German Grammar: Strong and Weak

Why is German easier to read than English? And why am I writing this post in English? Those are the questions for today’s class. First, let’s take a break and read about the Mann family residences during the Exile Period. This time in Manhattan: 1938. Read the text and then watch the video at the end of the web page.

 

 

 

Thomas Manns zweites Zuhause im Exil

You can mark, highlight, underline and pronounce strong and weak endings as you encounter them.

Again, you might want to grab some discarded envelopes from the waste basket and jot down the strong and weak endings you hear. If there is room on the back of the envelope you could note the occurence of weak endings as follows, since they can only be ‘e’ or ‘en’

z.B.:

e – IIII

en – III

Of course, an adverb is distinguished from an adjective by its lack of an ending, an adjective is distinguished from an adverb by the presence of an ending.

Now back to our first question: Why is German easier to read than English?

Since case is a signal for function the first or second word in a German sentence often signals that function. Try doing that with ‘the’. So, Let us say that a sentence begins with ‘dem’. It has to be dative and it could be either masculine or neuter. We also know that it signals an indirect object or a prepositional object that takes dative only or a preposition that indicates all action occuring within a bounded area for those prepositions of relative position. All that by reading only one or two words.

Now, on to the second question: And why am I writing this post in English? By seeing ‘dem’ we immediately know all those things discussed in the previous paragraph. I first really learned German in 1971. Reading ‘the’ in English conveys nothing of that panoply of information conveyed by ‘dem’. Unless you are a young person learning German from a parent or a playmate you are unlikely to determine the meaning of ‘dem’ on your first encounter with the language.

The bell is about to ring, ending this class. Let me end with a metaphor. A German noun looks to its left for a strong ending that signals a function. By seeing that strong ending it knows its function or at least it narrows the number of functions. The adjective to the right of the strong ending sees that strength and relaxes, knowing that it can now become weak (e or en). If that same adjective does not see strength it cannot relax: it has to take on the strength itself. No chance for weakness. If that noun sees an ein word to the left without an ending (ein, mein, dein, sein, unser, euer, etc.) it says to itself “An ein is certainly not an einem or an eines or an einen, so it looks like I am on my own, so the adjective to the right of ‘ein’ will just have to take on the strong ending.

For homework grab any German text and think about nervous nouns looking to the left for support.

 

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