The many forms of German words
There are many things that make English a difficult language to learn: English speakers tend to use an extraordinary amount of idioms, there are more tenses and subelties in their usage than with other languages, there are many homonyms and the spelling of a word does not always represent a phonic relation to the word’s pronunciation. This last point is of particular interest for us.
In English, when one learns that draught is pronounced /d???ft/, that is to say that the “augh” makes the same sound as “af”, one also quickly learns that the plural form is draughts. In English most words have two forms a singular and a plural. Pronunciation differs in that the plural ends with an “s” sound. The word may not be phonic, but it exists in only two forms that are fairly simple to read. That this simple word, draught, has at least 15 meanings is another topic.
Now let’s look at German. As many will have already noticed, German is a precise language. Words do not tend to have quite as many definitions or usages as in English. But to the English speaker German has another tricky point: Form. Where in English each word generally has to forms, in German there are more. Take the simple word “Haus” as an example.
Das Haus ist sehr schön. (Nominative, Singular)
- The house is very nice.
Ich habe mir ein neues Haus gekauft. (Accusative, Singular)
- I bought a new house.
Ich gehe nach Hause. (Dative, Singular)
- I’m going home.
Das Dach des Hauses muss repariert werden. (Genitive, Singular)
- The roof of the house must be repaired.
Die neuen Häuser in meiner Strasse wurden alle in den letzten drei Jahren gebaut. (Nominative, Plural)
- The new houses on my street were all built in the past three years.
Der Spielplatz gehört den Häusern dort drüben. (Dative, Plural)
- The playground belongs to those houses over there.
In the six example sentences we see five different forms of the word “Haus”. This can best be understood in a chart form.
What does this mean for the German learner? Well there are many more words to learn, yes. But really it demands that you look for similarity and watch out for articles, that is the case in which the word is. When you understand the role the word is playing in a sentence, you will be better able to understand.
So endings of words can change in the plural, dative and genitive forms and umlauts may be added to vowels in the root of the word. Don’t let these fool you. If you see the word “Häuser” you know you are dealing with more than one house. Check the article and you’ll see if they are the subject, object, or the thing that is possessing something else.
Above we have seen that nouns in German often have more than two forms. I will not get into verbs, because like in English the form of verbs generally changes. The best tip here is to learn all of the standard conjugations of verbs in their present tense as well as the simple past (präteritum) and perfect form.
Adjectives also confuse many learners because the endings change depending on the case and number and gender. Again, I suggest that if you see a word “neuen” for example and you know the word “neu”, it is generally safe to assume that “neuen” is just a form of “neu”. The possible adjective endings are the following: -e, -er, -es, -en, -em
Pronouns are perhaps the trickiest, because some like “sie” in the nominative case already mean: you formal (Sie), she (sie), and they (sie). The fact that they stay the same in the accusative is not helpful for English speakers as they then also take on the meaning of: her (sie), and them (sie). Confusing? Yes. How does one make sense of this? Look at the verb. How is it conjugated? The verb, as is the case in English, must stand in agreement with the subject. Let’s look at an example:
“Fragen Sie Frau Schneider!”
- “Ask Ms. Schneider!”
Therefore, we know in the above sentence that Sie (you) is the subject. And if we change Frau Schneider for her (sie) — “Fragen Sie sie!” (“Ask her!”) — we still know that Sie (you) is the subject.
So just a short recap. With nouns and adjectives look for words that you know. The endings or these words change to reflect case and number and with adjectives gender.
Haus, Hause, Hauses = house
neu, neue, neuer, neues, neuen, neuem = new
With pronouns look to see how the verb is conjugated. Also the subject in standard sentences must be beside (either directly left or directly right) of the verb.