by David Winlo
So, you’ve been to Berlin on holiday, tried some bratwurst while there, come back and listened to some Rammstein, and now you’re intrigued – perhaps you could learn this language, and get more out of these things. Maybe find out what more the German-speaking world has to offer.
The trouble is, you have learned this language in high school – and it was awful. There are three, no four, no, more ways of saying ‘the’? What even is a case? And whose idea was it to make words this long?
Fear not, you aren’t the first to have wondered these things, and for most people high school is not where you find the answers, or even the enthusiasm to get these answers. So here are some of my answers, and tips for how to develop the enthusiasm to understand more than just ‘Du hast’.
1. The, the, the, vs der, die, das… Right, so here’s the bad news. Usually you will just have to remember whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter. Our language really isn’t normal in not having any grammatical genders, so with three, German can often result in some pained head-scratching for learners. There are some rules though, for example words ending in –heit or –ung are almost always feminine, so ‘die Mehrheit’ = the majority, and ‘die Bildung’ = the education. As well as this, when you get a bit more used to it, grammatical gender becomes both easier to guess and easier to remember.
2. What case to use in this case? This one has some more useful rules to stick to. German has four cases, and they are honestly not as bad as high school will have made them seem when it a) mis-taught them, or b) just didn’t bother with them. The cases are the nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative. The nominative is what you’ll generally be using in a fairly simple sentence, where there hasn’t been a preposition, or one of those pesky verbs which govern a case. Where there has been a preposition, it’s easy to remember which ones go with which case, even where with prepositions like ‘auf’, it will depend on context, specifically whether motion is involved: ‘auf dem Tisch’ = on the table (with dative), but ‘Stelle das auf den Tisch’ = put this on the table (with accusative, due to motion). Again, this may seem excessively complicated at first, but gets easier with time, and may come to seem more elegant and fluid than your own language.
3. Has anyone seen the Donaudampfschifffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän lately? Fun to some, bordering on a phobia for others, German certainly enjoys its long words. This one, meaning ‘captain of the Danube steamship company’, is long even by German’s own standards, but like so many other compound nouns, can be broken up to uncover a very literal meaning – even a completely new learner will be able to spot the words ‘Kapitän’, and possibly ‘Schiff’ in there if you spend enough time looking, which already gives you the gist of the word’s meaning. Some of these words are particularly wonderful because it’s hard to find one word for them in English, like ‘Erklärungsnot’, which literally means ‘explanation poverty’, and refers to a state of not knowing quite how to explain yourself.
I hope this is enough to rid you of some of the Weltschmerz you feel about learning German. If so, ich wünsch dir viel Glück dabei!