Speak German, Yoda Would Posted by Malachi Rempen on Nov 5, 2014 in Archived Posts
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.
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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