Main article: German nouns
A German noun has one of three specific grammatical genders (masculine, feminine, neuter). Nouns are declined for case and grammatical number. All nouns are capitalised.
German has all three genders of late Proto-Indo-European—the masculine, the feminine, and the neuter. Every German noun takes one of these genders. The grammatical gender of a German noun is not necessarily the actual gender of the corresponding real-life object. Nouns denoting a person, such as die Frau ("woman") or der Mann ("man"), generally agree with the natural gender of what is described. However, since every German noun ending with -chen or -lein is grammatically neuter, there exist several notable counterexamples such as das Mädchen ("girl"), das Weib (old form, woman), die Tunte (derogatory, feminine gay man) and das Fräulein ("miss"). In addition, German assigns gender to nouns without natural gender, in fairly arbitrary fashion. For example, the three common pieces of cutlery all have different genders: das Messer ("knife") is neuter, die Gabel ("fork") is feminine, and der Löffel ("spoon") is masculine.
Students of German are often advised to learn German nouns with their accompanying definite article, as the definite article of a German noun corresponds to the gender of the noun. However, the meaning or form, especially the ending, of a noun can be used to recognise 80% of noun genders. For instance, nouns ending in the suffixes -heit, -keit, -tät, -ung, -ik, or -schaft are feminine. As noted above, nouns ending in -chen or -lein take the neuter. A noun ending in –e is likely to be feminine; however, this is not a universal rule: die Katze ("cat"), die Blume("flower"), and die Liebe ("love") are feminine, but der Bote ("delivery boy") is masculine, and das Ende ("end") is neuter. Similarly, a noun ending in –er is likely to be masculine (der Teller, der Stecker, der Computer); however, das Messer ("knife") and das Wasser ("water") are neuter, whereas die Mutter ("mother") can be feminine, as can die Butter ("butter") in many forms of high German, although it is der Butter inSwiss German.
Unlike English, which has lost almost all forms of declension of nouns and adjectives, German still inflects nouns, adjectives and pronouns into four grammatical cases. The cases are the nominative (Nominativ/Werfall), genitive (Genitiv/Wessenfall), dative (Dativ/Wemfall), andaccusative (Akkusativ/Wenfall). The case of a particular noun depends on the grammatical function of the noun in the sentence.
- Nominative (Wer?): The subject of a sentence, the thing doing the action
- Genitive (Wessen?): The possessor of something, or the object of certain other prepositions.
- Dative (Wem?): The indirect object, as in when an object is given to someone, or the object of certain other prepositions
- Accusative (Wen?): The direct object, the thing which is directly receiving the action, or the object of certain prepositions
- Example: der Tisch (engl. the table)
| || Singular: || Plural: |
| Nom: || der Tisch || die Tische |
| Gen: || des Tisch(e)s || der Tische |
| Dat: || dem Tisch(e) || den Tischen |
| Acc: || den Tisch || die Tische |
- In a sentence (using only one noun for understanding purposes):
- Der Tisch gab dem Tisch(e) des Tisch(e)s den Tisch
- The table gave the table of the table the table.
- This sentence is an example of how cases are used in German (and in every other language with grammatical case). This differs from English, where the word order in a sentence has more meaning. In German, because the function of each noun is not marked by its position within the sentence but by the declined articles — and in case of genitive and dative also by a suffix at the end of the noun itself — the German sentence could also be:
- Der Tisch gab dem Tisch(e) den Tisch des Tisch(e)s.
- Der Tisch gab des Tisch(e)s Tisch dem Tisch(e)
- Den Tisch des Tisches gab dem Tisch der Tisch.
- Dem Tisch(e) gab den Tisch des Tisch(e)s der Tisch.
- Des Tisch(e)s Tisch gab dem Tisch(e) den Tisch.
- Although some of these may sound exotic in modern day German, they are grammatically correct (and even rather unusual constructions are more regularly used in poetry). With a flexible word order like that it is very easy, for example, to put the most important part of a sentence in the front of the sentence.
Contrary to strongly inflected languages like Latin or Lithuanian, German expresses cases more through the word's article than the ending of the word, though especially the difference between plural and singular is also expressed by suffixes on the words' endings (der Tisch, die Tische). Other exceptions of a suffix expressing the case of a noun along with the article are the forms of genitive singular and dative plural. Yet, one could still say that transferring the case-information to the article preserved the German case system throughout its development from Old High German to contemporary German.
First evidence of a decline of the genitive case can already be found in colloquial language of Early New High German (spoken from 1350 to 1650). When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, the use of the Genitive case (along with the Preterite) was already rather unusual in most of the German dialects. Nevertheless, Luther used the bureaucratic language of Saxony for his translations which still made extensive use of the Genitive (and other "archaic" elements more usual in Middle High German than in New High German) and thereby slowed down the loss of the Genitive to a certain extent. Today the use of the genitive case is still rare in spoken language - speakers often substitute the dative case for it in conversation, quite similar to the language's Germanic relative Faroese. But the genitive case remains almost obligatory in written communication, public speeches and anything that is not explicitly colloquial in German and is still an important part of German Bildungssprache (language of education). Television programmes and movies often contain a mixing of both, dative substitution or regular genitive, depending on how formal or "artistic" the programme is intended to be. The use of the Dative substitution is more common in southern German dialects, whereas Germans from northern regions (where Luthers Bible-German had to be learned like a foreign language back then) use the genitive more regularly. Though it has become quite common not to use the genitive case when it would formally be required, great numbers of Germans know how to use it and generally do so. Especially among people of higher education, it is considered a minor embarrassment to be caught using the dative case incorrectly. Therefore, it is by no means recommended to avoid the genitive when learning German, since the decline of this case, which has been going on for about 600 years, is proceeding very slowly, because the historical development of German Standardsprache has reestablished this particular case in German language to some extent, and not necessarily just in written form.
Yet, a German book called Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod ("Dative is for Genitive its death") alludes to this phenomenon (being called "genitive's death struggle" by the author) in its title. In standard German, the title would be "Der Dativ ist der Tod des Genitivs" ("Dative is Genitive's Death"). As is apparent, the book uses the modern, casual way of speaking by employing the dative case instead of the genitive to poke fun at what the author perceives as a decline in the German language, since in written German a dative construction replacing the genitive is still considered a major error. Linguistically, the thesis of the genitive case dying out, can easily be refuted. Indeed, the genitive case has been widely out of use in all dialects of the German language for centuries. The new phenomenon is only the replacement of dialects by a colloquial Standard German, which does not at all, however, affect the use of the genitive case in the written language.
In at least one context, the use of a dative construction to indicate possession is standard. Usually with respect to a person's body, mind, or personality, one can say, for example, "Sie gab ihm die Hand", which translates literally to "She gave him the hand". In English, this would always be rendered as "She gave him her hand. This is very similar to English "Look me in the eye", or "he hit him in the mouth".
Cases after prepositions
The case of a noun after a preposition is decided by that preposition. No prepositions require the nominative case, but any other case may follow one, for example, the preposition für (for) is followed by the accusative case, the word mit (with) is followed by the dative, and the wordwegen (because of) is followed by the genitive case (although in casual speech, and with pronouns, the dative case is usually used). Certain prepositions, called "two way prepositions", have objects either in dative or accusative, depending on whether the use implies position (e.g. inder Küche = "in the kitchen", dative case) or direction (e.g. in die Küche ("into the kitchen", accusative case).
Prepositions and cases
The following chart shows the cases associated with several prepositions.
| Accusative || Dative || Genitive || Accusative or Dative |
| bis || aus || anstatt || an |
| durch || außer || statt || auf |
| entlang || bei || außerhalb || hinter |
| für || gegenüber || innerhalb || in |
| gegen || mit || trotz || neben |
| ohne || nach || während || über |
| um || seit || wegen || unter |
| wider || von || jenseits || vor |
| || zu || || zwischen |
Declension of adjectives
The declension of an adjective depends not only on the gender, number and case of the noun it modifies, but also on whether the indefinite article, definite article or no article is used with it. The following table shows two examples which exemplify all three cases:
| || Masculine nominative singular || Feminine dative singular |
| definite article || der schöne Mann || vor der verschlossenen Tür |
| indefinite article || ein schöner Mann || vor einer verschlossenen Tür |
| no article || schöner Mann || vor verschlossener Tür |
Declension of adjectives is mandatory even in proper names. The name of Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, for instance, changes into "das Kunsthistorische Museum" when predeceded by a definite article.
The German language has twelve different ways of forming the plural. A student of German as a foreign language must learn the plural for each new noun learned; although many feminine nouns are very regular in the formation of the plural, many masculine and neuter nouns are not. For example, some plurals are formed with an "n", some with "en", some with an umlaut and an "e" or an umlaut and an "en", other plurals are the same as the singular, some add "er" or an umlaut and "er". Many loanwords borrowed from another language take a plural in "s" (e.g. das Restaurant → die Restaurants).
Although ancient German plurals called for morphologically distinct gender markings, this is no longer the case. With regard to the treatment of adjectives and articles, this amounts almost to the plural number behaving as a fourth gender. Textbooks and articles typically list the articles or adjectival endings for plurals in the next row or column where a fourth gender would be given if it existed. What this suggests is not completely true, but it is usually an effective approach for non-native speakers studying the language.
Nominal (or noun) phrases
(The content of this section is not yet applicable for proper names.)
A German nominal phrase, in general, consists of the following components in the following order:
article, number (cardinal or ordinal), adjective(s), noun, genitive attribute, position(s), relative clause, reflexive pronoun
- "Die dritte umwerfende Vorstellung des Schillerdramas in dieser Woche in Hamburg"
(the third stunning performance of the drama by Schiller this week in Hamburg)
Of course, most noun phrases are not this complicated; adjectives, numbers, genitive attributes, positions, relative clauses and emphasizers are always optional.
A nominal phrase contains at least a cardinal number, an adjective, a pronoun, or a noun. It always has an article, except if it is an indefinite plural noun or refers to an uncountable mass.
- "Die Drei" (the three of them)
- "Der große Mann" (the tall man)
- "Der Mann" (the man)
If the noun is uncountable, an article is not used; otherwise, the meaning of the sentence changes.
- "Ich kaufe billiges Bier" (I buy cheap beer)
- "Ich kaufe ein billiges Bier" (I buy a bottle/can/glass/... of cheap beer)
- "Ich habe Geld" (I have money)
- "Ich habe das Geld" (I have the money) or (I have enough money to...)
A nominal phrase can be regarded a single unit. It has a case, a number, and a gender. Case and number depend on the context, whereas the main noun determines the gender.
A nominal phrase may have a genitive attribute, for example to express possession. This attribute may be seen as merely another nominal phrase in the genitive case which may hang off another nominal phrase.
- "Der Beruf des alten Mannes" (The profession of the old man.)
- "Die Hütte des Häuptlings des Stammes" (The hut of the chief of the tribe)
- (genitive phrase has its own genitive phrase). This is uncommon in modern German. "Die Hütte des Stammeshäuptlings" (The hut of the tribe's chief) is preferred.
A direct translation of "Der Beruf des alten Mannes" would be "the profession of the old man." "The old man's professions" could be translated directly and correctly as "Des alten Mannes Beruf", though this form is almost never used in modern German.
In early High German, the genitive attribute can consist of a personal pronoun in its genitive case. In modern German, this is no longer used (though it is still correct); the corresponding possessive pronoun is used instead.
- OLD: "Die Gnade seiner" (his grace)
- NEW: "Seine Gnade"
A nominal phrase may contain a "position phrase"; this may be seen as merely another nominal phrase with a preposition (or postposition) or a pronominal adverb (See Adverbial phrases).
- "Eine Wolke am Himmel" (a cloud in the sky)
- "Der Bundeskanzler während des Bürgerkriegs im Kongo" (the Chancellor during the civil war in the Congo)
- (position phrase has its own position phrase)
- "Der Regen im Dschungel im Sommer" (the rain in the jungle in the summer)
- (Several position phrases)
- "Der Berg dort" (that mountain over there)
Extended attribute phrase
German permits lengthy nominal modifiers such as
"Der während des Bürgerkrieges amtierende Premierminister" (literally: the during-the-civil-war office-holding prime minister) or "Die noch zu Anfang des Kurses relativ kleinen, aber doch merklichen Verständigungsschwierigkeiten" (literally: The still-at-the-beginning-of-the-course-relatively-small-but-nevertheless-noticeable communication difficulties).
These are a feature of written (particularly educated) German. One also might hear them in the context of formal oral communications as well (such as news broadcasts, speeches, etc.).
A nominal phrase will often have a relative clause.
Aside from their highly inflected forms, German relative pronouns are less complicated than English. There are two varieties. The more common one is based on the definite article der, die, das, but with distinctive forms in the genitive (dessen, deren) and in the dative plural (denen). Historically this is related to English that. The second, which is more literary and used for emphasis, is the relative use of welcher,welche, welches, comparable with English which. As in most Germanic languages, including Old English, both of these inflect according to gender, case and number. They take their gender and number from the noun they modify, but the case from their function in their own clause.
- Das Haus, in dem ich wohne, ist sehr alt.
- The house in which I live is very old.
The relative pronoun dem is neuter singular to agree with Haus, but dative because it follows a preposition in its own clause. On the same basis, it would be possible to substitute the pronoun welchem.
However, German uses the uninflecting was ('what') as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is alles, etwas or nichts ('everything', 'something', 'nothing'.), or when the antecedent is an entire clause.
- Alles, was Jack macht, gelingt ihm.
- Everything that Jack does is a success.
- Jack vergaß sein Buch, was niemanden überraschte"
- Jack forgot his book, which surprised nobody.
In German, all relative clauses are marked with a comma.
Articles and article-like words
Main article: German articles
The inflected forms depend on the number, the case and the gender of the corresponding noun. Articles have the same plural forms for all three genders.
In relation to nouns, cardinal numbers are placed before adjectives, if any. If the number is relatively low, it is usually not combined with an indefinite plural article (e.g. einige or mehrere). Personal pronouns of the first and second person are placed before numbers. Personal pronouns of the third person cannot be used with numbers.
- "Drei Hunde" (three dogs)
- "Die vier apokalyptischen Reiter" (the four horsemen of the Apocalypse)
- NOT: "Einige fünf Äpfel" BUT: "Einige Äpfel" or "Fünf Äpfel" (some apples, five apples)
- "Ein paar tausend Euro" (a couple of thousand euro)
- "Wir vier" (we four)
The use of cardinal numbers requires the plural form of the noun or nominal phrase.
- NOT: "Zehn Pferd" BUT: "Zehn Pferde" (ten horses)
- EXCEPTION: "Zehn Bier" and "Zehn Biere" are both acceptable, with respect to certain nouns such as beverages.
Whereas "one" is a cardinal number in English, in German the indefinite article is used instead. The meaning is often expressed by intonation.
- "Ein rotes Buch" may mean
- "a red book" - ein rotes Buch; or
- "one red book" - ein rotes Buch
The numbers zwei (two) and drei (three) have endings for case in some cases. Where an adjective would have weak endings, numbers do not have endings. If an adjective had strong endings, these numbers may also have strong endings in the genitive case
- "das Haus zweier junger Frauen" (two young women's house)
If there is no other word carrying the strong ending of the genitive plural, the numbers must carry it.
- "die Reise dreier Schwestern" (three sisters' voyage)
If these numbers are centre of a nominal phrase in the dative plural and no other word carries case markers, they may carry dative endings.
- "Ich habe zweien Bananen gegeben" (I have given bananas to two (of them))(old pronunciation)
Special case for 'eins' in German: It can be represented as: "eins", "eine", "einer", "eines", "einem" or "einen" depending on the sentence. This is because in German, 'eins' means one, while 'ein' (as in "Das ist ein Buch") is the German equivalent of the English word "a" ("This is a book").
Main article: German adjectives
To correctly inflect German adjectives, the case, number and gender of the nominal phrase must be considered along with the article of the noun. German adjectives normally go before the noun which they are changing. German adjectives have an ending before the noun. The ending is normally the letter "-e" in the singular form and "-en" in the plural form.
Like articles, adjectives use the same plural endings for all three genders.
- "Ein lauter Krach" (a loud noise)
- "Der laute Krach" (the loud noise)
- "Der große, schöne Mond" (the big, beautiful moon)
Participles may be used as adjectives and are treated in the same way.
In contrast to Romance languages, adjectives are only declined in the attributive position (that is, when used in nominal phrases to describe a noun directly). Predicative adjectives, separated from the noun by "to be", for example, are not declined and are indistinguishable fromadverbs.
- NOT: "Die Musik ist laute" BUT "Die Musik ist laut" ((the) music is loud)
There are three degrees of comparison: positive form, comparative form and superlative form. In contrast to Latin or Italian, there is no grammatical feature for the absolute superlative (elative).
Main article: German pronouns
The pronouns of the third person may be used to replace nominal phrases. These have the same gender, number and case as the original nominal phrase. This goes for other pronouns, too.
pronoun [position(s)] [relative clause]
| || 1st sg. || 2nd sg. || 3rd sg. || 1st pl. || 2nd pl. || 3rd pl. || 2nd formal |
| Nominative || ich || du || er || sie || es || wir || ihr || sie || Sie |
| Genitive || meiner || deiner || seiner || ihrer || seiner || unser || euer || ihrer || Ihrer |
| Dative || mir || dir || ihm || ihr || ihm || uns || euch || ihnen || Ihnen |
| Accusative || mich || dich || ihn || sie || es || uns || euch || sie || Sie |
Main article: German adverbial phrases
Main article: German verbs
Main article: German conjugation
German verbs may be classified as either weak, with a dental consonant inflection, or strong, showing a vowel gradation (ablaut). Both of these are regular systems. Most verbs of both types are regular, though various subgroups and anomalies do arise. The only completelyirregular verb in the language is "sein" (to be). However, textbooks for foreign learners often class all strong verbs as irregular. There are fewer than 200 strong and irregular verbs, and there is a gradual tendency for strong verbs to become weak.
Main article: German modal particle
Modal particles (Abtönungspartikel) are a part of speech used frequently in spoken German. These words affect the tone of a sentence instead of conveying a specific literal meaning. Typical examples of this kind of word in German are doch, mal, halt, eben, nun, schon, eh orja. Many of these words also have a more basic, specific meaning (e.g. ja "yes", schon "already"), but in their modal use, this meaning is not directly expressed.
Main article: German sentence structure
German sentence structure is somewhat more complex than in other languages, with phrases regularly inverted for both questions and subordinate phrases.
Main article: Separable verb
German has many verbs that have a separable prefix that can be unattached to its root. Examples are aussehen, to appear or look, andvorstellen, to imagine, or to introduce.
- Peter sieht spitze in seinem Anzug aus. Peter looks handsome (lit sharp) in his suit.
- Lori, kennst du meine Frau? Ja? Wer stellte euch vor? Lori, do you know my wife? Yeah? Who introduced you?