Monthly Archives: January 2017

The mysterious case of the German biting dog…


Today’s post is not the first in taking the form of a brief epistollary.
Regular commentator and reader, though not in that order, of this blog, Mr A… B… , wrote to me a few days ago saying the following:

Dear Mr James,

Please forgive my writing directly but I’m not certain how I can post a general message on Huliganov TV.

I thought that perhaps you could put me out of my grammatical misery. I have a grammar query that is driving me nuts for want of an answer. The question concerns the case system in German (I hesitate to call it a system as it seems half-baked to me but that could be my misunderstanding).

I appreciate that in German (as in many languages) the nominative / accusative case endings (I am not concerning myself here with the other cases) applied to masculine words will enable me to identify the subject and object of a sentence. All well and good. So, for example, if I use the classic biting / bitten scenario we would have something like:-

Der Hund beisst den Mann.  And if I reverse the word order (Den Mann beisst der Hund) the meaning remains the same, namely “the dog bites the man”. Directly comparable to the Latin usage of the case system – “Canus virum mordet” with the same versatility of word order.

BUT, it seems to me that where the Latin uses it’s nominative and accusative endings consistently (in that there are ending for masculine, feminine and neuter nouns) this is not carried through to German as the different noun endings apply to the masculine nouns ONLY where the accusative is concerned.

So, if I now use a feminine object in my example, Der Hund beisst die Frau the word order would now have to be rigid as reversing it could mean that the woman is biting the dog (not impossible of course, but rather eccentric behaviour for woman or a man to have! ). Same applies to a neuter object. It seems to me there is little or no point in applying a different ending for accusative noun unless it is applied equally to ALL genders.

German ACC endings are :  (maculine) ‘der’ becoming ‘den’ ; (feminine) ‘die’ unchanged ; (neuter) ‘das’ unchanged. Had there been something like :- Der/den ; die / det ; das / dax  (the feminine and neuter accusative endings being my inventions), then I would see the point of it and it would be a very useful feature. As it is, it is confusing and pointless.

If we take a Latin feminine object example, “Canus matronam mordet” we can still have any word order without changing the meaning. This is not the case (no pun intended !) with German accusative usage as we are unable to distinguish the nominative ‘die’ from the accusative ‘die’. Hence there is uncertainty about the feminine noun being subject or object.

Allowing for my poor Latin and looking at the principle involved, am I missing some important point in the German case system or is it (as I believe it to be) poorly implemented and inconsistent ?

I do hope you can throw some light on this as nothing that I can find on an Internet trawl can offer any guidence. I even asked a German native speaker about it on a Skype session, but he seemed to miss the point of my confusion.
If my suspicion about this German case usage is correct I shall abandon any further study of the language and spend the time saved reading Mark Twain’s “The Awful German Language” section of his book of 1880, “A Tramp Abroad” .

Sincerely and with best wishes to you.

So I wrote back with the following information:

A…, 

even if the person being bitten is die Frau or das Kind, they are still in the accusative. The fact that in Germanic (the same applies incidentally in Icelandic, others have lost three genders and have two or only a default gender for all but personal pronouns) the feminine and neuter have the same endings and have had for more than a thousand years in feminine and neuter genders for the masculine and accusative cases doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Look again at it with personal pronouns.

She bites the dog – Sie beisst den Hund
The dog bites her – Der hund beisst sie.

He bites the dog – Er beisst den Hund
The dog bites him – Der Hund beisst ihn.

So, you have more diversity for gender in English, arguably, than in German, alhough the fact is we took the DATIVE case pronouns and mae them good for both the dative and the accusative.

Der Hund gibt IHM / IHR viel Vergnuegen

The dog gives him/her much pleasure. When it is not biting them, presumably. You can see the same m and r endings carrying over.

In Slavic Neuter has identical nominative and accusative, also vocative for that matter, where it exists, but differentiates in masculine and feminine. German just goes one little bit further. It is on the way to ending up with the Dutch or Scandinavian system of having two genders only.

Hope this helps.

Can I put the Q & A back onto HTV?
 
Best regards,

And then A… replies as follows:

Many thanks, David,  for your fast reply to my question and your interesting explanation. This certainly helps in addition to providing extra insights to the case system in general. 
I’m still a little confused though. Am I correct in saying that if we have a simple German sentence containing a feminine subject and a feminine object (neither being a pronoun) we could not distinguish subject from object merely by looking at the articles. Only perhaps by context or word order ? 
I can see that no problem arises where there is a masculine noun in the sentence because the change made to its ending would determine its function in the sentence and the remaining noun would automatically be determined by default. So if the masculine noun has den or einen as its article, it is an object in the sentence so the remaining noun (of any gender) has to be the subject in the sentence.  
However,if the sentence contains only feminine or neuter nouns, their appears to be no way of knowing which is intended to be the subject and which the object by inspection of the articles used. From what you have said, it seems that only the use of pronouns would resolve the uncertainty (context and word order perhaps also being of value). 
Is my understanding faulty here or am I near the mark ?

[yes please, would you put the content onto HTV for the benefit of others that are perhaps as confused by cases as I am ! ]

Very best wishes, 

And since I did not manage to answer this second letter yet, I will answer it now, especially as I have the kind agreement of A… to let everyone see our linguistic discussion.

Basically, when it comes to masculine nouns in German, they retain a fuller set of differentiation in the case endings than the feminine or neuter do, and nevertheless the word order remains flexible.

You can say “Der Hund beisst den Mann” and “Den Hund beisst der Mann” and the direction of the bite is precisely opposite, but what is not the same is the syntax.

This is what is usually left unsaid by people who use this sentence, and others like it, as an illustration of how cases work and allow more flexibility in word order. It is effectively a very good example of why syntax is one thing and grammar another. Syntax is the place at which grammar means style.

The sentence “Den Mann beisst der Hund” actualy does not have the same semantic loading as the sentence “Der Hund beisst den Mann”. True, the bite is being carrying out by the same canine agent in both sentences, but the meaning has changed. In the sentence “Der Hund beisst den Mann” you have a simple form. The dog is biting the man. There is no doubt about which dog it is or the man, as we are simply following the default SVO of German.

When I invert that and say “Den Mann beisst der Hund” then I am making a new emphasis. I am showing that there was uncertainty about which man was being bitten by the dog. Therefore I bring it to the beginning of the sentence. German sentences can be very long and if in cases of urgency I don’t bring the key information about which man it is to the start of the sentence, by the time I get to the close, he could have already bled out, und das wollen wir nicht.

This means the intonation also changes, when you say the inverted OVS sentences. You won’t hear them in the same tone of voice as the SVO simple forms. So, bearing in mind that spoken language precedes written language by centuries if not millennia, this is why there seems no need to worry that the Feminine form seems to maintain the mystery of who is biting whom. The tone of voice would have made it clear. In writing, you generally have context, and that ought to make it clear. If you make a piece of writing in which a feminine nouns is object and subject in an OVS sentence without any context, then for sure you have an ambiguity. Language speakers are usually quite good at exploiting ambiguities like this for jokes so it would be a pity if it weren’t there.

You can imagine how in German this could work and in English not:

– Eine Schlange biss meine Schwiegermutter.
– Autsch, ist sie giftig?
– Naja, aber nicht so schlimm wie der Schwiegervater.

“A snake bit my mother-in-law”
“Ouch, is it toxic?”
“Well, yes, but not as bad as my father-in-law”

There are two grammatical reasons why the joke sounds very confusing in English.

The joke is possibly confusing in German also, but only because Naja, in addition for being a common colloquial German affirmative, is the Latin name for a very poisonous snake.

No wonder the Germans come across as a little verbissen at times…

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