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Speak German, Yoda Would Posted by on Nov 5, 2014 in Language Learning

One of the most challenging aspects of speaking German in day-to-day life is this whole verb-at-the-end-of-the-sentence business. I’ve been living in Berlin and speaking German for over two years now, and it still trips me up.

Itchy Feet: A Travel and Language Comic by Malachi Ray Rempen

The fact is, despite seeming otherwise at first glance, German verbs don’t always go at the end. They probably do only half the time. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the grammar (you can learn that somewhere else), suffice it to say that since it doesn’t happen at the end of every sentence, you have to be paying close attention while you’re speaking to see if you’ve set off one of the triggers.

If you did use one of the key send-the-verb-to-the-end words and didn’t notice, the sentence will be all screwed up before you even finish. If you did notice, or knew that you were going to do it, you have to mentally hang on for dear life to the verb you intend to use, carry it over everything else you’re going to say, and set it down at the end once you’ve finished. It can tangle your brain in a knot, believe me. It’s not like English or the romance languages, where you can sort of build the sentence as you go along, in parts. With German, you’ve got to have the whole thing in mind before you even start talking.

Let me try to give you an example of this, for those of you that don’t speak (or aren’t learning) German, and can’t quite imagine what this is like.

Let’s say we’re at the lake, having a bratwurst with mustard. A fellow comes up and asks where we got such a scrumptious sausage. We want to say, “I bought it on the other side of the lake, across from the bicycles and next to the bus stop.” You’ll really be saying, “I have bought it…”, and since the present perfect (“to have” + verb) is a send-to-the-end trigger, that means we’ll have to wait to use the word “bought” until the very end. Hang on to it, brain! So we start the sentence: “I have it on the other side of the lake across from the bicycles and next to the bus stop (all this time keeping in mind that although you’ve given the man all the information he asked for, it’s still not a complete sentence until the appearance of the verb) . . . bought.”

Keep in mind that the man who came up to us doesn’t know for sure what we’re going to say until the very end, so he has to wait. Think about it – any verb could go at the end! How does he know we don’t intend to say that we have this bratwurst at the other side of the lake found? Or built? Or willed into existence? He just has to wait until we finish speaking to find out. For this reason, unless what they’re saying is totally obvious, Germans rarely interrupt each other. They can’t be sure what the other is even talking about until they’ve completed the sentence.

Sometimes this isn’t so bad. Lots of times I find I don’t know exactly how to conjugate the verb, especially if it’s some funky tense, so I just send it to the end, essentially procrastinating until I finish the rest of the sentence, hoping that by then I’ll have remembered how on earth it’s conjugated.

More often than not, however, I overcompensate and send the verb to the end when it isn’t needed. I recall sending an email to my German uncle, who replied, “your German is getting much better – even if sometimes you still sound like Yoda.”

Sound like Yoda, I do? Doesn’t he to the end his verbs always send? Easy to learn, then, would German for Yoda be!

Are there any other languages out there with mind-bending word orders?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


Comments:

  1. Ben Oosterom:

    Dutch and Frisian have these word orders as well, which isn’t surprising, because they’re both closely related to German.

  2. jai vee:

    great info..altho German, I not speak…

  3. Tim:

    Latin..!

  4. Gerben:

    The example with the bratwurst could also be solved by saying: Ich habe den Bratwurst gekauft bei….etc.etc. Which is a lot simpler.

    In general, the rule I use to explain this characteristic of Dutch (similar to German in this respect) is that in a non-question sentence the first verb will always be in the place that you would expect it to be in Spanish or English, while a second verb (or more) go at the end.

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Gerben I’m afraid I have to disagree with your example! It should still be, “Ich habe den Bratwurst bei … gekauft.” Now, colloquially, I’m sure people say “Ich habe den Bratwurst gekauft bei …” but unless I’m gravely mistaken, grammatically it’s incorrect.

      • Sebastian:

        @Malachi Rempen “Ich habe die Bratwurst bei XYZ gekauft” is the usual way to say it. Unless you want to absolutely stress that you bought it at XYZ, then you could say “(Nein,) bei XYZ habe ich die Bratwurst gekauft.”

        • val:

          @Sebastian I am German actually, I just follow this blog to find teasers for my girlfriend and I would agree that ‘gekauft’ has to be at the end 😉 the example above sounds pretty strange to me…

          Sorry Gerben 😉

        • Werner:

          @Sebastian Why make it so complicated ! First of all, it is DIE BRATWURST and then you simply say : Ich kaufte die Bratwurst bei…. or im…. in …! etc.etc.

          • LizA:

            @Werner No, you would not use kaufte, as you are speaking, so using Perfekt. Präteritum is for writing.

            I think it helps to think about the verbs framing or bracketing the sentence, as a rule. Although we do avoid ridiculously long “mittelfeld” sequences. In speaking, it would be perfectly all right to use “ich habe die Bratwurst bei xy gekauft, dort hinten bei….. ”
            Komma is essential , though!

    • G-Otto:

      @Gerben You are right, although it is “die Bratwurst” – wurst is female… Formally yes, the verb is placed at the end. But there is a fine difference between formally correct German ( something for law textes or formal regulation in public offices) and elegant German. If you have a cascaded description you better break th sentence into logic pieces … that means you have to think while talking… which is not easy for foreigners for they have to remember the content, find the vocabulary and plan the “correography” of the sentnces’ elements… in this case someone could say.: Ich habe die Bratwurst am Stend gekauft, der sich drüben am anderen Ende des Sees befindet. That sounds a bit like a double-Yoda but it works logically… Good luck… I am happy to be a mothertongue German… English, Spanish etc. were much easier to learn… French still remains at least a challenge….

  5. Tina:

    Which brings us to the gender of nouns: in Germany ‘die Bratwurst’ is female! 🙂

  6. Stephen Wilson:

    German is often passive voice while modern English is usually active voice although pre-Shakespearian English used passive voice extensively.

    • JP:

      @Stephen Wilson Oh don’t even get me started on werden!!

      An alternative would be “Ich Kaufte die Bratwurst darhinten…” but it would have sounded a bit formal, the imperfect is always a good emergency get-out!
      Or just pointed “Da” 😉

      • The queer nomad:

        @JP It’s grammatically incorrect, though, not just formal. As the result of your action is still visible, you need to use the perfect, not past tense.

  7. Mubida:

    A dog is “der Hund”; a woman is “die Frau”; a horse is “das Pferd”; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is “des Hundes”; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is “dem Hund.” Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is “den Hunden.” But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they’ll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he’ll think he’s an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don’t like dogs, but I wouldn’t treat a dog like that- I wouldn’t even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it’s just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the’s and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn’t recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it’s goodbye cat. That’s about the amount of it.
    – Mark Twain’s Notebook

    • The queer nomad:

      @Mubida Spanish and French do the same, but just with different grammatical structures.

      • Nya:

        @The queer nomad I beg your pardon? How does Spanish do anything of the sort?

        • Werner:

          @Nya Crazy Baker (English
          Verueckter Baecker (German)
          Panadero loco (Spanish) And many, many more ! Also,entire sentences.

  8. Fede:

    I read a lot about how German puts the verb at the end of secondary clauses. Big deal. Why doesn’t anybody speak about how on main clauses it is always ALWAYS ALWAYS on the second position?

    The thing is not as simple as “the verb comes at the end”. It doesn’t always work like that. More interesting is the typology in general, not only of German but of a whole bunch of subject-object-verb languages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject%E2%80%93object%E2%80%93verb). In Turkish for example the verb comes always at the end, even on main clauses.

    I am personally more amazed by object-subject-verb languages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Object%E2%80%93subject%E2%80%93verb. You have to wait to only to know what is being done but also who is doing it. Good luck, simultaneous interpreters…

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Fede I have always wondered how simultaneous interpretation works between languages like that. It boggles the mind.

  9. Debby:

    Why this complicated? I’m German and if someone comes to me asking from where I got the bratwurst, I would just say: “from there across the lake bla bla bla” completely ignoring the verb!
    If I am eating a bratwurst on the street I would usually be in a very informal setting – so no need to break my head over grammar! 🙂


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