German Word Order Explained – 2

Hello everyone,

and welcome to the second part of our look at the mess that seems to be

German Word Order

And before we get to it let’s do a super quick recap what we learned in part one. (find it here) we’ve learned three things.
Number one:
The rules you can usually find are … not very good. And how could they. Because number 2:
There are no rules. And there’s not one correct order. There’s a default order which is  the result of a fascinating interplay of several forces, pulling the elements in different directions. And the speaker has a lot of freedom to rearrange stuff for emphasis. Problem is that these interactions are  uber complex and dynamic. We cannot really “learn” that.  Which leads us directly to number three:
In linguistics there is the concept of a head of a phrase and we learned that German is at it’s soul a head-final language. You know… like its close relatives Korean and Japanese. They’re head final too.
Today, we’ll find out how this head-final-ness of German can help us explain everything. Well, not everything, but a lot. It’s going to be tough and I’m not saying that every sentence you’ll ever say will be correct. But at least things will make sense. Promise!

One quick word before we start. When they do structure analysis in linguistics they actually use the side sentence form. So instead of analyzing

  • Ich gehe in den Park.

they analyze

  • (Ich sage), dass ich in den Park gehe.

The reason is that position 1 is kind of special, as is the verb in position number two. The real order of stuff is much clearer in the side sentence structure. But it’s a bit unnatural and we want to know how “normal” sentences are built, so we won’t go that far. But we’ll ignore position 1 here for now. It’s kind of special and it would just make things a lot more confusing. I’ll just put a very natural element in there.  I know the legend says that stuff gets put there for emphasis but that is about as accurate as the TeKaMoLo-garbage… oh. Ops… I guess you know my real opinion now.
Anyway, let’s see if head-final is any better.
That’s what she said, by the way.

Head-final basically means knowing what your beer tastes like before you even know it’s a beer.

  • Ich trinke ein kaltes, leicht bitteres, im Abgang ein wenig an Zitronen erinnerndes Bier.
  • I’m drinking a cold, slightly bitter beer reminiscent of lemon in the finish.

The specifics come before the main thing. And all we have to do is to generalize that a bit to get the fundamental principle of German sentence structure:

The more interesting, relevant and defining something is, the later it comes.

This is quite long and we can’t make a cool acronym so we’ll refer to it as … unicorn wisdom. We could call it fundamental principle, I guess, but that term makes me tired and my mouth dry. So… unicorn wisdom. There’s really not much to explain about the sentence itself. But it’s really powerful. Watch.

  • Ich bin  blah blah yada yada yada blah blah gegangen.
  • I went blah blah blah ……
    (the English version nicely shows that English is head-first)

Tadahhh… now we know why the verb is at the very end. Because the verb is the most important, most interesting and most defining part of a sentence. And now we also know why the prefix is at the end.

  • Ich mache das Fenster ____ .

Because besides the verb itself, the prefix is the next most defining part. We can’t even translate the example yet because we effectively do NOT know what’s going on.
So this is head-final at it’s best. And it doesn’t stop there. Next to the verb or the prefix is the element that is most defining, most important for it.
So what say we look at a few examples to get a feel for it.

Getting comfy with it

Let’s take the verb to be.If I walk up to you and say

  • I am

A first question you might ask could be where or what … but certainly not when or why. So if if we want to say “I was in the park yesterday” the most natural order in German is this:

  • Ich war gestern im Park.


  • Ich war im Park gestern.

is quite odd. Not wrong. There’s just a lot of tension because where is much more relevant for to be than when.  So we’d really need a strong context to move around the boxes like this.
Now take a look at this example

  • Ich war müde im Büro.
  • Ich war im Büro müde.

Here, we have where and what (how), both quite relevant questions for to be. And here we can move around the elements WITHOUT creating all that much tension. We’re just shifting the focus.

  • I was at the office, all tired.
  • I was tired at the office.

The first sentence tells us where I was with an added specific about how. The second tells us how I was with an added specific where.
All right. The next example is a little more clear. Here are the parts:

  • trinken
  • ich
  • ein Bier
  • im Park
  • gestern.

Beside the verb and the subject (which we’ll ignore) we have information about when, where and what in here.  And by default the most relevant part is… what. Just imagine I come to you and completely out of the blue I say

  • I drink.

You’d probably ask what. Well, okay…  you might also be like “I’m sorry. Are you going to meetings?”, but anyway. The what is more interesting, more defining than when or where and that’s why in the default order the beer comes final

  • Ich habe gestern im Park ein Bier getrunken.
  • I drank a beer yesterday in the park.

We can move something after the beer. For instance the park. But that would create quite some tension and we’d need a proper context to “hold” the pieces there.

  • Ich habe gestern ein Bier im Park getrunken, (aber nicht in der Bar.)
  • I had a beer in the PARK yesterday, but not in the bar.

And what about time and place. Could we switch them up here? Yes, we actually could

  • Ich habe gestern im Park…
  • Ich habe im Park gestern…

The first version sounds a little bit more natural though. Now, this might sound crazy but I think it’s because for a human being, or for any animal for that matter  location is more important than time. You can see location. If you’re not able to orient in a 3-dimensional space, you’ll have serious problems catching your food or building a house or walking through a door. But you can live without the notion of time just fine. Sure, these days  time is tremendoublah blah blah… language is so old that it would make sense that place has a notch of importance more than time.
It certainly does in the next example which represents a big group of verbs: the  movement verbs. Again, here are our parts:

  • gehen
  • ich
  • am Freitag
  • in den Park
  • zum Trainieren (for a work)
  • mit Maria

Besides the verb and the subject we have when, where, why and how(with whom). And now guess what’s the most important… of course. The where. If I walk up to you and tell you without ANY context

  • I’ll fly.

your reaction would probably be “Oh, where?”. Well okay, you might also be like “Have you been drinking?” but anyway. When we talk about a movement, and also about a position-verb by the way, the most defining thing is naturally the location. And so in the default version of the sentence the park has to come as far right as possible. And in this case, since there are no left-overs of the verb, it’ll be at the very end.

  • Ich gehe  am Freitag zum Trainieren mit Maria in den Park.

We can move one of the other behind it.

  • Ich gehe am Freitag  mit Maria in den Park zum Trainieren.

But that would create quite some tension and again, we’d need a special context for the why to be more important than the where.

  • … in den Park zum Trainieren. Nicht zum chillen.

So.. park has to be final. But what about the rest. The info about  when I go, why I go, and how (with whom) I go. Well… the truth is these elements  are all equal. None is automatically more interesting than the other. It totally depends on my personal focus. And that’s why we can arrange them in all possible orders and we’re barely creating any serious tension or emphasis. Whatever comes later just sounds a bit more defining for the verb.

  • Ich gehe mit einer Freundin zum Trainieren am Freitag in den Park.
  • Ich gehe mit einer Freundin am Freitag zum Trainieren in den Park
  • Ich gehe zum Trainieren am Freitag mit einer Freundin in den Park.
  • (I’ll just skip the rest but it’s 6 in total)

They all mean exactly the same and they all feel perfectly natural. And the emphasis on the later element is really just a nuance here.
Now before we go on into trickier territory let’s do one more example. I just told you my theory about how time is generally not as important as place. But in the right context it can be.

  • aufgehen
  • die Sonne
  • in Berlin
  • um 7.

Aufgehen, among other things, means to rise and in context with the sun, the more interesting question is when. Because the sun rises everywhere. But not at the same time.

  • Die Sonne geht in Berlin um 7 auf.
  • The sun rises at 7 in Berlin.
    (English again has the reverse order, because it is head first)

We could say

  • Die Sonne geht um 7 in Berlin auf.

But we’d have some tension and thus a rather strong focus on Berlin as opposed to elsewhere. It’s not wrong, but it’s not the most natural way to say it.
All right.
So I hope you got a first impression of the whole unicorn wisdom-approach. But of course it’s not quite that simple.

Getting less comfy with it

Let’s start right with an example:

  • geben
  • ich
  • einen Kuss
  • meiner Freundin
  • im Supermarkt
  • gestern

In English, we could assemble that to

  • I gave my girlfriend a kiss in the supermarket yesterday.

And in German? Well, the most relevant info for geben is certainly the answer to what. Like… if I said

  • I give

You’d probably ask what. So the kiss should be at the end, right before the verb. Cool. Now about the other stuff. Imagine I walk up to you and say

  • I gave a kiss.

the most natural question would be to whom. So my girlfriend should come right before kiss because the question-test suggests that it’s the next most rele… oh hold on, there’s the solution already.

  • Ich habe meiner Freundin gestern im Supermarkt einen Kuss gegeben.

Oh. Okay. … uhm…. the girlfriend comes kind of prematurely… I mean early. This is weird… uh… and what would happen if we moved her

  • Ich habe gestern im Supermarkt meiner Freundin einen Kuss gegeben.

Uh-huh…. I see. So there’s a slight emphasis there. So both positions seem to work okay and the first one, the one with the early girlfriend seems a teeny tiny bit more natural to me.
This is a bit irritating.
And in fact it’s not only here. Any example where there’s a transfer of sorts will have the receiver rather early in the default order.

  • Ich habe meinem Boss gestern beim Meeting  meine Meinung gesagt…. most natural
  • Ich habe gestern beim Meeting meinem Boss meine Meinung gesagt…. slight emphasis on boss.
  • I told my boss my opinion at the meeting yesterday.
  • Ich habe meiner Freundin vor zwei Wochen zum Geburtstag eine Waage gekauft…. most natural
  • Ich habe vor zwei Wochen zum Geburtstag meiner Freundin eine Waage gekauft…. sounds wrongish
  • I bought a scale for my girlfriend’s birthday two weeks ago.

This raised her eyebrow. And for us it raises some questions. Let’s raise some more.

 Getting quite uncomfy with it

It was stupid idea. The scale. My girlfriend wasn’t amused at all. And so I gave it away.

  • I gave the scale to a friend

It’s just geben and two elements so we should be good, rigtht? We can do that. The scale is the most defining element for geben so the natural order must be….

  • Ich habe die Waage einem Freund gegeben.

WHAT? This is totally the reverse of what I expected. And this is the default? What about the other way around?

  • Ich habe einem Freund die Waage gegeben.

Whaaaaaaat? Tension on friend?!?! I’m really starting to think German is trying to mess with me.
And there’s more. Take this example.

  • Ich habe am Montag im Supermarkt ein Brot gekauft.
  • I bought a loaf of bread in the supermarket on Monday.

This is nothing surprising. The most defining element for buying is certainly the info about what I buy and it comes where it should… at the end. What happens if we move it?

  • Ich habe ein Brot gestern im Supermarkt gekauft…unnatural

This isn’t a surprise either. We have a lot of tension here, which creates a lot of emphasis which only makes sense if we want to contrast the supermarket with something. Like… I bought my bread IN THE SUPERMARKET as opposed to THE BAKERY. But…All it takes to change everything is changing one little word.

  • Ich habe das Brot gestern im Supermarkt gekauft.

Poooooooof. All the tension unnatural tension is gone. The supermarket is the most relevant item here too. It’s at the end after all. But this is the default order now and having das Brot final is the version with unnatural tension.

  • Ich habe gestern im Supermarkt das Brot gekauft.

Everyone would be wondering  … “What bread?”.
And then, there’s of course that thing we’ve ignored all the time. The subject.  I mean… if I just said

  • drinks

wouldn’t be the natural reaction to ask who? Okay, well… I guess the most natural reaction is “Sure thing.”. But you know what mean.
So… at this point I think it’s totally natural to have reservations regarding unicorn wisdom. I would have them for sure. But unicorn wisdom isn’t to blame. It’s us. We’ve made a mistake. We forgot something. Because where there’s light, there is also shadow. Where there’s left, there’s also right. And where there’s late, there’s also early. Everything has two sides. Yin and Yang. We need to find the other side of unicorn wisdom. We have one part of the magical gem. We need the other part. For only together we can unlock their full power. So we shall venture out and meet again…. next week :).
Sorry for pulling a Hollywood franchise on you and making a part 3. I actually wanted to do just one post but that would have been really really superficial. And then I wanted to do just two posts but I am really bad at planning and I think we’ve done enough for today anyway.
I really hope this was not too detailed or too nerdy, so let me know in the comments if it was at least a little bit  helpful.  And of course if you have any questions please bombard me.
So… this was part two of our look at German word order and what we’ve done is… raise more questions than we answered :)
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

If you want to get to part 3, then head over here:

German Word Order – part 3 – “The pesky details”

If you need a break… go to your fridge. There’s a beer waiting.