and welcome. It is not gonna be a Word of the Day today but another episode of our German is Easy Learn German onli… what? I promised noch last time? Well, whatever. I need help for that but my philosopher friend had no time this week. So it’ll have to wait a little longer. Yes, I know you’re pissed but because today we’ll learn all there is to know about
So the question most learners have is
“How can I know which case to use? It’s soo confusing.”
The solution however is really really simple. Just check out the question. If you’d ask “Wen?” then it’s going to be Accusative or as we also call it … “wen-Fall”. If you’d ask “wem?” then it’s Dative (or Wem-Fall), for Genitive it’s wessen? and for Nominative it’s wer? Let’s do an example.
- I forgive him.
To forgive is vergeben (away-idea of the ver-prefix, anyone?). Now which case do we have to use this time. Well… let’s look at the question and find out.
- Wem vergebe ich?
SHA – BAAAAAMS. It’s Dative. Now, is that a kick ass system or what?
“But, Emanuel, I don’t know which question to ask in the fir…”
No,no,no… stop being so overly negative. It is really simple whether you like it or not…
Okay… of course I am kidding. This approach works for German kids when they have to determine the case of a thing in school. They can ask they right question because they are native speakers and they KNOW what to use, they just don’t know the name. But for a student this explanation makes
. NO . SENSE .
Some Germans might try and use that to explain cases to you which is normal because for them it works and they are not teachers. Just tell ‘em it doesn’t work or,if they insist it be simple, just nod and say “Ach so” “Aha:”. But if a teacher ever does it… well… have a nap. Or run away. Or cry. Or do some social media stuff with your phone. Or ask your neighbor out on a date. Lot’s of options. Feeling stupid is not one of them.
But anyway… today we’ll get the low down on German cases and never talk about them again (you wish).
We have already talked about cases in general… like… what they are and how they work in different languages so if you want to check this out first to get some background then go here.
Also, I will be using the term box quite a bit. I’ll give a very very quick explanation of what I mean by that in a little bit but if you feel lost or you feel like you want to know more about the boxes and what the deal is with them, the check out this from the archives:
All right. What will we do today? We’ll talk about the German cases. We’ll see when cases are used to begin with and we’ll find out how to determine which is the right one AND, as far as possible, we’ll flesh out the underlying idea of the each of the 5 cases Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative and Neverheardofthatative.
“GEE, the last one doesn’t really exist.”
Well, thanks Cpt. Obvious. Anyways… we have a lot ahead of us. It kinda smells part 2 actually. And you know what that means… today it’s all the boring stuff plus just some essentials without which part 2 is incomprehensible. Sounds good? Cool.
So let’s start with a look at a German sentence and find out when we have to use cases to begin with.
A German sentence basically consists of an action, represented by one or a bunch of verbs and a number of boxes. A box is basically a chunk of words that together answer to one specific question about the action…. like why?, when?, what? and of course who?
Inside a box can be just one word like for instance he or a full side sentence like When I saw her.
Cool. Now, the next thing to understand is that there are different kinds of words. And one group are the words that stand for things or persons from the real world.
Tree is such a word, and so is wish. But also I, you, he or it, because they stand for some entity (thing or person) from the real world. And now comes the crucial point… whenever we want to put one of those words, words for things and persons, into a box we have to put it in a case. Hello? Cpt. Obvious?? Is that you? … hmm… no… anyway. Confusius says
“To put it in a box you have to put it in a case”
And that basically means, that EVERYTHING is in a case. Ugh. Give us a break German!
Luckily, German does give us a break, because the nominative isn’t really a case… it is more like the default factory setting. Words in the dictionary are in nominative case.
- der Tisch, die Wand, die Studenten, ich, du
Those are not in “no case”. Those are in Nominative case. So, in a way, every language has at least one case if you will because every word has at least a basic form. Maybe it doesn’t have other forms (other cases) but it has a basic form. You don’t really “put” a word into nominative case, you just leave it as it is. Here’s a really dumb allergy… uh… alloger. erm… comparison thing. A crazy witch (she stands for German) can turn wood into gold, ponies or garbage. You walk up there with some wood and she gives you back … wood. She hasn’t done anything. Anyone (that stands for language) could have done that. Come and hand me some wood, I can sure hand back wood… but does that mean that I have cas… uh magical inflection powers? No. By the way… does anyone know if I can call in sick if I have a sinus inflection?
So… my whole point is… the Nominative is a case, yes, but it is the default so it doesn’t really require you to do anything. Just leave things as they are.
Now, when can we do that? When can we leave things in nominative?
ONLY the items in one box are allowed to stay in Nominative … the box that answers to Who? as in Who does it? In German, we could call it wer-box. Put in more gram.. hey what’s so funny back there? Beware? Why beware? What? Because it’s full moon and the wer-box is on the loose seeking vict… haha.. how funny. a little concentration please!
So… the grammatical term for this is the subject. The subject stays in Nominative case. All the rest doesn’t. Let’s look at a sentence with lots of stuff in it.
- [Meine Schwester] hat [ich] an [der Montag] [der Stift] auf [der Tisch] gelegt.
- On [Monday], my sister put [the pen] on [the table] for [I].
All the words that represent things or persons from the real world are in  and they are all in the default nominative case. However, my sister is the only one who can stay in it because she is the subject. All the rest has to be put in some other case. Which one? We’ll get to that later. Here are some more examples… all the stuff is in nominative but only the subject is rightfully so.
- [Ich] schlafe [der ganzen Tag].
- [I] sleep all day.
- [Die Frau] geht an [das Wochenende] gern mit [ihre Freundin] tanzen.
- [The woman] likes to go dancing [with friends] [on weekends].
- [Das Fahrrad] hat [ein Platter].
- [The bike] has [a flat tire]
Now of course there can be more than one thing acting as subject.
- [Thomas und seine Freundin] essen [Thunfisch].
There is still only one subject box and the persons and things in that box remain in Nominative.
All right. Now what about this…
- [Steve] ist [ein Idiot].
Steve, a completely random name chosen for example purposes, is clearly the subject here, so he can be in Nominative. Idiot certainly is a word for something from the real world but it is NOT the subject so based on what we’ve learned so far it should change into a different case. And yet, it is in Nominative too. This is a curiosity that often trips up students. It’s true demon name is Prädikatsnomi___ but we must not utter it in full lest it come for us. The true name has the power to summon it, you know. So we’ll just call it. .. weird assignment thing.
The verb isn’t really about what Steve does. Maybe he does nothing but sit in the office and scratches his belly. It is about what he is. Maybe he’s the fraternity buddy of some network executive, or just an idiot. Either way, the sentence is just an assignment… kind of like an equation. Steve = idiot.
In fact, in Arabian you wouldn’t even necessarily say a verb there. You would just say
But anyway,so for these sort of equations, German uses Nominative for both sides and that is also true for a few verbs that kind of group around to be…
- Maria wird mal eine gute Mutter.
- Maria will be a good mother.
- Thomas bleibt ein guter Sänger.
- Thomas remains/stays/will always be a good singer.
There are a couple more (sich fühlen als – to feel as, sich erweisen als to turn out as) but sein, werden and bleiben are really the important ones.
Now, I don’t really know why it is that way. And in English it is different …
- You are me.
- Du bist mich/mir… WRONG
- Du bist ich.
- You are I… WRONG
so I guess there is not some deeper logic to it but as you can see in the English examples (or make some up in your own language), getting it wrong is a pretty big mistake.
All right. And that’s it for the Nominative. It is the default case of all things and beings but only the subject can be left in it. The rest has to dress up in a different case as soon as it want to be part of a sentence. It might be Accusative, it might be Dative and it might be Genitive although the Genitive is so rare that it almost doesn’t count for a beginner and even less for someone who isn’t learning German at all”… oh hey Cpt. Obvious, there you are again. “I have my name because I say things that are obvious.”
Yes, thanks, we know that. Can you also tell us a method to pick the right case for all the stuff that is not allowed to remain in Nominative? Cpt. Obvious? I asked you a question? Hmm… he’s gone.
How to pick the right case – one HUGE difference
Let’s take the sentence we had earlier… the one with lots of stuff in it.
- [Meine Schwester] hat [ich] an [der Montag] [der Stift] auf [der Tisch] gelegt.
- On [Monday], my sister put [the pen] on [the table] for [I].
We already know that sister is fine in Nominative because she is the subject and we also know that all the [rest] has to be in some other cases. Now, if we want to find that out we need to distinguish between two cases… and no, this is not Cpt. Obvious again… I mean that there are two ways in which those words that stand for things or person can be put into a sentence, or better a box… some can be put in directly or by using a preposition that connects it…. you know… little words like at, to or for. Which way works when for which element depends on the verb. It has nothing to do with the real world roles.
- I am awaiting a tea.
- I am waiting for a tea.
So… those are the 2 ways. They exist in English as well as in German but sometimes English uses the prep-way when German uses the direct way and vice versa.
Now, which way is used in German makes a tremendous difference how a thing or person is put in.
Because there are 2 distinct set of case-rules for each way, heck, Dative and Accusative even have a distinct core idea for each way and those rules and ideas have NOTHING to do with each other. They are actually contradictory in part. So the first thing you need to do is ask yourself this: I there a preposition involved. If so, you check the preposition rules. If no, go for the other rules. And don’t try to find a common ground. You will fail. There is one aspect in which the 2 ways are really 100% contradictory. But we’ll get to that.
Now, the preposition rule set has its difficulties but for the most part, it is just brute force rules.
- mit, bei, von, zu, aus, seit, ab (and 1652 rare ones) – always Dative
- bis, durch, für, gegen, ohne, um (and 543 rare ones) – always Accusative
And always means always. No questions asked. No deeper meaning. No underlying logic. There is none. Just learn it and use it. There are also some that need Genitive but those are kind of rare… I couldn’t even get a hold of one for an example.
The tricky part about this set of rules are the prepositions that work with both, Accusative and Dative. There is some logic and a core idea for each case behind that but you have to think really abstract sometimes. But it would be too much to get into that today so let’s just move on.
The other set is for the stuff that is put in directly. And that is what we’ll focus on for the rest of this. We will ignore all the stuff that is behind prepositions.
- Meine Schwester hat [ich???] a[m Montag] [ein Stift???] auf [den Tisch] gelegt.
We ignore Monday and table because they are preceded by a preposition. We care about the case of the stuff put in directly. And that depends… surprise surprise … mainly on the verb or what it stands for. But… for Genitive it is really just the verb.
The Genitive case exists in English too and it is pretty obvious by its s.
- Mom’s pancakes’ taste’s complexity is unparalleled.
That is Genitive of mom, pancakes and taste... not of complexity.
Genitive expresses possession. But not everything indicating possession is automatically a Genitive.
- my car
My indicates possession but it is not Genitive. My is a possessive pronoun and it doesn’t have a Genitive form in English. In German, it does.
- mein Auto – Nominative
- meines Autos - Genitive
German and English Genitive share the same idea but the don’t share the same mechanics. English marks the noun, German marks noun AND article. The German Genitive element, so the person or thing who owns something can be put before and after the possessed thing.
- meines Fahrrads Rad…
- my bike’s tire…
- das Rad meines Fahrrads
- the tire of my bike…
And while the first version is totally okay in English most of the time, it sounds super ancient and poetic in German. No one talks like that anymore.
- My IPhone’s battery sucks.
- Meines IPhones Akku ist scheiße…. mein König.
This is just funny … unless you need to make a call.
- Der Akku meines Iphones…
This is okay. But for daily purposes even this is a bit too fancy. German has come up with quite a number of alternatives one of which pretty much resembles the English of-approach.
- Der Akku von meinem Iphone…
- (Mein IPhone sein Akku)….
The second version is highly colloquial, grammatically wrong and funny but the first one is super common and accepted in daily speech. Some people have even given it a new case name (as a joke) … the Vonative. You might want to drop that in German class… like.. “Oh yeah, that’s a Vonnativ.”You’re teacher might be really confused but then he or she will find it funny and make you pass the exam.
And you should go with the Vonnativ. It is a save bet. It always works and in quite a few occasions a real Genitive would sound a little scripted. And what about the pan cake example? Can I really use 3 Vonnatives in a row?
- Die Komplexität von dem Geschmack von den Pfannkuchen von meiner Mutter …
Well, it is maybe stylistically not the most beautiful thing ever said but 3 pure Genitives in a row is a little heavy too.
- Die Komplexität des Geschmacks der Pfannkuchen meiner Mutter ist…
Now that is true Genitive… it hurts the eye as much as it hurts the brain to build it. Seriously, the Genitive is the most difficult case of all in German. Not the most difficult when it comes to understanding the concept but the most difficult when it comes to putting it in practice. The endings are the most complex,many nouns will carry endings and above all … you never know if it is even idiomatic to use it.
Some say that Genitive is dying out. That is not true. Genitive just gradually switches jobs. It is a fancy case and it doesn’t want to bother with the every day crap like “my dog’s poo”… let the Vonnative do it… or some other weird ways.
Genitive focuses on higher things. Newspapers and books are full of it. It connects important sounding nouns and whenever a new preposition is born… Genitive will be its nanny for the first few decades until Dative takes over. I am not kidding. That happened to wegen. And it will happen to anstatt.
If you want to write proper German you will have to learn the Genitive eventually. But for a beginner it is definitely a waste of time. The Vonnative.. oh god, I keep calling it that, please… don’t forget, it’s just a joke name… so … the von-way can express all you need to express about possession without making you sound stupid. So go for that and let the Genitive slowly trickle into your system while you deal with more important stuff.
Now, the one thing the von-way can’t help you with is when the verb demands Genitive. What? Verbs do that? Yes. Some do. For instance harren… or sich entsinnen. Never heard of them? That’s because they are rare. I can’t think of one verb you would REALLY need in your active, daily vocabulary that wants Genitive.
And if you have one… well, you’ll just have to learn the case with it. It is not just sich entsinnen but sich einer Sache entsinnen... which is a kind of remembering by the way. There is no deeper sense why it is Genitive and not a different case. It just grew that way.
All right… and that’s it for today. We’ll save the other two for next time. I told you it would only be the boring stuff, didn’t I :).
If you have any questions or suggestions about what we’ve said so far, go ahead and leave me a comment. I hope you liked it and see you next time. Either with part 2 or with noch... your call.
And to give you a little inside into crazy German… here’s the pancake example again … this time with the highly colloquial alternative for Genitive. It looks random but it is correct within its wrongness. Goethe would have cried.
- Meine Mutter ihr seine Pfannkuchen den ihr Geschmack ihm seine Komplexität ist unerreicht.