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
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!!!!