A Short Lesson in German Grammar

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This is the German-English dictionary I use. If that doesn’t help, ask your German-major friends: we’re always happy to help!

What is certainly the best misunderstanding of the trip so far happened with two British guys in a Kneipe and went something like this:

Me: “So, was machst du dann in Berlin?
The short one: “Wir studieren. Wir sind Kommunisten.
Me: “Wirklich! Then how do you feel about der ehemaligen DDR being, you know, ehemaligen?
[Both stare at me–I have just asked them how they feel about the end of East Germany, which could be a touchy subject, actually.]
Me: “Und. Uh. Sie waren Socialisten, oder? Socialisten sind wie Kommunisten.
The tall one: “We never lived there, how would we know…?”
Me: “But you must have an opinion…”
The short one: “Kapitalismus ist gut, oder?
Me: “… aren’t you’re here to study Communism?”
The short one: “I said, Wir sind Komponisten.
Me: “MUSIK! Das ist wirklich anders als Kommunismus.
Me: “So, how do you feel about Communist music? I know this great club…”

Which, as a matter of fact, I do. Although every club here seems to play the same 1970s song about how “Moscou ist ein schönes Land” and “Liebe schmeckt wie Caviar.” You can check it out here.

But I digress. The point is that most of my misunderstandings so far have been the result of not thinking rather than actually, well, not understanding. Only ten seconds afterwards do I realize that the woman is asking me for directions, or the dude on the subway is hitting on me, or not everyone you meet in East Berlin is a communist anymore, or ever was, for that matter.

Characteristically, I’m going to put all the blame for this on German grammar, which manages to always one in a state of confused suspense leave because of the way they have of the verb until the end of the sentence leaving.

So when you’re talking about the past, you say something like “I have often with Andreas, who is very tall and kind, on Sunday evenings very happily and vigorously in Berlin, but also in Moscow, the schönes Land, danced.”

Now wasn’t that terrible? The whole time you are reading the sentence, you think “are they having sex? or talking? or knitting? or… oh, dancing! Well, there you go, now I need to go read that again.” This last part can be particularly obnoxious when you are long modernist novels, in which the sentence for several pages go on, reading.

There is an even worse version, which is called “the separable-prefix verb.” For example, you have the words “zuhören” and “aufhören,” which mean “listen” and “stop,” respectively. But if you’re speaking in the present tense, you say these verbs with the “hören” part up front and the “zu-” or “auf-” part not until the end. This could cause a problem if you were in the Mafia. “Please hör my father, who has us so many times betrayed, but who blood after all is, maybe in the warehouse down by the docks, after midnight…”


But by then you’ve been worrying about how you’re going to kill him so much that you’ve forgotten what time it’s supposed to be, and so you have to ask the Boss to repeat it, and now you’re the one who’s getting aufhören.

(Fun travel tip: Something that I do to amuse myself sometimes is act like English verb-preposition phrases are separable-prefix verbs. “Give in.” “Give up.” “Put down.” The best is “hook up.” Try it sometime.)

(Secondary digression: After that lesson, aren’t you glad I’m not a German teacher? I am. There are a lot of students in my class here–namely, people who speak the same amount of German as I do–who are German teachers in their countries back home because there simply aren’t enough actual German speakers in, say, Togo. And boy is all this cross-cultural learning fascinating. Today I learned that to say “How are you?” in Danish you need to talk “wie du hast eine grosse Kartoffel im Mund.” We’ll talk about it during some less rushed column–I was out making mistakes until 2 AM.)

Having to worry about what the verb is going to be all of the time is sort of a microcosm of what it’s like being abroad–I am very clearly missing something every moment of every day, and I know I’ll find it out eventually, but I know it’s probably not going to be soon.

I got to the end of a pretty important sentence just this week, though, with the help of MTV Deutschland. They have this in-house series called “MTV Masters” which profiles artists from within and without. The episode that’s on intensive repeat right now is called “MTV Masters: The Bloodhound Gang.”

You know, “You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel,” aka “The Bad Touch,” aka the #1 single in Germany in 1999? Apparently they have a huge cult following here.

Why? Because, according to a German psychology professor, “Das Bloodhound Gang is all about fun. And what is the most important thing for the German people? They are all about fun.”

I gaped at the screen. Although I have taken German at Swarthmore for two and a half years, I could never have told you that. Based on my coursework, I might have said “they’re all about guilt!” or “depression!” or “the Holocaust!” or, if pressed, “Beer!”

But FUN? FUN? The thing is, this isn’t like most separable-prefix verbs, where I’m confused as hell at the end of the sentence. This one actually makes sense. And that’s why until next time, I’ll be:

Tu’en es wie sie tun es auf die Discovery Channel,

Lauren Stokes

The Phoenix