Home Education Language Learning Ruminations on the German language
Last update on December 09, 2018

We mull over separable German verbs, efficiency and precision.

My early, mildly traumatic dealings with the German language aside, I am getting some amusement out of learning the native language of my temporary home. I arrived in Germany with little more than 10 hours of language tutoring under my belt.

As I have become more familiar with the intricacies of German grammar through the excellent courses offered by J’s employer, I have come to a fascinating (but likely unoriginal) realisation regarding the means by which the German language has subtly shaped the culture of this corner of the world.

Attention to detail

Even someone who has never been to Germany is likely aware that Germans are renowned for their fine attention to detail, meticulousness, precision — whatever you want to call it. They don’t talk about “fine German engineering” in the car commercials for nothing. Sometimes you also hear the remark that Germans are very efficient but I would argue that there is an important distinction to be made between precision and efficiency.

English is a very efficient language, but not very precise; German, on the other hand, is extremely precise but not very efficient. Allow me to illustrate. In English, we have many verbs with a million-and-one different meanings and uses. A classic example is “put.” In English you can “put” a plate on the table, “put” clean sheets on your bed, and “put” a stamp on a letter.

10 German verbs

German has no all-in-one “put.” Instead, you must use stellen (to place), beziehen (to cover), and kleben (to stick) respectively. If you look up “put” in a large English-German dictionary (a fine 3-kilo example of which I have sitting on my desk at this very moment), you will find five columns’ worth of fine-print German variations on “put”. I daresay, if one were to study these things, I’d have to learn at least 10 German verbs for every one English equivalent. So while Germans know exactly what they mean to say, they must select from an awfully large number of words in order to say it. Not very efficient, if you ask me.

Let me elaborate further. In English, you can start a sentence and not have any idea how you are going to end it. Your brain can literally turn its cogs while you talk, and you don’t have to worry about what you are going to say until a split-second before it comes out of your mouth. You can also change directions midstream, and end up saying something entirely different from what you originally intended. I believe this makes English very flexible as a language, a phenomenon, which (one might argue), is reflected in our stereotypically “spontaneous” culture.

Changing mid-stream

I’ve found that this “changing mid-stream” is nearly impossible in German because you need to know how you are going to end a sentence before the first words have been enunciated. This is partly due to the rules of conjugation, as in the formation of the past perfect tense, which uses either haben (to have) or sein (to be) conjugated with the past participle of the verb. What makes German unique is that the conjugated form of haben or sein usually appears near the beginning of the sentence, while the main verb doesn’t show up until the very end.

For example: “Ich bin gestern Abend mit Cody im Wald spazieren gegangen,” which translates literally as, “I am yesterday evening with Cody in the woods walking went.” The verb is spazieren gehen, which is German for “go for a walk;” its past perfect form is spazieren gegangen. You have to wait until the end of the sentence to find out just what it was that I did with Cody in the woods yesterday evening. In English we would say, “I went walking in the woods with Cody yesterday evening.” You’d know right away that I went out walking and could just tune out the rest of the sentence if you didn’t care to know the details.

The waiting game

The fact that the past perfect tense is formed in combination with “to have” and “to be” is not unique to German; what’s different is that on the receiving end of German, you have to wait until the end of the sentence to find out what the verb is. You have to be patient and maintain your concentration all the way through to the end of the sentence. This can be very hard on the beginner, let me tell you.

Even worse, Germans seems to have a penchant for the peculiar trennbar or “separable prefix” verb, which is an otherwise recognizable verb stem that has one of a wide array of possible prefixes (ein-, an-, aus-, vor-, ab-, etc.) stuck onto the front end. The prefix can either modify or completely alter the meaning of the verb in question. For instance, lesen means “to read” but vorlesen means “to read aloud,” a subtle difference that makes some sense if you are familiar with the prefix vor-. But it gets worse. Schreiben means “to write” (heck, I learned that on my first day of class), but einschreiben means “to enroll.” Granted, one can piece together the meaning by thinking about having to “write in” in order to enroll in a class but it does take a bit of a leap of the imagination — a leap that is often difficult when one is trying to comprehend someone speaking 10 words per second

Quirks and peculiarities

The clincher is that in the present tense, the prefix of a trennbar verb quite literally separates from its verb stem and — you guessed it — doesn’t show up until the very end of the sentence! Imagine my confusion when I hear a lengthy sentence using a verb stem that I actually recognize, only to have one of those pesky two- or three-letter prefixes thrown in at the end to completely bamboozle me!

As I turn this all over and over in my mind, it becomes quite obvious to me why Germans are characterized as being so meticulous and precise — they have to think everything through before they say it, and they have to listen all the way to the end of the sentence in order to understand each other, else some catastrophic miscommunication might occur. Understanding this notion may perhaps make it easier for expats like me to accept the quirks and peculiarities of the German language.

Postscript: I strongly encourage all students of German, frustrated or otherwise, to look up Mark Twain’s 1880 essay, The Awful German Language, from his book “A Tramp Abroad.” When I get really aggravated with German, it helps to remember the last lines of Twain’s brilliant composition:

“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”