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BlogGerMan

Lisa in Berlin, Germany.

Lisa in Berlin, Germany.

 

Der Fall der Fälle -- The Case of Case

Sehr geehrte Damen und Herren, we need to talk about case! Mastering the German case system is one of the hardest parts of learning the language for speakers from an English-language background.

English and German are two closely-related languages: they both belong to the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. As recently as 2,500 years ago, the linguistic ancestors of today’s English speakers and those of today’s German speakers formed a single speech community. What this means is that the languages have a lot of their grammar and their store of words (lexicon) in common. When we examine earlier stages of English, such as Anglo-Saxon records from a millennium ago and the fragments of Old High German that have survived, we see that in the past English and German were even more similar than they are now. Over time, all languages change: in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammatical rules. So two or more languages descended from the same speech community diverge, or become more and more dissimilar, from one another.This fact makes a lot of the work of learning German very easy to English speakers. But one way in which English has changed in the course of its history is the loss of case-marking in nouns.

Case-marking in English

The part of our grammar where English still distinguishes cases is the pronouns: high-frequency words like “I”, “you”, “they”, “who?” and a few others. Consider two simple English sentences:

  • He knows her.

  • She knows him.

Though only two people are referred to (a He and a She), we see four different word-forms to refer to them! “He” and “she” are the word-forms used for the Subject of the sentence: the one doing the knowing. When we refer to Objects (here, the ones who are known), using “he” and “she” will produce a bad-sounding sentence:

  • x He knows she

  • x She knows he.

An English speaker knows these sound bad, though they may not be able to say exactly why.

One way to describe what is wrong with “x He knows she” is that the Object pronoun is in the wrong case. The word “case” has many different uses, but in grammar it refers to this kind of alternation in the word-form of a noun (or noun-y thing, like a pronoun). In English it doesn’t sound good to say “x He knows she”, because we want the object to be in the object case: “her”.

The primary cases: Nominative and Accusative

In the sentences we just looked at, we were dealing with two cases, Subject case, and that of the Object. The corresponding cases in German are Nominative (in German also called der erste Fall ‘first case’) and Accusative (German der zweite Fall ‘second case’). The names are just conventional labels -- there’s nothing accusatory about the Accusative case. Here’s how those two simple sentences would sound in German:

  • Er kennt sie. ‘He knows her’

  • Sie kennt ihn. ‘She knows him’

Note that while we had four distinct pronoun forms above, here we have only three different word-forms. For the masculine we have er in the Nominative (Subject case) and ihn in the Accusative (Object case). In the feminine form of the pronoun, the Nominative and Accusative look and sound the same: sie.

To summarize what we’ve seen so far, let’s collect all the forms and sort them by category:

 

See if you can translate these short sentences into German. Refer to the table above to get the right word-form; remember to use the Nominative form for the Subject of the sentence, and the Accusative for the Object.


PRACTICE, part 1 (beginner level): the primary cases

Translate these short sentences into German:

1. He knows him.

2. She knows her.

3. He sees (sieht) her.

4. She sees and knows him.


The case of the possessor: Genitive

In Modern German the Genitive (German der vierte Fall ‘fourth case’ -- we’ll look at the third case next) is confined to a single purpose: marking the possessor of a noun. For this function we see a change in word-form in English pronouns as well: I/my, he/his, she/her. German uses the following pronouns of the first and third person singular:

gr2.jpeg
 

These words precede the possessed nouns, just like their English equivalents:

  • mein Hund ‘my dog’

  • seine Katze ‘his cat’

  • ihr Vater ‘her father’

With nouns in the genitive case, however, the possessor noun (underlined here) follows the possessed, as follows:

  • der Hund des Vaters ‘the father’s dog’

  • die Katze der Mutter ‘the mother’s cat’

  • der Vater des Kindes ‘the child’s father/the father of the child’


See if you can translate these short sentences into German using the table above to get the right word-form.  

PRACTICE, part 2: the case of the possessor

Translate these short sentences into German:

5. He sees the father’s dog.

6. The dog knows the child’s mother.

7. The cat knows the mother’s child.

8. The dog’s father sees that cat’s mother.


The case of the recipient: Dative

That leaves us with just one case, the so-called ‘third case’ (der dritte Fall). The primary use of this case is to mark a Recipient, or person to whom something is given, transmitted, or conveyed. Compare the example sentences below.

 

Verbs like geben ‘to give’ and schulden ‘to owe’ involve three participants: 1) an Agent or Subject (the giver, debtor, etc.), 2) a Recipient (the receiver, or creditor, or other participant, here in boldface), and 3) an Object (the thing given, the amount owed--that which is most directly affected by the verbal action).

That is one of the main functions of the Dative case. Another important function is to mark the Experiencer of a stimulus, as in the following example:

  • Das gefällt mir. ‘I like that/That is pleasing to me’

Note that in this sentence there are only two participants: the thing I like (the Stimulus, in German in the Nominative) and the person to whom it is pleasing (the Experiencer, in the Dative).

In some sentences the Dative-marked noun phrase may be the only participant, as in:

  • Mir ist heiß. ‘I find it hot’

By contrast, In English we require the pronoun “it” (which lacks a clear referent); we can’t just say “x To me is hot.” But in German that’s a perfectly good way to structure a sentence.

In the table below is the full set of German personal pronouns in all four cases.

 

NOTE. The Genitive forms function like adjectives, and are inflected as well depending on the gender of the head noun: compare masc. mein Vater (m.), meine Mutter (f.), mein Kind (n.), and so on for dein, sein, ihr, unser, euer.


PRACTICE, part 3: The case of the recipient

Translate these short sentences into German:

9. The girl gives the child’s dog a Kiss (der Kuss).

10. The dog finds it cold (kalt).

11. The woman’s dog is pleasing to the child/The child likes the woman’s dog.

12. The man’s dog owes the woman’s dog 15 bread rolls.


PRACTICE ACTIVITY

Ersetzen Sie die unterstrichenen Nominalphrasen mit den entsprechended Pronomina, und bestimmen Sie die Kasus (Replace the underlined noun phrases with the appropriate pronouns, and identify the cases)! Example:

  • Das Schild erschreckte die Räuber. → Es erschreckte sie. (1st nom., 2nd acc.)

The sign scared the bandits. → It scared them.

13. Die Kinder sahen die Lehrer kommen und versteckten sich.

14. Das Theaterstück gefiel dem Mann.

15. Die Ankunft ihres Bruders erfreute die Kaiserin.

16. Die Prinzessin befahl den Gärtnern, diese Apfelbäume zu pflanzen.


SUMMARY

Just as every noun in English is either singular or plural, and every inflected verb is either past or nonpast (the future being shown by helping verbs in the present tense: “will”, “be going to”), so too every noun and pronoun in German is either nominative, accusative, dative, or genitive. The nouns themselves are usually not clearly marked, so it is to the articles (definite der/die/das, indefinite ein/eine) that we must look for clear signs of case-marking; the pronouns of course are always inflected for case, as we have seen throughout this post.

I hope you’ve found this introduction (or review) to be helpful. Please comment, and look back here in the coming weeks for more short, easy posts on German!

Bis bald!

 

Answer key for the practice activities in this post.