Cases – German instruments of torture

April 5, 2013 at 12:01 pm

Photo: Frédéric Reisgen

The 8th century was an age of cruelty, where plagues decimated the populations of Europe, human sacrifices to the gods were not unknown and enslavement was an occupational hazard.

A recognisable version of the German language can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of the 8th century. And for learners of German, the grammatical cases – a relic from these cruel, cruel days – still inflict pain and sadness more than a millennium later.

What are the grammatical cases in German?

The case of a noun explains the role of that item in the sentence: what it is doing or what is being done to it.

The challenges for English speakers learning German come from the mix of genders (which you have to learn with each word) and cases.

In English we have the man, the car, the sausage. In German they are der Mann, das Auto and die Wurst (masculine, neuter, feminine). In the nominative case anyway, which is used for the subject of the sentence.

The accusative case is used for the direct object of the sentence, ie. the thing that is being visited, opened, learned, etc. In the accusative, you have den Mann, das Auto and die Wurst

The dative case is used for the indirect object of a sentence. Eg. I give the car to the man – Ich (nominative) gebe dem (dative) Mann das (accusative) Auto.

The genitive case is used to show possession, eg. The man whose car I stole – Der Mann dessen Auto ich stahl.

Some verbs, however, can only be used with dative objects, like antworten (to answer) and helfen (to help). See here for more.

Why doesn’t English have grammatical cases?

English does have grammatical cases.

They are significantly less noticeable than in German (or Greek, the Slavic languages or Icelandic) but they are there, particularly in personal pronouns. But they are becoming less common there too.

For example, whom is a relic from the dative case in English and corresponds in meaning with the modern German vem. But whereas vem is very much alive in German, correct use of whom in English is becoming less common, with many people following their ears and using who instead.

Old English had five grammatical cases which were largely lost in the centuries after 1066 when French started to have a significant influence on the British Isles. The Romance languages do not make extensive use of cases and so a middle-ground naturally appeared in English: a Germanic language with huge Romance influence.

The result is that the meaning of an English sentence is determined by word order more than inflections.

Can I just learn German and ignore the cases?

You can, but you really, really shouldn’t as you wouldn’t end up speaking real German.

The sooner you get to grips with the German grammatical cases and how they affect meaning, the better. You can use incorrect genders in German and people will probably understand what you are talking about, but the meaning of a German sentence comes from the cases. Viel Spaß!

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