How to Talk About Doing Things to Stuff in German (aka German Accusative Case Articles)

Did you know that der, die, and das aren’t the only ways of saying “the” in German? (I didn’t) Sometimes, instead of der, you’re supposed to use den. As I learn more and more verbs, I come across this bit of grammar more and more frequently, and I’ve finally decided to learn more about it. Here’s what I found:

It’s called the accusative case, and it kicks in when something is being acted upon. For example, the sentence, “I drink the coffee”is accusative. In it, the coffee is being acted upon by me, when I drink it. In German, when a masculine noun is being acted upon its articles (the, a/an) change.

I’ve already talked a little bit about German articles, and now it’s time to add a couple more: the accusative den (the) and einen (a/an). For example, we can look at the word Kaffee (coffee), which is masculine and normally takes the articles der and ein. In the accusative case, those change.
If I want to say “I drink the coffee”, it’s “Ich trinke den Kaffee,” not “Ich trinke der Kaffee.” That’s because Ich (I) am acting on (drinking) the Kaffee.

Likewise, to say “I drink a coffee,” it’s “Ich trinke einen Kaffee”, rather than “Ich trinke ein Kaffee.”

person-woman-coffee-cup
Sie trinkt den Kaffee und sie trinkt einen Kaffee. I hope she likes coffee!

It’s important to note that this only happens to masculine nouns, so remembering the gender of a word is important. I have no idea why the masculine nouns are the only ones to change, and it’s going to bother me no end. Gender roles? Ease of pronunciation? To distinguish ein masculine from ein neutral? I guess that’s material for another post!

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The SIMPLEST POSSIBLE German Verb Conjugations: Present tense regular -en

I’ve been putting off learning how to conjugate verbs (that is, make them work with the pronoun. For example: I walk_, she walks) all week. Today, though, I learned the word for “walk” – gehen. That brings my arsenal of regular (that is, conjugation rule-abiding) verbs up to a total of three: trinken – “to drink”, kommen – “to come”, and gehen – “to walk”.

In the grand scheme of things it’s a tiny number, but it’s enough to make me uncomfortable knowing that I don’t 100% understand how to use them. And so, with much hesitance, today I am officially dipping my toes in the deep and frigid waters of conjugation. Lucky for me, conjugating regular verbs in the present tense is shaping up to be about as painless as learning conjugations can be. Thank you, Germany!

As far as I can tell, here’s how it works:

Every regular verb (and ever irregular verb, for that matter, but I’ll worry about that later) has a dictionary form which translates into English as to (verb), eg, to talk. In German, these verbs generally end with -en. Gehen, trinken, kommenetc.

To begin conjugating a word, remove the -en ending, and replace it with the one that corresponds to the pronoun that you want to use. Those endings are:

  • Ich (I): – e
  • Du (You informal): – st
  • Es/Sie/Er (It/She/He): -t
  • Wir (We): -en
  • Ihr (Y’all): -t
  • Sie (They or You formal): -en

In the case of gehen, when we take away –en we get the root geh. When conjugated in the present tense, this becomes

  • Ich gehe
  • Du gehst
  • Es/Sie/Er geht
  • Wir gehen
  • Ihr geht
  • Sie gehen

You probably noticed that in reality there are only four endings, that are just reused for different pronouns. It can be confusing to listen to/read if you don’t know your pronouns that well yet (I’m working on it!) but it sure is easy for memorizing forms of the verb.

Of course, not all verbs are this well behaved (regular). But from what I’ve seen, even the ones who break the rules don’t break them that much. More on those…when I’m forced to.

I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

Plural Nouns

German is a kick-ass language. As in, its grammar is kicking my ass. It is, in every respect, more complicated than I anticipated.

Not that I object. I’m always up for a challenge. Or multiple challenges. Today: learning to make nouns plural!

According to Duolingo, these are the basic guidelines:

Single-Syllable Words…

…Tend to take the ending -e. So, for example, das Brot becomes die Brote

Masculine/Neutral Nouns…

...Tend to take the ending -er, and sometimes gain umlauts (those pretty little double dots above a letter. For example, ü ). So der Mann becomes die Männer, and das Kind becomes die Kinder

…Unless they end in -chen, -lein, -el, -er! Then, their endings may not change, but they still might acquire an umlaut.

Feminine Nouns…

…Tend to take the ending -n or -en. eg, die Frau becomes die Frauen, and die Kartoffel becomes die Kartoffeln.

…Unless they end in -in!  In that case, they take the ending -nen.

Foreign-Origin Nouns…

…Take the ending -s. Sound a bit familiar?

One last thing: did you notice what der and das did when they went plural? They also turned feminine! Apparently, plural nouns always use the feminine “the”, die. That’s pretty neat.

And that’s it! Not as bad as it looked on paper. Of course, like any language, I’m sure German is just overflowing with exceptions – but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Der, Die, Das

So, I mentioned in an earlier post that German has three genders, and that it was going to be tricky. News flash: it still is! Thankfully, unlike with French, I’m guiding my own learning in German. So I’ve decided, unlike when I was taught French, that I will build gender into every word I learn. For this, the words der, die, and das have been very helpful. They all mean “the”, but der is masculine, die is feminine, and das is neutral. So, for example, when I learn the word Fisch (Fish), I actually learn der Fisch (the Fish). That way I don’t forget that Fisch is male later on.

vintage_siblings_by_piratedpictures-d7x43gt
In German, “Junge” (boy) is masculine, while “Mädchen” (girl) is neutral. Photo credit: http://piratedpictures.deviantart.com/

The difficult thing about all this (just when I thought it wasn’t going to get more complicated) is that the gender of a word doesn’t necessarily correspond with the gender of the person to which it refers. So, for example, Mädchen (girl) is das Mädchen. It takes the neutral “the”. Even more odd: Junge (boy) is der Junge. So “boy” has a gender, while “girl” doesn’t. How cool is that?! Linguistically, does that mean that girls acquire gender later in life while boys are born with it?

Nobody I’ve told about this in real life has been quite as excited/curious as I am, so I’m throwing my excitement into the void that is the internet instead. Maybe I should have been a linguistics student after all…