October 2, 2010 | German

When German Grammar Attacks

German can come across as a little scary.

I woke up and promptly started in on Pimsleur again. The Level II lessons that I am doing are for the most part too basic for me, but I need the practice in pronunciation as well as noun and adjective case endings.

This Is Hard-Core German Grammar

This Is Hard-Core German Grammar

I am racing through my old college grammar as well. Some of it surprises me. For example, I was shocked to read that German imperatives always require an exclamation point. In other words, the German equivalent of:

  • Pay your bills!
  • Run faster!
  • Eat your asparagus!

I have no recollection of this exclamation-point rule, and I’m a little skeptical. Do people really bother?

Sometimes things stick around in grammar books a lot longer than they stick around in real life.

I also read, “Weak (regular) verbs are verbs which use the same stem in forming their present, past, and perfect tenses. Both English and German have verbs of this type.” I have encountered the terms “weak” and “strong” in grammar many times before.

Café Margot, Site of German Studying Today

Café Margot, Site of German Studying Today

My Café Margot Companion

My Café Margot Companion

The use of “weak” as a way to describe regular verbs (or other grammatical elements) and “strong” as a way to describe irregular ones has always struck me as counterintuitive. It seems to me that regularity would be labeled strength, not weakness.

But maybe that would be like, in a human community, shunning the iconoclast while idealizing the conformist?

Contemplating the boatloads of irregular verbs in German, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, how irregular verb forms originate. I assume in a variety of ways.

Sometimes, presumably, through the encroachment of loan words from other languages. At times, though, was it the case that regular forms for a particular verb just didn’t sound pleasing to the ear, so more harmonious-sounding irregular forms took over instead? I need an expert consulting linguist right about now.

Me Doing Pimsleur at 1:30 a.m. Tonight (I Know the Hood Is Creepy, But I Was Just Cold. Also, In Case Anyone Wonders, No, I Am NOT Sucking My Thumb.)

Me Doing Pimsleur at 1:30 a.m. Tonight (I Know the Hood Is Creepy, But I Was Just Cold. Also, In Case Anyone Wonders, No, I Am NOT Sucking My Thumb.)

On another topic: people often comment on the size of German words. I can see their point, but I am struck more by their impenetrability. One of the things that stymied me yesterday on my German writing test was that there were at least three words, affecting two different exam questions out of five, whose meaning I could not even begin to guess at. That made it impossible to be sure I was answering the right questions.

The thing about German, I find, is that when you don’t know a word, it is often seriously impossible to guess at its meaning. More impossible than in Italian or French or Spanish.

A German word can be an impenetrable fortress of consonants and syllables. Or a very large doorman at a New York City nightclub, standing there with arms folded, not saying a word, and not letting you in.

Comments (4)

Ken • Posted on Mon, October 04, 2010 - 1:37 pm EST

Not sure this will answer your question about the irregular verbs, but I remember from Linguistics (it’s been a long time, so please correct me if I’m wrong) learning that some languages strive to keep a phonological stucture, where others a morphological structure.  So Spanish might make sense in a way English does not, and vice versa.  The funny part of this to us was that where we always thought English was completely screwed up with exceptions, it actually DOES make sense, I think in a phonological way.  I would expect German to be closer to English in this respect, since I believe they’re sister languages.

khalid • Posted on Thu, April 09, 2015 - 5:08 pm EST


chris • Posted on Sat, December 17, 2016 - 4:20 pm EST

I have the same feeling about strong and weak verbs. We are backward-thinking, I guess.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sat, December 17, 2016 - 10:41 pm EST

Chris, I feel better knowing that I have company.

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