The Verb 2 – The Modal Verbs

conjugating german verbsHello everyone,

and welcome to the 3rd part of the German-is-easy Online Course.

In the last episode we have talked about how to conjugate pretty much any verb in German.
But there are 9 verbs that are somewhat special, because for them, the system we learned doesn’t really apply.
I guess that’s fair because they’re also the most important verbs. Here they are

  • sein (to be)
  • haben (to have)
  • wollen (to want)
  • können (can, to be able to)
  • müssen (must, to have to)
  • dürfen (may, to be allowed to)
  • sollen (shall, be supposed to)
  • mögen (like, may)
  • wissen ( toknow)

Today, we’ll go over them one by one, see how they conjugate and get a bit of trivia for each.
And just so you know… this will be a loooooong article.
Just what you need for a loooooong day in quarantine, right?
Right?!?!

 

That’s the spirit.
So, let’s start with the two most important ones, haben and sein.

Because those are the main helper verbs and we need them to form the past tense.

sein

Most of you probably know that sein is the German verb for to be.
And it’s the only REALLY irregular verb German has….

  • ich bin
  • du bist
  • er ist
  • wir sind
  • ihr seid 
  • sie sind
    (forgot the audio for this one, my apology :)

And actually, it’s the same in English. I mean, not the same forms, but English to be is just as “chaotic”.

to be – I am – he is – I was

These forms have virtually nothing in common. And there’s a surprising reason for that.
To be as well as German sein and their forms are actually a mix of several verbs that are about being in some way.
The German ich bin for instance is related to English to be. The forms are and is(t) as well as the German sein (with the  “e” missing in the beginning) come from a different root – the same rot as the word essence. And the past forms was and were were taken from a third verb
But you don’t really have to remember all that. I just thought it’s interesting to know WHY these two verbs are such an incredible patchwork.
What matters is that you remember how to conjugate it. And in fact, you can start right now, because we’ll do our first little quiz :)

That’s enough for now, but we’ll mix in more later as we train the other verbs.
Because my didactics are very strong, you know :).
Anyway … moving on.

haben

Haben is the other really important helper verb but it’s way less irregular than sein. In fact, it’s almost regular except for one little change. Can you spot what it is :)?

  • ich habe
  • du hast
  • sie hat
  • wir haben
  • ihr habt
  • sie haben

The color gave a pretty strong hint. The irregularity here is the missing b for the second and third person singular. With the system we learned last time, it should be du habst and er/sie/es habt, but the b is not there. I can’t tell you why, to be honest. Pronouncing bst or bt does need some effort, and maybe the word was used so much, that the b got washed away. Whatever the reason may be, thankfully there is this famous Rammstein song “Du hast” – if you know it, then that’s a good way to remember the form.
And even if not, it’s really not that big of a deal. Just make sure to NOT say hast for third person (er/sie/es). It probably rolls off the tongue easily, because it’s he/she/it has in English, but in German… no s.
That said, let’s get right into some practice

Cool!
So now that we have those two out of the way, let’s get to the small group that really does have its own set of endings. Which in textbooks and courses is often referred to by the term modal verbs.

German Modal Verbs

And a few thoughts on that first.
Teachers and books use this term like everybody automatically knows what it is. But don’t feel bad, if you don’t. Why would you?
And the term doesn’t actually refer to the same verbs in all languages.
You see, German and English modal verbs are not the same.
Example: To want is NOT a modal verb in English, ,its German translation wollen IS a modal verb. So if someone kind of just throws around the term modal verbs, you could totally ask which ones they mean… German or English?
And what’s also interesting is that the English Wikipedia, no doubt written by nerdy linguists, claims that French and other Roman languages don’t actually have modal verbs. And yet French courses do talk about French modal verbs like it’s canon.
So while being used as if it were a clearly defined term, in reality, “modal verb” is rather blurry.
There are not simply  THE “modal verbs”. There are just “English modal verbs” and “German modal verbs” and they are not the same.

Now, that said, except for wissen, the verbs we’ll talk about now are the German Modal verbs.
And as I said, they conjugate slightly differently.
For one thing, the endings are a little bit different.

lern-en (normal verbs) soll-en (modals)
ich

du

er/

wir

ihr

sie

lern – e

lern – st

lern – t

lernen

lernt

lernen

soll –

soll – st

soll –

soll – en

soll – t

soll – en

 

Not that bad, right?
The only difference really is that the ich and er/sie/es-forms don’t have an ending and look the same. We’ll actually also need this system of endingslater on, once we get to the past tense, so I recommend you really think of it as a second system, rather than just as a bunch of exceptions.
But anyway, it’s not the only thing that makes the special verbs special.
There’s also a vowel change. 
All the special verbs except for sollen change their stem-vowel for ich, du and er/sie/es. And it’s not a minor shift like we learned last time. You know… like schlafen that changes to schläfst, for example.
This time, we’re talking real change :).
What we’ll do now is look at the special verbs one by one, see (roughly) what they mean and look at the vowel change.

können (kann- )

Können is the German brother of can, and this relationship is especially obvious in the stem change because ö goes to a.
Here’s the conjugation:

As we just learned, the plural forms behave completely regular, but for the singular forms, we have the stem change and the slightly different endings ( [-] , [st], [-]).
As far as meaning goes, können is more broad than can, because it’s also the common translation for be able to. And just like can, it also extends into the realm of having permission.
The context usually makes it clear, what the focus is, but Germans sometimes do goof around with it. Like in this classic

Thomas wanted to know what time it is, but here, Maria misunderstood on purpose and answered whether she is capable of telling him what time it is.  That’s one of the things Thomas really really likes about Maria. Her great, original sense of humor.
I’m kidding of course. He hates it when she does that.
Anyway, können often combines with another verb and this actually brings us to a really really really important new bit of info about German sentence structure.
Behold:

  • I can speak German very well.
  • Ich kann sehr gut Deutsch sprechen.

I think you all know what I mean… while in English, like in many other languages, the second verb comes right after can, in German it goes to the end.
And if you think back to last time, this is actually nothing new.
Do you remember the prefix verbs? It was the exact same thing there.

  • Ich stehe um 10 auf.
  • I get up at 10.
  • Ich kann sehr gut Deutsch sprechen.
  • I can speak German very well.

Because this is a universal feature of German: as soon as our verbal phrase has more than one part, the part that carries the ending sit in the “normal” spot, and the rest goes to the end.
We’ve had it with prefix verbs, now we see it with modal verbs, and we’ll see it again when we talk about the past tense. It’s not a weird special rule – it’s a core characteristic.But we’ll explore that more later in the course, once we get to word order.
For now, just remember that the combination of a modal verb with a normal verb behaves just like a prefix verb… one part stays put, the rest goes to the end.
It will take a while to get used to it so you will make mistakes. And that’s fine, people will still understand you. But please try to get it right, because it’s such an important feature.
Use the rhythm as a help. German often has this really crucial element at the end… a punch line if you will. That’s a different flow than English.
But anyway, here’s another example…

  • Thomas kann sein Bier mit einem Feuerzeug aufmachen.
  • I can open his beer with a lighter.

And now, it’s your turn again :).

Cool.
Moving on to the next one… and here, we’lre in for some confusion.

wollen (will-)

And I know what your brain is thinking. But it needs to stop!
Ich will does NOT mean I will.
It actually means I want.

 

And this makes perfect sense if you think of the English noun the will. Like… the will of the people. That’s about what people want.
The English word will just slowly shifted. Like… maybe at first people just wanted to sound very determined. Like…  “I want to have a beer and you can’t stop me”. And then fully focused on actually making a statement about the future and completely lost the notion of wanting.

Anyway, the German wollen means to want and it could be really confusing if you use it as a translation for the English verb will. So my pro tipp is : don’t do it.
#helpful.
Seriously though… just try to associate German wollen with  free will. Or volition, if you will.
Anyway, here’s the full conjugation:

And here it is in a couple of examples.

And as you can see, the stucture is the same a for können. So if we have a second verb, it goes to the end.
Cool, quick practice and then we’ll get to the next one.

 

müssen (muss-)

Also this one looks familiar. And in this case, it’s not a trap. Müssen means must and it’s also THE translation for to have to. Don’t try to translate that with haben.  It can work sometimes, but it can also be really confusing.
Müssen is the way to go for obligations.

As you can see, for the vowel change we just have to go from ü to u, and müssen could be a piece of cake. If it wasn’t for this one issue.
It is about what happens when you negate the verb.
Take a look at these two sentences.

  1. I must open the window.
  2. I have to open the window.

They’re pretty much the same, right?
Now let’s see what happens when we negate them.

  1. mustn’t  open the window.
  2. I don’t have to open the window.

Now, they’re different.
The first one tells us that there is an obligation to NOT OPEN the window. We must leave it closed.
The second one on the other hand tells us that there is NO obligation to OPEN the window. It’s okay if I leave it closed.
And German müssen actually behaves like to have to.
So this sentence…

is a translation for the second sentence, NOT for the first one.
Let’s do another example. Take this sentence:

Does that mean that you must not do the dishes or that you don’t have to do it?
Exactly, it’s the latter.
If we want to actually express must not, then we need dürfen. We’ll get to that next, but first I want to tell you about one particular useful phrase with müssen

Taken literally, this is a casual sounding “I have to”, and the meaning is clear to everyone… it means that you need to go to the bathroom.
Cool. So now before we get to the next verb, it’s time for another little quiz.
What? Oh, you wonder about the full conjugation for müssen?
Well, as I said… it’s time for another little quiz ;).

dürfen (darf-)

Unlike the words we had so far, dürfen actually doesn’t really have a relative in English. There used to be one, but that’s a long long time ago.
The core idea of dürfen is expressing permission.  So it could be translated to can or may. 

Actually, I think it’s closer to can, because it doesn’t sound as formal as may. Just keep in mind that the core idea is permission, not opportunity or capability.
You could technically also use können to express that, but dürfen is generally more clear, and in questions, it’s more polite sounding than können.

And as I alluded earlier, dürfen is also the word we need if we want to translate must not.
Taken literally, nicht dürfen means to not have permission, but it’s also used in contexts where there isn’t really a permission involved, but rather a “natural imperative” as you can see in the second example.

  • You must not say that to Maria.
  • Du darfst Maria das nicht sagen. (actual lack of permission)
  • We have to get up early tomorrow. We must not watch Netflix till four ‘o clock today.
  • Wir müssen morgen früh aufstehen. Wir dürfen heute nicht bis um 4 Netflix gucken.

I’d say nicht dürfen sounds less dramatic than must not, but still it’s a pretty fitting translation most of the time.
Cool.
So that’s dürfen :).
Here’s the full conjugation, just so you get to hear some umlaut….

And here’s the quizz.

And on we go to the next one…

mögen (mag-)

Mögen isn’t all that revealing but the form with the vowel change, mag, kind of gives it away – mögen is the German counterpart of may. The core of this family is actually potential, so it seems to be the same idea as for the family of können and can.
But that family is actually about potential based on knowledge, which itself is actually related to can.
The branch of may/mögen on the other hand was about actual power. And we can still see that in the English word mighty or the German die Macht (the might, the power) or the Russian мочь (“motche”).
But for some reason the word may softened over the years and shifted toward a potential and sometimes even borders on permission.

  • Only the worthy may lift that hammer. (original meaning about power)
  • It may/might rain tomorrow. (potential)
  • You may go now.  (permission)

Quite the journey. But the German mögen actually went further because BY FAR its main meaning nowadays is… drumroll… to like.

And this of course raises the following: excuse me, wtf?
Or in other words, how do you get from potential and power to liking.
Well, all you need is to put your mind a nice painfull yoga pose. Something we’ll do a LOT on this site, by the way.
It started with the negated version nicht mögen. Originally, it expresses that you don’t have the potential, but then it shifted toward not having the desire. If you need help, just think of taxes. Lots of people who don’t want to pay say they can’t pay.
But yeah… this sense of wanting caught on, and eventually the verb shifted toward wanting and from there toward liking.
Tadah… German logic, fellahs. You better get used to it.
Now, the original sense of mögen is actually still around and you can find it here and there. But it’s not worth worrying about in a beginner’s lesson. The main meaning is to like and that’s enough for now. Trust me.
As per usualy, here the complete conjugation:

And if you think we’ll do the quizz now, you’re actually mistaken because we’ll move right on to sollen.

sollen (soll-)

Sollen doesn’t have a vowel change, but it still might be the one that is the hardest one to handle.
The core idea is obligation, but it’s a very specific kind. Müssen was also about oblogation, if you remember, but that could be an obligation by reality. Like… I must go to bed now, if I want to be awake tomorrow.
Sollen is specifically expresses an obligation coming from someone. Someone tells you what to do.
The most famous example are probably the 10 commandment, where God tells us what we have to do.

  • Du sollst nicht zuviel Netflix gucken.
  • Thou shalt not watch too much Netflix.**
    (**sample commandment, might not actually come from God)

And here we also see the English counterpart of sollen: shall. Shall kind of does have the same idea but its tone is quite different and I think it’s better to think of sollen as “to be supposed to/obliged to”.
And let’s not even mention should now. I can actually kind of promise you that you will be confused about sollen and sollte and should at some point in your learning journey. But not today, as they say :).
One thing though… you might already know the word Entschuldigung which is one of the GErman ways to say sorry, excuse me. Well… guess where that comes from

  • Ent-schuld-igung
  • “De-should-ification”

The word die Schuld is the German word for guilt and debt and that kind of is … an obligation toward someone.
Anyway, enough with the trivia.
So sollen is about an obligation that comes from a person. But is often also translated as to have to.

In both examples, you can actually replace it with müssen, and I think for now it might be enough if you just understand sollen and know that it exists. But just as the 4th commandment of German learning says.

4. Thou shalt not stress out about when to use sollen.

Cool.
The complete conjugation is of course really boring, because there isn’t even a vowel change. So let’s jump right into the quiz.
Oh and make sure you still know your mögen :)

All right.
And now let’s get to the last word for today.

wissen (weiß-)

Wissen is a relative of the English wisdom and wit and it’s one of the two German verbs for to know. Yes, German has two. The other one is kennen and at you will have a lot of fun trying to learn what the difference is.  Well, unless you speak a Romance language like French or Italian or a Slavic language like Bulgarian, because they all also have two verbs. It’s English that is kind of weird in this case.
Anywho… for today let’s just say that wissen is used for actual factual facts and kennen is for people, names and stories.
Now, wissen actually is neither a helper verb nor modal verb but for some reason it does conjugate like them. So it uses the endings we have learned today, and it also has a vowel change – from “i” to “ein”. Doesn’t look very different, but it sounds very different.
Let’s look at some examples

Oh and then there’s of course this weird letter ß. This is called “s-z” or sharp s or, and this is my personal favorite, Rucksack-s. A Rucksack is a backpack so it is an s with another s in its backpack.
Germans use it if they need a sharp “s” after a long vowel, because usually “ss” makes a vowel short.
But honestly, that’s NOTHING to worry about for a young fledgling like you :).
You can just type ss and most people won’t even really notice.
So, let’s look at some more examples…

Did you notice how we used a couple of new phrasings in the last two examples? A question and a that sentence. That’s because you’re actually advancing toward B2 level now. Well, okay…. not that advanced, but we’re almost done with conjugation and you’re ready for useful, real phrasings. 
But first, let’s finish this off properly.
Here’s the full conjugation…

And I hope you paid attention to the du-form in particular because I will soooo ask you about it in the quiz now :)
Well… soon. Once it’s done.

Wrapping up

So this is it… these are our special verbs, with their special conjugation and their even more special vowel changes.
Just a quick reminder:

Now, throughout the article, we’ve already seen and practiced the whole verb at the end thing, but I wanted to give you just one more example to show just how wide this split can really be.

That’s some serious cirque du soleil split right there :).
Seriously, I bet this looks scary to you, but you’ll get used to it. And then it’s actually kind of fun.
The sentence or phrase has a defined ending, no matter how it looks. If you cut the part how long he has been dating her, the German sentence is just shorter but still ends the same way. This verb-at-the-end-thing really gives some gravity to the end of the sentence. It doesn’t just end at some point. It ends with whats most important. This is also a reason why German politicians appear to be very good listeners. Truth is, they just can’t interrupt, because they can’t know what the other one is saying…. sure… you can anticipate a LOT. But a German needs this final verb. It makes him feel well. If you forget it, it will feel incomplete, if you say it too early your sentence is not that interesting anymore.. there is no more suspense in it.

Even if it makes your brain bend,
put the verb’s leftovers at the end.

Yeah… that is so poetic. I think we’re done for today… the words in this article are ESSENTIAL for German, so make sure you understood everything. If not it is probably because the explanation sucks. Just leave me a comment and I’ll see to it. But now I’ll look into this whole gas station plan… if you do not know what I am talking about you have so not read the examples ;).

Next time, we will talk about how to ask questions… in German.
Till then take care.

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