Sneak Peek of the Day

Hello everyone,

and welcome to our German Word of the Day. And today we’ll take a look at the meaning… nothing. Originally, I wanted to do a review this week, but then not. Then I wanted to do a quick word but then not. And so I’ve decided to give a you  little sneak peek instead. A sneak peek into the upcoming book we are writing at the moment at German is Easy. It’s just a first draft, and it’s probably full of mistakes, so my apologies for that. You know… all those young interns from college… these kids just don’t know how to write and spell anymore. But I hope you like it anyway’s. I’ve absolutely no clu… uhm I don’t want to give away what part this is from or why it is in the book. All I’ll say is that it is something about a new tense. So… enjoy :)

The dawn of the Perfect

If you learn Latin or a Romance language for that matter, you’ll find that they have all kinds of crazy forms of the verbs to express different tenses or aspects. French for instance has 2 different past forms plus a sort of present perfect plus the same set in super past. Like… the past perfetc. The Germanic languages had kept it simple. For a long long time they had made due with just two tenses. Past and not past.

  • I drank ale.
  • I drink ale.

The first one meant that it’s in the past. The other just says it’s not in the past. It could be about the present (I drink ale now), it could be a general statement about a habit (I usually drink ale) or it could be about the future (I drink ale tomorrow). German still does it that way a lot. There is a future tense now.

  • Morgen werde ich ein Bier trinken.
  • Tomorrow I’ll drink an ale.

but people use the present a lot and in this case it would sound more natural

  • Morgen trinke ich ein Bier.

This seemingly simple use is not a sign of German deteriorating. It has always been like that. 
But anyway, each Germanic verb had these two basic forms, one for the past and one for the “not past”. But there was a third form.
You see, most things are the way they are because they were “made” that way. A rock surface is smooth because water has been washing over it for centuries, a trout is dead because the bear punched it out of the water and a cloud is shaped like a penis because of uhm blowing wind (oh man, we’ll have to change that to a pony shape or something).
So, most characteristics are the result of activities. With that in mind it makes total sense that a word for a characteristic that is the result of an activity would be derived from the word for the activity itself. Wow, that sounded complicated. My point is that the third form of the verb was basically an adjective that described how something is as a result of that certain verb being done. Hmmm… still sounds complicated. Maybe  an example will help.

  • My cat is trained.

The word trained talks about how the cat is and I could replace it with another adjective like awesome or fluffy. This trained-ness of my cat is the result of someone training it. It’s the result of an activity, expressed by a form of the word for that activity. Such a form exists in many languages. Even Finnish, which has about as much to do with the Germanic or the Romance languages as my pasta sauce with haute cuisine, even Finnish has such a form, that expresses how something is as a result of a certain activity. In English this form is called past participle, in German it’s called Partizip 2 or I like to call it ge-form. No matter what language you learn, this is a form you want to out for right in the beginning because it is just so useful. 
So, Germanic verbs had these 3 main forms, one for the past, one for the not past and one was an adjective describing how something is as a result of the verb.
Now let’s take a look at this sentence

  • Beowulf has a filled cup.

This sentence tells us two things. It tells us that Beowulf has a cup, and it tells us how the cup is. It is filled. And this “how” just so happens to be the result of an activity: to fill.
The sentence has a perfect modern day structure but back a thousand years ago it might have also looked like this:

  • Beowulf has a cup filled.

Having the adjective after the noun was not uncommon at all. Why would people do that? Well, why not. It’s kind of handy when you want to include information about what the cup is filled with.

  • Beowulf has a cup filled with ale.

And this is till part of today’s English..

  • He had his books spread all over the floor.

This is exactly the same. But it was done for simple adjectives, too, and in fact also for that you can see remnants in much later stages of English. The title of a Game of Thrones episode for example was “The bear and the maiden fair”. There you go. The “fair” is after the maiden even though it is an adjective describing. And just like this “fair” feels like an adjective to us, the “filled” felt like an adjective to people a thousand years ago. It would even get an adjective endings because English had ’em back then.
All right. So we have this sentence

  • Beowulf has a cup filled.

And that tells us what Beowulf has (a cup) and how the cup is (filled with ale). If we now imagine that Beowulf himself was the one who filled it, then the sentence also contains information about what Beowulf did at some point in the past. So it talks about his present (what he has) and it talks about his past (what he did, he filled a cup with ale). And that line slowly began to blur more than 1000 years ago. People slowly started to think of filling as the main action of the sentence, an action that took place in the past but the result of which is in the present. This new perspective hit the zeitgeist. Until that point people could only say “Beowulf filled the cup” which contained no info whatsoever about the current state of the. People really dug their new “in between times”-time. In the beginning they would only use it for activities that could be “done to something”; because remember, it started out as statement about what you have as in what you call yours.

  • The bard has a poem written.
  • The smith has a sword smitten.
  • The princess has a little kitte… oh wait, that doesn’t fit in here

But soon it started to widen.

  • The wolf has the hunter bitten,
    the hunter has an arrow shot.

The wolf doesn’t “have” the hunter, and the hunter doesn’t exactly have that arrow anymore. But that didn’t faze anyone as the whole having-thing was fading and the focus had shifted on the verbs, the result of the shooting and the result of the biting. The being shot and being bitten.
But the broadening didn’t stop there. Ever more did to have lose it’s significance and its real owning-notion until it was a completely devoid of all meaning. People started using the structure even without any object they could “have”. Someone might have just blurted out

  • I have burped.

one night. Some were probably confused. Like “Wait, what have you that is burped? What can you burp anyway”. But most people intuitively understood that the “having” wasn’t about actual”having”. It was just a grammar vessel, there because that just so happened to be the structure.
And thus the present perfect tense was born.

Now you might be asking “Wait a minute, in the example with the cup… the ‘Beowulf has a cup filled’ that looks like a German sentence but not like an English one.”
That’s true. English did move the position of the past participle once again. Probably because it likes its verbs clustered up at one spot. And although in

  • Beowulf has filled a cup.

the “filled” doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an adjective, there are examples that look just like that and that do have an adjective there.

  • He has such great a family. 

I don’t know if this has something to do with the present perfect. In either case, English moved the past participle, the form that tells us the resulting characteristic, to where it is today. German just left it where it was… at the end. 
And until that point, the present perfect and the German spoken past were exactly the same thing. But then they slowly drifted apart and evolved into different directions. In fact, the German spoken past reached the current state only half a century ago. The southern regions were not nearly as open as the north,let alone the English. They were skeptical and for some verbs they felt like the “haben” just didn’t make any sense whatsoever. And that is the reason why learners today have to deal with the stupid “haben” and “sein” stuff in the spoken past. But that is another story. Let’s get back to our actual topic…

And that’s it! That was our little sneak peek into the book and I really hope it was interesting even though it was all about English. Don’t worry, the book is of course about German. It’s just that the development of the English Present Perfect tense and the German Spoken Past are one and the same thing and so I used English to not further complicate matters.
So, if you have any questions about this or if you happened to have some  real examples from Old or Middle English just leave me a comment. Next week, we’ll definitely do a real word again.
I hope you liked it and bis dann.

Oh by the way… I probably should have done this right at the beginning of the post but I wanted to say

Danke!

to the people who have donated You have no idea how much that matters to me because my friends keep telling me how naive they think this is and how I should squeeze money out of it with payed subscriptions or ads or whatever. Your donations prove them wrong and I’ll make sure to rub it in their face :). But seriously, danke danke danke. It’s so motivating, you have no idea. And to the guy who said he should have given more but can’t: it doesn’t matter how much. What matters is that people do it at all! So again:

DANKE AN ALLE! Ihr seid die besten!!!!

for members :)

75
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
Mike
Mike

I’m really looking forward to the book. I never tire of reading your work. :-)

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Cool.
Eine Bemerkung: ich glaube, den perfektiven Gebrauch von sein gabs ursprünglich im Urgermanischen. Das sieht man immer noch in altmodischen Phrasen wie “the Lord is come” und “I am become death”.

Sara
Sara

How do we donate?? I can’t find a link!

Anonymous
Anonymous

When is the next grammar piece?

Amanda work
Amanda work

Wonderful, thank you.

And I believe it’s sneak “peek”, no?

Best regards,

Amanda

agentogrady

I love the idea of a book! When do you plan on having it published? I am certainly going to purchase it.

berlingrabers

Freu mich schon auf den Kickstarter. :D

Anonymous
Anonymous

Dear German-is-easy,
As much as I enjoy your blogs, I would like to suggest that you get a native English speaker to do some editing/proofreading for you. Your spelling and punctuation errors seem to be multiplying. Please consider this constructive criticism, I would miss your blogs, as I find them insightful and fascinating from a teacher’s and a linguist’s point of view. Good luck with your book!

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Ich lese gerade ein komisches Büchlein aus dem Jahre 1908, “Allerhand Sprachdummheiten”, und da behandelt der Autor das Thema der Unterschiede zwischen Perfekt und Präteritum. Was auch immer er da sagt, gilt es, glaube ich, heutzutage zum Großteil nicht. Oder ich sollte vielleicht sagen, galt es auch damals nicht, da er ausgerechnet den Schwund jener früheren Unterschiede im Alltagsgebrauch bereut.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Time to move to a new blog
from Russia

Anonymous
Anonymous

This is unrelated, and maybe basic, but can you clarify why the pronoun es sometimes is used with plural sind rather that singular ist, I have seen:

Von Berlin bis zur Ostsee sind es weniger als zwei Stunden Zugfahrt.

Then German es not really equivalent to English it?

Thank you very much

Then es not really the English it?
Thank you much!

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

Es is a “dummy” subject in this case. From canoo: “When it is used with the verb sein and a predicative nominative, es can refer to singular and plural nouns of all three genders. The verb agrees with the predicative, not with es”.

Think of it as an exception, if you will.

Brightstar
Brightstar

I’m looking forward to reading your book. When?

Hunny
Hunny

Hey there.. looking forward eagerly to your book..
I hope to one of your first readers and hope to get an early bird discount too. If you have pre-book option, let me know and I hope you are planning international shipping ? An e-book definitely will be cost-effective and would save logistics costs.

Regards,
Hunny

Anonymous
Anonymous

ABOUT ES AND ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK Thank you and Grateful Reader for your explanation above on “es” when used with plural sind (Es sind diese 3 Dinge, die mich verbirren.). For all practical purposes I will treat it as an exception, as Grateful Reader suggests. I could have stopped there, but I have been thinking about this business of a “dummy” subject and your word order as probable cause for the exception, and couldn’t resist sharing some thoughts, sorry for the long post! Basically, I didn’t understand the explanation :) – I like it (Ich mag es). It/Es is the direct object (it is liked by me), and, as a pronoun, we assume both the speaker and recipient know in context what “it” stands for (your new book idea, for example). Clear enough. – It rains (Es regnet). It/Es is the subject, but is it really a “dummy” subject? Isn’t it rather an abstraction for the cause, the force, the power, etc., yes, even God, that performs the action/allows-the-reality of raining, and which by convention has been designated as a singular entity (some cultures may say “they rain/ sie regnen”)? That is what I thought until now, not just a purely grammatical requirement where the pronoun is reference-empty (sounds like similar to a mute letter, such as “e” in live that needs to be written anyway). In my native Spanish “llueve” (it rains) has no personal pronoun. This is not because of Spanish little general use of personal pronouns: distinct verb endings provide all needed information making the pronoun redundant; there has to be an additional reason, eg: add emphasis; but because “llueve” is impersonal. Llueve, then, is a complete sentence; no performer, dummy or not, only reality.The language chooses to be silent (impersonal) about the subject of the verb, for good reason in my opinion. “There are good people out there” clearly refers to two “there(s), the first is not about location. What is the subject, if any, and what is the predicative nominative? “In this order, the “sind” makes perfect sense ….” You say this about ” Diese 3 Dinge sind es, die mich verwirren”. I can see that, but not referred to “es”. “Diese 3 Dinge sind, die mich verwirren” or “diese 3 Dinge sind was mich verwirren” (both wrong, I suppose) would make more sense from the outside. And I don’t understand the mathematical argument with ist/= , unless you mean that = means equal(s) only , and sind does not mean “equal” as well: Sie sind schöne Städte, Sie = schöne Städte. But = has really no number, is just a sign for identity. So, – Es ist diese 3 Dinge,…- Diese 3 Dinge sind es… could theoretically co-exist. Emmanuel, thank you for your blog, if you can make me see the light, fine, if not, I will continue with my mystical explanation + exception view. One more question: other that with the verb “sein”, can es be used in plural with other verbs… Read more »

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

“It/Es is the subject, but is it really a “dummy” subject? Isn’t it rather an abstraction for the cause, the force, the power, etc., yes, even God, that performs the action/allows-the-reality of raining, and which by convention has been designated as a singular entity (some cultures may say “they rain/ sie regnen”)?”

Sure, but it’s a different case from the “es” under discussion. Namely, there are verbs that can only be used “impersonally”, with this “es”. It’s a different case because “es” is the only subject here, its not a placeholder for “diese Dinge” or something else, it’s self-contained. So it’s still abstract, but in a different way.

There is also a third kind of “es”, where “es” is a dummy placeholder – it’s no longer a subject.

“Es kamen Menschen zu uns und sagten…”

This is done purely for stylistic reasons, in order not to put any word into the first position, because it somehow wouldn’t sound good. There are some tentative rules as to when one uses this structure, I think something to do with the lack of an article, etc.

Anonymous
Anonymous

On “Es sind….”
Yes! It makes sense now. “So the “es” pretty much functions like a da-word here….” . Of course, it helps having read your post on da words. Thank you again, fantastic.

Daniel
Daniel

I’d also like to chime in and say that it’s simply a grammatical requirement. If you have a declarative sentence with ‘sein’, you MUST have a referent either side of it. Same way you MUST have the ‘it’ in the sentence ‘It is important that you come tonight’. The it becomes a dummy when you move ‘that you come tonight’ from the beginning (e.g. ‘That you come tonight is important’.) to the end (as in the first example). It is not logical, it is feeling based, as is the majority of human perception. Languages are learnt as children, not as beings that interpret everything as mathematical semantics, so naturally it is largely going to be experiential and feeling based. I can’t feel a subject at the beginning? Need to put one there then, otherwise it feels stilted!

Anonymous
Anonymous

Daniel,
I don’t see “it” in your “it is important that you came tonight” as a dummy just because it can be omitted by changing the order to “That you came tonight is important”. In the first sentence the “it” does what all pronouns do, it stands for something else, and there is no conflict with es being singular (something is important). You just chose to express yourself with that construction, maybe you wanted to call attention to what is important and not important, rather than to the fact of coming. It at the beginning allows you to show your cards later. The construction lets you say more economically that “there is something that is important, and that something happens to be that you came tonight” Actually, the it at the beginning seems more logic, than feeling based. In quick speech you can almost hear ” Is important…or even just the s, or even nothing at all before the word important!”, and does not feel stilted because of the missing it. This is different from Emanuel’s analogy with da words, which I understand (I think), when es is used with a plural form (es sind), a very German-like approach, as in my original example that prompted my question (Von Berlin bis zur Ostsee sind es weniger als zwei Stunden Zugfahrt), I now see “es” as a mere pointer, probably same in meaning as das, or very closely to “namely” in English, so as to give German balance to the sentence arising out of the expectations of sind, which normally calls for a predicate. In my foreign opinion, just for fun:

– Von Berlin bis zur Ostsee sind …… = the hours required from Berlin to Ostsee (plural) are (what?) “es”, the conclusion (singular) that follows in the next clause.

In – “ich denke, also ich bin”, bin is the philosophical bin, which works pretty much like the intransitive ich denke….no expectations arise out of “sein”
In “Die Party war gestern”, only context and the speaker’s intention can tell, but there can be infinite implicit predicates in gestern (is that what you mean by referent?):
– The party was (what it took place on) yesterday (which stands for Monday)
– The party was (for somebody) yesterday (which stands for the past)
– the party was (for somebody) yesterday (which stands for out of fashion)
– the party was (for somebody) yesterday ( which stands for a long time ago)
– the party was (for Europeans) yesterday ( which stands for a point in time that is still today for people in America)

and so on…so gestern seems as an undefined referent referred to context, but still a referent! I think the interesting one is the es with plural. This joke of Emanuel that Germans like to delay the most relevant information as long as possible, may be no joke at all! It develops concentration powers :)

Anonymous
Anonymous

Hello Emanuel, These issues are slippery, no doubt about it. First, I now see my own explanation about your explanation to “es” as a mere pointer to the next clause not that satisfying (also, my example that yesterday for Europeans was today for Americans, I think I got it backwards…!). In a German exercise I stumbled again with: “Es waren die letzen Aufnahmen.” So, I finally decided that I could make more sense of this whole business if es stands for das, which in turn stands for something else. I tend to think of das meaning either that or those, as in “Das ist eine gute Idee”. But I had never thought of the obvious, that this das could be the same das as in das Auto, an article. And using articles as pronouns is something German does all the time. Because of the strong identification of German es with English it, es with plural sounds to a non-German like a clash, but not so with das ( Das sind…) probably because we are told there isn’t any different word for “those” (quite true?) and we take it at face value. So in this system es stands for das (and vice versa) and das for an undefined and unquantifiable; There is/are something(s) that exist(s), it, or, “the”, being the last admissions, or Es/Das waren die letzen Aufnahmen. Dialogue:”Es waren die letzen Aufnahmen”, “Das habe ich nicht gewusst”; question “Es habe ich nicht gewusst”, wrong/odd? ” Meine Lieblingszeit sind die Stunden direkt nach Sonnenaufgang” My intuition is that language skips steps all the time: “(Ich denke) meine Lieblingszeit (ist es), (das) sind die Stunden direkt nach Sonnenaufgang”, and opted for stunden as subject, or at least to pair up with it, because of the contrast between the objectivity of stunden vs. the subjectivity of Liebling, as after all the predicating, as opposed to direct object, is not really done by the subject in a sentence with “sein”. Your question and answer method ends up working because it feels more natural, you say, and it feels more natural (to me) only grammatically because of this subjective element, same with the other example with problem. In reality, say a child (ok, most) , will not hesitate responding to what are the hours after school?…his favourite time. To me the answer to “was ist von Berlin zur Ostsee” is not 3 Stunden (in any case zwei Stunden :), but a distance, something…es…same as the answer to the second question. The answers to questions are not necessarily contained in the written words of a sentence. I think the key is the verb sein itself. I’ve heard that some languages do not have the verb to be at all (Russian, at least in the present tense), and if you think about it, why should they? Ich bin Emanuel, Emanuel bin ich…does bin contribute anything at all? Can you really talk about subjects and predicates? On the other hand, in my native Spanish we have two verbs… Read more »

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

> And using articles as pronouns is something German does all the time.

The obvious counterexample to “articles are used as pronouns” is “denen”: mit den Leuten/mit denen. I.e. those are pronouns that mostly look like articles, not articles as such ;)

> probably because we are told there isn’t any different word for “those” (quite true?)

Quite untrue.

Jene. And also, in some contexts, die, diese, diejenigen (which are more properly understood as “these”, but the boundary between them is not all that clear when we’re translating).

> question “Es habe ich nicht gewusst”, wrong/odd?

In this case es is an accusative object, and as such cannot stand at the beginning and must be replaced with das. Just one of the German quirks, I guess.

> I’ve heard that some languages do not have the verb to be at all (Russian, at least in the present tense),

You’ve heard wrong. Just because it’s not used in the predicate doesn’t mean that the verb doesn’t exist.

vardhini
vardhini

We do not have an internet facility in my workplace. Only an intranet. Therefore I canno confirm to having daily german from this mail id. But please do send yr poats everyday. It does make a difference.
Thank you in advance

Anonymous
Anonymous

Well, well, well, Grateful reader, you missed my point in the Russian example. You were looking at the finger pointing at the moon.:) The point was ….read again…look at the moon…not the finger.. Seriously, what you write so …bluntly… is pointless, and by the way, I may still have heard right, regardless.

You also missed, well, well, well, what “all the time ” means…in German using articles as pronouns . “Diese 3 Dinge sind es , die mich verwirren”, I thought die looked like die, and if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck , and sounds like a duck, it is probably an article/pronoun, betont or not. Your “no, these are pronouns that mostly look like articles, but are still pronouns” … is meaningless really. Articles, pronouns, all of that, it’s just a silly game; if a word is used to replace another (pro=for, noun=name), or even a whole clause, it is a functional pronoun. Take “the woman that is looking at us”, that that is a pronoun for all practical purposes. A helpful concept. But German can sometimes (all the time, above=typically, not every time) refer to words with the same words that are normally used as articles, yes, those little words der, die, das…that’s all, no need for counter examples, “the” to the issue only fluff add.

Grateful you are helpful explaining “Es kamen Menschen zu uns und sagten…” on stylistic grounds. “Es habe ich nicht gewusst”, I will take it at face value that is wrong, period, but see no great logic in the explanation.

On “quite untrue” that there is no different word for “those” as opposed to “das”, thank you. I suspected so. “Das ist eine gute Idee” and “Das sind gute Nachrichten”, are probably translated like that, those, to simplify matters. (question: is it “Jene sind gute Nachrichten” possible at all? how would you say each one was good news?) The German approach seems slightly different, every language I know have that, those, this, these in clearly defined boundaries, unlike German as you say, at least for translation. It will come. Anyway, my point was explaining why for non-Germans das sind does not clash.

Emanuel, thank you again.– “Ihn habe ich gesehen.
then the spotlight on “ihn” is pretty strong and on “es” it would be even stronger… but there’s nothing to see with “es”, if that makes sense. ”
….Not much :(

In ” Meine Zeit sind die vergangengen Jahre”, I take from your answer that in copulative sentences German would rather copulate in plural than just singular, mandatorily, when there is a choice…. :)

One interesting thing, I read that those comes from this, and then it was later used as plural of that, as opposed to that coming from das directly or from their common Germanic ancestor.

Thanks again for your time,

Grateful Reader
Grateful Reader

“Well, well, well, Grateful reader, you missed my point in the Russian example.”

My point was not to discuss your point but to correct your mistake about the Russian language.

“and by the way, I may still have heard right, regardless.”

No.

“But German can sometimes (all the time, above=typically, not every time) refer to words with the same words that are normally used as articles, yes, those little words der, die, das…that’s all, no need for counter examples, “the” to the issue only fluff add.”

Articles are articles, pronouns are pronouns and there is no reason to mix the two together when seriously discussing grammar.
But even if we’re not using strict terminology, this view is simply historically wrong because it was the definite articles that arose from demonstrative pronouns, not vice versa. So if anything, it’s “German uses as definite articles the same words that are normally used as pronouns”.

““Es habe ich nicht gewusst”, I will take it at face value that is wrong, period, but see no great logic in the explanation.”

There is no need to take it at face value, you can consult any serious German grammar, like Helbig/Buscha. Here’s an online one:

http://www.canoo.net/services/OnlineGrammar/InflectionRules/FRegeln-P/Pron-es.html?lang=en