Questions in German – Part 2

Hello everyone,

and welcome to another part of the German is Easy Learn German online course – the course that uses the top notch technology the year 2020 has to offer…
reading.
I mean… video is cool, too. But reading… man… it sucks at first, but once you’re used to it, it’s awesome.

Anyway, today, we’ll do the second part of

“How to ask Questions in German”.

Last time, after a quick general overview over the topic, we focused on the questions that have a question word.
So questions like:

  • Who am I?
  • Why are we?
  • What is reality?
  • When does the milk expire?

If you have doubts about those, then check out part 1 here.
Today, we’ll talk about the questions that DON’T have a question word – the so called yes or no-questions:

  • Is there such thing as reality?
  • Is there a reason for our being here?
  • Can reality be defined by an individual?
  • Does milk expire?

Those are equally important if you want to have a conversation and building them is actually ridiculously simple. Unless your native language is English… then, it is kind of like throwing a ball with the left hand :).
And besides learning how to build them,  we’ll also look at some common useful patterns and to top it off, we’ll talk about an incredibly common way of answering to these questions it’s super easy and it’ll make you sound super native and it’s nothing you’ll find in any of those fancy video courses and textbooks.
So… let’s dive right in, shall we?

Yes or No questions

Questions without  question word are called yes or no questions because technically, you can answer those questions with just yes or no. Or of course their synonyms like nope, nah, duh, affirmative and so on.

  • “Do you know where I can find an ATM around here?”
    “Affirmative!”

Sure, in a dialogue like this, of course the person asking WOULDN’T say that the question has been answered, but that’s just because all the meta stuff humans have going on. On technical level, a yes or no or whatever does qualify as an answer.
So these are yes or no questions, and I’ll actually call them Yonqs from now on, because it’s shorter and sounds kind of funny. Yonqs… hilarious.

So, how are these Yonqs built?
Well, it’s pretty dang similar to the w-questions from last time. Only, that we don’t have a question word. If we just skip that, we get the following basic rule:

Basic Rule: “Yes or no”-questions (Yonqs, for short) start with a verb.

THAT’S what makes them feel “yes or no”-ish, and this is the same in German and in English. But that’s where the commonalities end, because both languages uses the same systems that they use for their w-questions. And these systems were different, as we learned last time.
In English, there is this small elite group of verbs, which all have secret tattoos and only they can start a question.
All the normal verbs that are NOT part of that elite group, CAN’T start a question. They have to call on to do.

In German on the other hand, all verbs are equal, kind of. And for the Yonqs that means every verb can be used to start a question.

As we can see, sometimes the German and the English version look the same and sometimes they are totally different.
And it’s actually REALLY important that you DON’T try to translate English questions word by word. Not even as a complete beginner.
That’s generally good advice but it’s particularly true for questions.
Sometimes, it works. But most of the time it’ll end up as a total train wreck.
Because how the languages build questions is not the only difference that has an effect here.
Also the use of the tenses is different…

  • Ich wohne seit 20 Jahren in Berlin. (German uses present tense)
  • I have been living in Berlin for 20 years. (English uses perfect tense with progressive aspect… whatever that is)

… and the way the tenses are built is different…

  • Marie ist zum Supermarkt gegangen.  (German uses to be as helper verb)
  • Marie has gone to the supermarket.  (English uses to have as helper verb)

In fact, here’s an example with the verb schlafen:

  • Did you do sleep?
  • Have you slept?
  • Were you sleeping?

All three of those will translate to this question in German:

So obviously, if we were to use English as a base, that’s a recipe for disaster.

Instead, what you should do is build the German version from scratch.
And because that can be confusing in the beginning, a good way to train and get into the groove is to modify normal statements.
Take a normal statement like this one…

…and then modifying it into a question.

We just switched around the subject and the verb and boom… we got ourselves German Yonq. Hihihi… Yonq, so cute :).

And the cool thing about this is that German is actually SUPER consistent and works just as well later on, when you know the past tense and conditional and other stuff.

Now, one little caveat about this.
Based on all the examples it looks like switching the verb and the subject is kind of the rule. That works fine for us as beginners, but it’s not REALLY what’s going on. Because in German, the subject isn’t always in the same spot. We’ll learn more about this in my epic, eye opening series on word order, but for now let me just say that it can come very very very late sometimes.

And while this is nothing we need to deal with as a beginner, there is one verb that’s pretty important early on, where the structure is a bit weird.
I am talking about: gefallen. Gefallen  is one of the German ways to express liking, but it’s basically got the roles reversed. The person who “likes” is the object and the thing being liked is the subject. Think of it as “to be likable to someone”, if you need a more tangible approach.

  • I like Berlin.
  • Berlin gefällt mir.
    (Berlin is likable to me)

And if we want to make that into a question, then often the person goes before the subject.

  • Gefällt dir Berlin.
    (“Gefällt Berlin dir.” … possible, but less idiomatic)
    “Is Berlin been likable to you? (lit.)”
  • Do you like Berlin?

So don’t take this verb-subject thing too strictly. But the phrasing with gefallen is one that’s worth learning as a kind of fixed pattern. And it’s not the only one actually.
But before we look at a few more of those, I want to say one quick word about melody before we move on, because not all languages do that:
In German, people usually raise their voice toward the end of the question. It is not something that ALWAYS has to be done but raising the pitch of your voice is certainly a feature of an everyday question so you should start getting used to it if it works differently in your mother tongue.

Cool.
So now let’s look at a few Yonq-patterns that are worth learning by heart, because it’s just faster than building them.

Some important Yonq-patterns

And the first one is about basic feelings like being warm, cold or bored.

  • I am cold/warm/bored.

In German, those are expressed as “To me“. So instead of saying “Ich bin kalt.” which means that you’re a cold person, you say

For the question, the verb has to come first, that’s not a surprise…

…but what’s important, and where many people make mistakes is that the question is NOT “bist du…”!!!… the literal translation of the question is this:

  • Is (it) cold/warm/boring to you?

So the pattern worth learning by hear is “Ist dir…” and then you put warm or cold.
Cool.

The next thing worth learning as a pattern because it’s really common and people make a lot of mistakes is the German version of “there is” in a general  sense of something being somewhere. Like…

  • There is a good bar here.

German actually uses the verb geben for these, so we say:

For the question, we have to put the verb first, of course, so we get:

Gibt es, or gibt’s as people often say, is the second pattern that’s worth learning by heart. Not because it doesn’t fit with the “rule”, but simply because it’s so common and using geben is kind of unusual.

Cool.
The last structure that’s definitely worth special attention: the gern-structure, also known as the gern-thing.
I don’t want to go into this too deeply, but gern is another way to express liking in German. Adding gern to a verb changes the meaning from doing whatever the verb stands for to liking to do what ever the verb stands for.

  • Ich höre Musik.
  • I am listening to music.
  • Ich höre gern Musik.
  • I like listening to music.

For the question, we do the usual switch…

This is totally in line with the basic system we found for the Yonqs, but because gern is such an alien word for many of you, I think it’s worth learning this pattern, too.

  • [verb-st] du gerne….
  • Do you like verbing…

Cool.
So now we’ve got pretty much all the tools we need to ask people questions in German.
But as promised, before we wrap up, I want to give you a really nice, common, pattern of answering questions that’ll make you sound incredibly native.
Seriously… people will be impressed :)
But before we get to that, it’s time for .. a little test.
And just so you know… you’ll need the stuff you learned about verbs as well ;)
Seriously… let me know if this quiz is too hard. I’m not sure actually.

One super useful way of answering

Simply saying yes or no might sound a little dry. Also the chances that the other person misunderstands acoustically are kind of high. What if the other person clanks with the pan right when you say ja… then you’ll have to repeat EVERYTHING. How boring. So, maybe to circumvent this, or maybe because they just want to say something people like to add a little more text to their answers even if a simple ja or nein contain all the information… so, here is what people do a lot:

This looks weird at first because the verb comes before the subject. But what we have is actually a shortened version of this:

  • Ja. Das hab’ ich.
  • Ja. Das bin ich.

These are normal German sentences and the das refers to the activity in question. People rarely say the das but they feel it. This pattern is really really common and sometimes it is even kind a must-do. You can’t say this:

  • Bist du noch in der Bar?”
    “Ja, ich bin.”… is wrong

This doesn’t work because “Ich bin” is NOT a complete sentence unless you’re philosophizing. If you say just “Ich bin” everyone else is like “You are WHAT?”. So in oder to make this work you would have to add for example a dort (there) .

But trust me…

  • Ja, bin ich.

is much more natural.
And what if the answer is no? Simply add a nicht to the whole thing?

Now, since it seems to be kind of  like saying “Yes, I do” in English… does this system work for every verb? No. It does work for all modal verbs and for some basic too.

It also works for haben and sein no matter if they are “real verbs” or just a helper for the spoken past.

As for the rest of the verbs people tend to use machen….

but also this doesn’t really always work. I think it is mainly used for questions that are in fact friendly commands…

So… I’d say use it this way of answering for haben, sein and the modal verbs and don’t use it for the rest :).

All right. I think we can wrap it up here. So today, we’ve talked about how to ask the questions that don’t have a question word in German. It is pretty simple. They start with the verb but unlike English you can use ANY verb… Just take a statement put the verb first and you have a yes-or-no question. For native speakers of English this will take a while to get used to but you have to admit that it is really straight forward.
In part 3 we will take a look at indirect question including polite forms of asking things and we will talk about affirmative questions in German.
If you have any questions (with or without question word :) or suggestions just leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time.

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