Sunday, March 16, 2008

German: Differences we can't blame on Eddie and Willy

Before I leave the matter of English-German linguistic contrasts, I should note that there is one area of difficulty for English-speaking students of German which cannot be laid at the door of William the Conqueror: syntax. This is the area where my description in the last post is most applicable: "the mildly different grammar patterns that are just different enough to cause constant conflict with our own." Both English and German make heavy use of directional particles in conjunction with verbs, and it is plain that the systems have similar origins. However, the German system is just different enough to cause major difficulties for English speakers.

(Before proceeding, if you have not already done so, immediately consign to the garbage heap of commonly taught misinformation the idea doubtless imparted to you by middle or high school English teachers that "you must not end a sentence with a preposition." This is an artificial imposition of a fact of Latin grammar on a language of a quite different structure. It has always be perfectly natural in English to end sentences with directional particles, which the Latin-trained elite of a few centuries ago mistakenly equated with Latin prepositions. Regardless of who said it, the statement "
That is a rule up with which I will not put," commonly but perhaps inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill, is quite appropriate when faced with this completely erroneous assertion.)

In English, we normally put directional particles immediately after the verb or after a relatively short direct object following the verb. An example:
I am looking up the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary.
We could also say:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up in my Syriac dictionary.
We can also omit the final prepositional phrase and say simply:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up.
Or even more simply:
I am looking it up.
This is completely natural in English and has been, as far as I know, ever since Anglo-Saxon days. The reason is that "up" is not a preposition here! It is a directional particle that specifies the meaning of the rather general verb "look."

German uses directional particles in the same way, but when they are what are called "separable" directional particles, they must go at the very end of independent clauses, and this can prove confusing to English speakers. Our original sentence would look like this with German word order:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary up.
This kind of construction is extremely frequent in German, so one must get used to looking quickly at the end of a clause to see if there is a directional particle that might modify the meaning of the main verb of the clause. It takes some getting used to!

One more detail of German word order often proves trying to non-native learners: the placement of the verb in the final position of subordinate and relative clauses. In English the verb may wind up in the final position of a subordinate or relative clause, but it does not have to. For example:
Do you know how much it costs?
I love the same children that my wife loves.
I love the woman who loves my children.
As can be seen, the verb (costs, loves) remains in the position in which it would be found in the corresponding independent clause, while the focalized element (i.e., the item that is questioned or relativized: how much, that, who) is placed at the beginning of the subordinate clause. If this item would normally follow the verb and there is nothing else following, the verb will wind up in the final position, as in the first two examples. But if the item would normally precede the verb, there it stays, and any item that would normally follow the verb stays after the verb, as in the last example.

In German, though, the verb in such clauses
always goes at the end. And in this case, by the way, the separable directional particles remain prefixed to the verb. Thus, the word order for the German equivalent of the first two examples above would be the same. But the order for the third example would be:
I love the woman who my children loves.
In a short example like this it is not too hard to follow this word order, but in the long, complex sentences that typify scholarly prose, one must again develop the habit of immediately looking to the end of the clause.

Oh yes, there is also the matter of auxiliary verbs, equivalent to English
can, should and so forth. In English we always put these auxiliary verbs immediately before the main verb and tend to think of the two as an inseparable unit:
I must look this word up in my Syriac dictionary.
But in German, you can never forget that everything that follows the auxiliary verb is techinically a kind of subordinate clause. The German word order for the preceding sentence would be:
I must this word in my Syriac dictionary up-look.
Thus, whenever you find an auxiliary verb in German, you must immediately look to the end of the following subordinate clause to find the main verb.

Again, these differences cannot be blamed on French influence. English and German just took slightly different tacks in their historical development. But this "slight" difference is just the right kind to lead to
major headaches for English-speaking students of German. The only cure I know of for these headaches is plenty of practice. After you have been regularly reading German for a while (at least several months), these tricks for reading it will become second nature.

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