Those Effing German Endings

Useful foreign-language texts are good to find — I recommend library discard sales, where you can find great stuff for 50 cents or less. You can buy 300 of these for the price of a required text that you’re still paying for decades later. Actually, I spied a personal favorite: The World’s Writing Systems this way (see photograph below)

the-worlds-writing-systems
A 50-cent purchase

I lived an iconoclast’s dream for 20 years: a Saturday German class (10 to 12:30) to design a better way to learn German at the TriState German-American School: TSGAS. Our principal was happy if the students were happy. I have saved many lesson plans over the years — some of it archived from a Commodore 64. All four cases and all four genders — German handles plurals the same way as its three genders, it’s basically a fourth gender. And all by Thanksgiving holiday.

Had you elected the three-year sequence and its college textbook you wouldn’t learn about Genitive case until the third year. I don’t think you should wait that long. There are many misbegotten German textbooks out there: I found one that didn’t cover the second-person familiar until the second half of the book. How are you supposed to patch that in?

Paradigms are only useful if they are intuitive, and part of a wider heuristic. I am placing a link to an image of a very bad set of paradigms IMO rather than the actual image here because WordPress randomly selects images to accompany posts.

Learning German the same way that Germans learn English doesn’t work in the long run.  Actually it doesn’t work in the short run either, as I’ve learned from personal experience. Sometimes you just have to blast away the fossilized crud that accreted in your brain. Out damned crud!

Inflection is a big deal in highly inflected languages. Ignoring that big deal does not make the inflections go away. The problem only becomes larger if you do not tackle it.

inneren.schweine.hund

Translation: “Overcome the lazy dog inside you. What I learned from a marathon runner.”

The Saxons who invaded Britain brought all those inflections with them, but then the Vikings showed up and made short work of it. ’twas the birth of “The” and the need to use word order to indicate the function of each noun.

One of the first native German speakers my ears encountered in a Frankfurt of 1971 came from a five-year-old child. This Kindergärtners command of complex inflection was free and accurate. Was it some kind of trick? Were there paradigms on the refrigerator, or hanging from a mobile above his crib in 1968? The words flowed as intuitively much as that cat in the late Jack Ziegler (no relation) cartoon:

 

jack.ziegler.cat

German Gender

Gender is not extraneous.

Most aids for learning gender suggest patterns for masculine nouns first. Don’t do that, feminine nouns are easier to learn than masculine nouns. Here is your handout:

Screenshot 2017-04-04 20.55.54

IMO it is better than the suggestions you’ll find in standard German textbooks, i.e. masculine first. So I say turn it upside down:

  1. Is it a feminine noun?
  2. No, then is it a neuter noun?
  3. In all probability it’s a masculine noun.

Am I the only German teacher who has noticed this cart in front of that horse?

Here is an exercise for practicing effing German endings at the dinner table. Unroll die Serviette and discover that spoon, fork and knife are, respectively masculine, feminine and neuter nouns — right there on the table. I’ll leave the plural forms for die Hausaufgabe (homework).

Screenshot 2017-04-04 19.14.55

By this point I have probably lost all but two of my readers. Thanks, you two — I am grateful 🙂

Now comes case in a nutshell:

  • Nominative signals subject, the gender you’ve just learned how to learn. Think four genders. You are 25% of the way there.
  • Accusative case differs from nominative only with single masculine nouns — the letter ‘n’ is a single vertical line away from ‘r’. All the others are the same as the nominative: die, das, die. You are halfway there.
  • Dative case — you are halfway to dative by realizing that the letter ‘m’ appears only with dative case nouns (masculine and neuter). You are three-quarters to the finish line.
  • Genitive case — masculine and neuter again: the ‘s’ you already know from English.

So you are left with the odd stragglers that now stand out in that 16 cell paradigm — the ‘der’ and the ‘den’.

Screenshot 2017-04-04 19.18.28

A takeaway: heuristics are fun, paradigms need context and a deliberate design. Here are some reasons:

heuristic

More to follow if you two readers are interested 🙂

Older posts on German language

Thanks for reading.

 

 

5 thoughts on “Those Effing German Endings”

  1. Bill, As you know from my comments before, I was permanently scarred by the German adjective endings and taking a look at the charts you kindly hid behind a link was the reason. The charts were harder to memorize than a list of rules. Whoever thought that was a heuristic device should have lost his tenure.

    I recently saw what may be a better way to learn the adjective endings: Through a 4-part flow chart, which you can see by looking at this PDF (scroll down to the graphic flow chart). This has the advantage of only needing 4 rules to learn (in order). I jerry-rigged something similar (although slightly more complicated) to put on a 3×5 card when I was learning German 30+ years ago. It did not use the chart system.

    Thinking about this recently (usually in connection with one or another post of yours), I think what really traumatized me about German was the expectation was that it would follow the rules of Greek and Latin (and the Romance languages that came from Latin). Those languages (particularly Greek and Latin) are really ideal for learning in one of those Grammar-book style method with charts, because they are extremely regularized according to cases (for nouns, adjectives) and tenses (for verbs distributed across gender and number. They also by and large have unique endings specific to gender and case. (No such thing as der = masc. nom. sing. AND fem. dat. sing.) If you meet German after first tackling Greek and Latin, it is like a frontal assault. (It was like trying to learn the language of the first PCs, thinking it was like algebra.) The idea that the adjective endings change, not based on entirely case but rather on whether there is a preceding determiner, is really bizarre and hard to get used to. Since Latin doesn’t have definite articles, adjectives couldn’t change on that basis. And since Latin, but more so Greek, were so precisely declined, the idea that a word’s ending would depend on the presence or absence of another word or words did not compute. (I still think that there had to be some extremely bizarre reason that German declensions developed the way they did. But that might be a symptom of PGSD=post German stress disorder.)

    The other problem that language teachers have is the obsession that goes back several hundred years in English pedagogy that Latin is the perfect grammatical system. Teachers have been trying to shoehorn other languages (including English) into Latin models well beyond its usefulness. In fact, it would probably do everyone a favor to acknowledge that English and Germanic languages are as different from Latin and Romance languages as are Slavic languages.

    So I agree with what you are saying. German really needs a different paradigm than what it has been taught. (At least as I was taught many, many years ago.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks much for your marvelous response. I had used that image in an earlier post — WordPress automatically associated the hyper-garish heuristic from Hell with my article, hence my link-hiding. They actually distort everything held in short term memory, at the very point where new knowledge is its most fragile. I wouldn’t discount any theories that these techniques were created between 1933 and 1945, then carried by Werner von Braun and the gang as seeds for rancor.
    Nancy Thuleen provided me with wonderful material over the years. She lends an enormously rare personal touch to her prolific life work — my students also received them quite well. I have a great many lesson plans that go back to a matrix printer and Commodore 64.
    Quick hint — I am planning to populate my presently empty blog “Getting Around in German 🙂
    PGSD fits in with my Nazi rancor-seed theory. I developed my own heuristics because I knew that the tried and anything-but-true teaching materials pissed me off. You have to fight conventional wisdom all the way, my iconoclast leanings helped. High School Latin introduced me to the power of proper inflection too. I refreshed it as an adult and still collect stuff at those discard sales — there’s a great volume on the shelf behind me about Catullus, it’s about a century old and half of the book consists of footnotes.
    Imposition of Latin grammar upon English is another monster not easily slain. It yet gasps, if rarely. Procrustean means are the first one chosen. The highly regimented model for the American school is Prussian. The school I attended in the 1950’s was staffed with disciplined nuns, so I have PTPNSD (Post Traumatic Prussian-Nun Stress Disorder).
    Unfortunately many German teachers take pride in assuming the Lederhosen approach, but I’ll save that for a future post.
    I am grateful for your each experience you bring to the table — they keep my subversive spirit for semblances of truth going. PGSD is real 🙂

    Like

  3. Hi Bill,
    Thanks for this fantastic article. I, like many other people, struggle with German endings and it seems like the words change gender everyday just to confuse me. :’D I’m currently taking an intensive language course in Berlin at https://www.sprachenatelier-berlin.de/ and I will definitely be sharing this blog article with my class!

    Like

    1. Hallo Emma,
      Thank you for the kind words, they are gratefully received. I don’t have the most visited blog in the world, so your offer to pass on my article is appreciated. Serious teachers like to make ideas available. I had suffered personally and for a long long time on cracking the enigma code. Most methodologies do more harm than good. Most German language texts are copy and past hacks that simply keep the effing riddle indecipherable. Most German teachers don’t try. The worst say “that’s just the way it is” — another way to say “I don’t know.” My system helped my students learn something that had confounded them: that rewarded me enormously. Turning the gender-learning technique upside down is also something I’ve developed independently. Others may use it as well, I’m just not aware of any other teacher who does.
      I even have an empty blog that is waiting for the proverbial “one of these days.” Perhaps this is one 🙂

      Like

      1. Yes, “You just have to learn it” is another favourite ! Best of luck with everything- I’ll definitely be revisiting your page ! xx

        Liked by 1 person

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