and welcome to our German Word of the Day. The first ever word of the day, actually. And so we’ll look at the most basic verb there is:
Sein is German for to be. It’s ALSO the German word for his, but that’s really just one of many… uhm… funny coincidences the German language has in store for beginners.
Anyway, sein is the most irregular verb in the German language. Actually, it’s the ONLY really irregular verb in German, because German conjugation is quite chill. But yeah…. sein is classic LBH-material (Learn-By-Heart).
Here it is in present tense:
Ich bin schön.
Du bist schön.
Sie (er/es) ist schön.
Wir sind schön
Ihr seid schön.
Sie sind schön.
And here it is in past tense:
Ich war in London.
Du warst in London.
Sie (er/es) war in London.
Wir waren in London.
Ihr wart in London.
Sie waren in London.
As you can see, the forms are pretty “wild” but you might also have noticed some parallels to English. The “bin” low key resembles “to be” and the past “war” kinda sorta looks like “was/were”.
The reason WHY to be and sein have such a patchwork of forms is the Germanic tribes actually literally puzzled together parts of three distinct roots – we could call them the b-root (be, been, bin, bist), the es-root (am, is, ist, sind…) and the was-root (war, was…). Of course the tribes didn’t do that on purpose. These things just kind of evolved over centuries.
One branch is used for past, another one for present. And sometimes, two forms were used in parallel before the people finally settled on one. In Middle English for instance there were forms like I be, thou beest which look a lot like German but they just weren’t as popular as am and are. So yeah, both languages, German and English kind of “recruited” their forms the same pool, but they didn’t recruit the same forms. Hence the differences we see today.
By the way… to be is not the only patchwork verb like that. Another nice example is to go. The past form is went, which doesn’t look ANYTHING like to go. And that’s simply because it actually comes from to wind. People just ended up using it as the past for to go.
But anyway… these relations are of course nothing you need to remember. I just wanted to mention it because the verbs to be and sein with their forms really are kind of strange.
But learning by heart is the name of the game for this one. But it won’t take long because of course you’ll need this verb very, very frequently. And in German, you actually even need it for the spoken past quite a bit.
And speaking of past… the ge-form (past participle) of sein is gewesen (a distant relative of “was”) and the spoken past is done with … sein :)
- Ich bin gewesen.
- I have been.
And if you’re now like “Wait, what’s spoken past, what’s ge-form and why does have translate to bein?” then I’ll recommend you the grammar course… here’s the link to the first episode.
You’ll also find lots more examples for sein there and practice the forms.
But if you REALLY want to get a feel for the verb, I recommend my super interactive speaking exercise with AI speech recognition. Yes, I am not joking, actually.
In the exercise, we’ll practice all important phrasings and structures and conjugations for sein by creating and speaking real sentences. So check it out… it’s really really helpful:
To wrap this up here is the famous Shakespeare-line in German:
- Sein oder Nichtsein, das ist hier die Frage.
- Practice pronunciation – click once to start recording and again to stop
Advanced learners might have noticed that the compound word Nichtsein is capitalized and hence a noun. This appears to be the most widespread translation of “to be, or not to be…”. However, it is not the most logical choice and not the closest translation either.
The literal translation of Nichtsein would be nonexistence.
Whereas in the original version, Hamlet ponders two different actions (to be or not to be) , in German he has to decide between two “things”.
I don’t know why this obvious shift has come to be the most agreed upon translation to date but I honestly have to disagree. I have heard the phrase numerous times and I would have written it as follows:
- Sein oder nicht sein, das ist hier die Frage.
This is pronounced exactly the same as the former version but it is closer to the English original because the pending choice is between two actions “sein” and “nicht sein”.
If you know the reason for the German translation you are welcome to leave a comment.
Anyway… I hope you enjoyed this very first word of the day and see you next time.
Oh… here’s a little quiz, by the way :)