Learn German Online: Aaaaaand action! – The Verb 1

Hello everyone,and action... the verb part 1

and welcome to the second part of the German Is Easy – Online German Course.

Today we are going to look at the most important part of the German language – the verb. Everything in a German sentence centers around the verb and the verb is what you need to identify if you want to understand what is going on in a sentence.

So in this lecture you will learn how to conjugate 99.999 % percent of all German verbs in present tense (the remaining 7 verbs will be covered in the next post). Now before you head over to the grammar jargon section to check out what “to conjugate” means, I will give you a quick summary (for a deeper look check out the Grammar Jargon Post here) .
Conjugating means to dress up your verbs such that they make for a nice couple with the subject. In some languages the verbs have this huuuuuge closet with all kinds of forms in there for any specific language occasion imaginable. I don’t want to point fingers but I am looking at you FRENCH :). In other languages the verbs only have a few different outfits, so few that they easily fit into the verbs carry-on, these verbs won’t have any trouble to travel the world as they don’t have much luggage… let’s see, what would be a good example for that… hmmm… that’s tough…  ok.
I give up. I really can’t think of one.

The German verb is somewhat in between. It certainly has more clothes than the English one but by far not as many as some other languages.. again, I am looking at you FRENCH.

German conjugation is really easy. There are some exceptions here and there but not too many, and even those ones are not a big deal, so conjugating will be a piece of cake… now you might say “Hey the German verb sounds kinda cool… I think we’ll make friends quickly.” … well just wait till you have misplaced it for the gazillionth time GUAHAHHAHHAHAHAHHAHAHAAAA!!!!!

Sorry… I… didn’t mean to lose it like that… it is just… you will be soooo pissed at the verb… anyway.

So let’s start with a totally regular word and as our level of Schmaltz is dangerously low, we will go for:

lieben – to love

oh crap. The soppy-meter is of the charts. Let’s love the rather mundane coffee to tone it down a little:

  • Ich               liebe Kaffee.
  • Du                liebst  Kaffee.
  • Sie             liebt   Kaffee.
  •  Er                liebt  Kaffee.
  • Es                 liebt  Kaffee

Now I guess that many of you can’t really concentrate right now so let me just answer your question and move on: I love you is Ich liebe dich.
Back to conjugation. First off, every verb has a dictionary form, aka infinitive. The dictionary form in German always ends in -en as in lieb-en, … oh wait exception report coming in… go ahead!… what?… some don’t?… so it’s like some just end in -n?… not a big deal though? Thank god. Don’t want to scare my students away… examples by any chance?… er-what?… erinnern? Ok thanks man. Stay alert.
So yeah ALMOST all dictionary forms end in -en. Some just have n like erinnern (to remember/to remind). The missing e has just disappeared over time. To conjugate, you take away the –en and add the correct ending. The endings are

  • Ich                 –e
  • du                  –st
  • er/ sie/ es   –t
  • wir      –en
  • ihr       – t
  • sie        –en

First thing to point out is the fact that the dictionary form and the form for we and they are identical. Then what is really important to know is that the s is the decisive letter for the du-form. Let’s take the German word for to applaud – klatschen (pron.: clutchen) and conjugate it:

In klatschst you have 8 consonants and one little tiny vowel, so you might find this hard to pronounce. But as great a temptation you feel to skip a letter or 2 DO NOT SKIP THE S. You may skip the t but never the s because the s is what makes it the right dress for du. This also means that you should never put an s if the person is NOT du. Let’s look at kaufen (pron.: cow-fan)  – to buy.

  • Er kaufst ein Auto…. NOPE

This is wrong, and although it clearly has he in there, it will sound more likely like du is the person buying and you just accidentally used er. The s is just that strong.
This brings us to a legit question. “I have taken the -en away and now the stem ends in s?” An example would be küssen – to kiss. Well German is not crazy enough to put a triple s into a verb … yet… so the du-s just drops and the forms for du and sie/er/es are the same.

Now what happens if the stem of a verb ends with t, for examplewarten – to wait. In order to be able to pronounce that you need to add an e between the t of the stem and the ending.

But these things are really more practical little adjustments as opposed to different rules or exceptions. The basic conjugation is shown in the table above.

So now you know all you need to conjugate and we can talk about the separable pref-.. hold on a second… Yep?… What?… Oh no, that is so true, that is an exception, how could I forget…. yeah yeah I will definitely tell them right away… yeah later man!
Sooooo… turns out there are a bunch of verbs that need additional treatment. For them, a mere ending is not enough to match the person as they essentially want to get a lifting… a vowel-lifting to be precise. For these vain verbs, the stem vowel has to be changed for du and er/sie/es while for the other persons it remains the original. Only a and e can be lifted. A is changing to ä, which sounds a bit lighter and e changes to i or ie respectively which sounds … well lighter. Note, that all this has no effect on the endings we have introduced above. Let’s look at one example for each.

schlafen – to sleep geben – to give

Note that the lifting only affects du and er/sie/es.
Not all verbs with an a or e as stem-vowel are so vain to demand this kind of change. You kind of need to know the verb to know its character… fallen (to fall) changes, knallen (to bang) does not; sehen (to see) changes, gehen (to go) does not. You see, there is just no telling so when you have a vocabulary book you should mark the changing ones. Anyway this is something that will come over time and making a mistake there just makes you sound a little foreign. So I’d say the best way is to just pick the changing ones up along your way.

Weak links and strong links

A lot of verbs in German consist of a basic verb and some sort of prefix. Did I say a lot? Good,  I actually think it is the majority. Let’s take a basic verb like gehen (to go) and see how many verbs there are with this in German:

angehen, aufgehen, untergehen, hintergehen, nachgehen,
übergehen, ausgehen, vorgehen, eingehen, mitgehen,
vergehen, begehen, entgehen, zergehen, durchgehen,
weggehen,…

I did not give any translations as most of the verbs mean 2 or more entirely different things at once. Mostly you can deduce a common concept all the meanings have in common but at first sight they are different. Angehen for example can translate to 5 different concepts. Some say that German has a word for everything… looking at verbs like this it really seems that we have A word for everything. You can find a LOT on German prefix verbs on this blog, so don’t worry. I got you covered :). But now for the basics.

There are 2 different kinds of prefixes in German. One group is weakly linked to the basic verbs and the other is strongly linked. Weakly linked means that prefix and basic verb form are one compound verb in the dictionary form but as soon as you touch it to conjugate, the fragile connection will break and you are left with 2 separate parts… and that is gonna cost you. Not money but lots of energy as German is REALLY strict as to where these parts of the verb have to be put in the sentence. And here comes one of the crucial structural rules you HAVE to follow:

Whenever your verb consists of more than one part, the first part, the conjugated part, has to be at position 2 of the sentence while ALL the leftovers are at the end. This rule is not super universal and we’ll see a lot of exceptions later but for the beginning we can keep it simple.

We will talk about this in more detail again. For now it is enough if you remember to put the prefix at the end of the sentence whenever you break a weakly linked verb. And you always br eak ’em.
Example-time!
A weakly linked verb is aufstehento get up. As soon as you touch it, you will be left with the parts auf and stehen and the conjugation will be as follows.

Now this looks as if I had only inversed the order of things but let’s add some more information into the sentence  to see what really happens – morgen um halb 7 (tomorrow at half past 6).

All the additional information comes before the auf. Auf  is at the very end. This concept is crucial. If you want to read a German text, you MUST check for small words at the end of the phrase to find the right verb. If you want to know more, check out the Word of the Day on aufhören. There you can see how misleading it can be if you ignore the part at the end.
This whole notion of putting the prefix to the end is also very important as it has a big influence on the rhythm of German. We start the sentence, then talk, talk, talk and then we end with a very distinct and emphasized auf or ein or whatever prefix it may be. And sometimes it is only then that you can really know what the person is saying.

This means that you’ll manufacture the window in the kitchen. I guess you could do that but with a prefix the whole thing gets a lot more sense.

Aufmachen means to open, zumachen means to close, but both sentences are the same in German except for the very end. Of course it will take training to do all this but you will get there eventually.

Now you might vaguely remember that I have talked about weakly linked versus strongly linked verbs. Thus far we have talked about the weakly linked ones. The  verbs with a strongly linked prefix are somewhat easier to handle as they do not break. An example is verstehen – to understand. It is built with stehen – to stand and the prefix ver- but ver is one that is strongly linked. So the conjugation is totally regular.

It is not

So now you need to know is which prefixes are weakly linked and which are strongly linked.
Basically all the weakly linked ones have a meaning themselves while the strongly linked ones mean nothing. The strongly linked ones are:

ver, ent, zer, be, ge, er, miss

Except for miss they all have just e as a vowel. The weakly linked ones will have a, o, u, i and all that like mit, vor, nach, bei, um, zu, aus,… I guess you could just learn the few strongly linked ones to start with.
And then there are the really really awesome ones like über, unter or hinter. Sometimes they split, sometimes they stick….. AT THE SAME STEM

Yeah, I know… now look I am sorry for this but we need to talk about it real quick. So a very few words have a totally different meaning, depending on whether their link is strong or weak. As for all prefix-verbs you can also tell whether it is separable or not based on pronunciation. A weakly linked prefix will always carry a strong strong stress. Take a word like aufmachen and really stress the auf-part while the machen can almost disappear…. yeah not bad but now do it again and over-exaggerate   as much as you can. This will lead to perfect German pronunciation. So anyway in aufmachen the auf is stressed while in vermachen the mach is stressed… remember? Ver is s strong link so it won’t break. And for unterstellen and … well unterstellen when the unter is stressed meaning to take cover or shelter, and a stressed stell means impute or accuse.
Now this being said here is again the list of strongly linked prefixes.

ver, ent, zer, be, ge, er, miss

Just learn these and assume that all the rest is weakly linked except for unterschreiben (to sign) and übersetzen (translate) and you should be fine.

And thus we have reached the end of the first part on the German verb. In the second part, we will do a short summary of what we have done today and then talk about

The weird ones (here’s the link if you want to continue reading right away :)

If you have questions or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.