two aspects of word order:

  1. the verb as the most defining element is at the end
  2. pronouns and other reference words come very early on

So on the left side we have a bunch of stuff that has been part of the conversation already and on the right side we have the verb. What does that have to do with the da-words? Well, a da-word belongs to both worlds.

The da-part is a reference, so it belongs to the old stuff and its natural position would be somewhere on the left. And now… do you remember what the preposition belongs to? Exactly… the verb. The preposition is “supplied” by the verb and that’s why it’s natural position is on the far right (because that’s where the verbs dwell).
A conflict of interest :). The da-word gets pulled in opposite directions and breaking it up is actually kind of natural. Take this sentence

  • He told her about it yesterday at the company party.

He, she and it have been established in the conversation before and telling is the main action of the sentence.

Both are technically correct and  idiomatic (though the second one does sound a bit stilted) but as you can see, the da-word forces a part out of its natural habitat, so to speak. With the da-word split the parts are where the natural forces pull them.

Here’s another example.

The verb is Appetit haben auf so with the drauf at the end, the preposition is in it’s natural position. And the da, being a reference, is in the beginning and makes for a nice connection to the stuff that has been said before.

All right.
Phew… so this was our look at one of the biggest fads in contemporary spoken German. The da-word split. And I have to say…  for something that is purely colloquial this post wound up pretty darn intense.

German® –  when even explaining improper language gives you a headache

Seriously though. I hope you got a good impression of the da-word split and have some idea how it works and maybe how it ties in with the deeper structure of German.
It’s really super common these days and I’m sure you’ll hear it sooner or later and if you manage to do it correctly, you’ll “up your native”…  big time. Like.. your friends will there be incredibly impressed by :).
If you have any questions about any of this go ahead and we’ll clear it up in the comments. And also… I’m curious. If you’ve spent time in Germany, have you come across the da-word split? Was it confusing? Do you have tricks to understand it? And if you’re a native speaker of German, how is it for you in your region and dialect? Do you know it, is it common? Or were you like “What the hell is he talking about?”.
I’m really curious for your experiences so share them and in the comments.
I’m out for now. I hope you liked it and see you next time.