Despite leaping advances in technology, and chips which quadruple in computing power every year, the good people at Microsoft haven't been able to make a German grammar checker for Word (check if you don't believe me). There's a good reason for this. It's a real bastard. However, after years of frustration, I've distilled it into a few basic pointers:
Got your attention now? All German nouns have a sex or gender. This is similar to French, Italian and Spanish except that the Germans decided to make up three sexes. If that concept sounds odd to you, believe me it doesn't get any better with age. Just take it as read that each noun is either masculine, feminine or neutral. OK, that is pretty easy for "man" (masculine) or "woman" (feminine) or "book" (thing). But why is a girl neutral? How can a pub or a bar be feminine when wine is masculine and beer is neutral? How could beer possibly be sexless? Ships and boats are neutral and yet ferries are feminine. An Auto and a Fahrzeug are neutral but a Wagen is masculine and yet they are all just cars. And how in God's name can an erection be feminine?
All this just shows there is no point trying to make sense of it, which leads us to Buster's first rule of German:
Don't worry about gender - you'll get the sex wrong anyway.
Why do we care about gender anyway? Ah, well that's the next nasty trick. They decided that to keep people on their toes (and to thwart generations of foreigners trying to learn it), German would have a different word for the in each gender. That's right, you read correctly. There is der Mann, die Frau and das Buch. And that's just 'the'; there are three different words for 'a' or 'an', three different words for 'that', 'this' and 'those', three different word for 'his', hers' and 'their'. Confused? I'm not even warmed up yet.
In case you missed that last point, let me repeat that there are three forms for 'this'. So there's 'this book' (dieses Buch), 'this woman' (diese Frau) and 'this man' (dieser Mann). And then there's the plural (diese Männer) which often looks like the feminine but isn't. Confused now? It only gets worse. The word 'her', for example, is feminine, right? Wrong - it takes the form of the noun, so there is Ihr Mann (her husband - masculine) but Ihre Jacke (feminine) for her coat.
Like I said, lets ignore gender. Let's move on to the Cases
If you studied Latin you will know that there are cases in languages. Each case represents a different part of a sentence. Even English has cases but we don't use them. To explain cases is impossible, it's a leap of faith thing. To illustrate by example take this phrase:
The black cat laid a big turd on your mother's carpet.
cat is nominative - it the subject of the phrase
turd is the direct object - it's the thing that was crapped. It is
The carpet is the thing that was crapped on, it's a by-product (nice pun!) of the verb happening to the direct object. Therefore it's dative.
Your mother is genitive, the case which shows possession, as in the carpet belongs to your mother.
turd is the direct object - it's the thing that was crapped. It is
On top of that I've also thrown in a couple of adjectives. These are words like big and black which describe the nouns. Yes, I know it's dull, but bear with me, this is leading somewhere - to the next crappy rule; the nouns, adjectives and pronouns will change according to case. Or more succinctly:
All the words change all the time
Got that? Think it's easy? Well read on:
Let's assume we've got a tomcat, which is masculine. A black cat is 'der schwar ze Kater'. Or at least it is when it's the subject. If it's somewhere else in the sentence it becomes 'den schwarzen Kater', dem schwarzen Kater' or 'des schwarzen Katers' according to case. Unless another bastard tomcat comes along in which case its 'die Schwarzen Kater', 'den Schwarzen Katern', 'die Schwarzen Kater' and 'der Schwarzen Kater'. We have to assume you happened to be talking about a specific tomcat or tomcats and not tomcats in general in which case all bets are off and it's a whole new list. Notice how all the words changed some of the time but not always? Get used to it.
The word Kater is also slang for a hangover which I thought you might find appropriate. A tomcat is also masculine. There are other lists for feminine and neutral nouns. If you've been paying attention that means 4 cases and 3 genders giving 12 possible combinations. Add the plural (another 4) and you've got 16 combinations to learn so start with just for the definate article (i.e. the). Trust me and give up now.
In case you think you're really bloody clever and can do the mental arithmetic to work out what case everything is in each sentence at the same time as speaking it, AND you can learn every word and its gender, AND you can learn the lists of what changes when according to case, be warned: it's not that simple. There are loads of exceptions, for example we've still got prepositions and conjunctions and verbs to consider.
Prepositions and conjunctions are the collection of funny little words that join sentences. Words like on, near, for, by, opposite, between and with. Nice, useful words. Now here's the catch. Some of these little buggers demand a certain case. Whatever follows 'with', for example, is always dative. There is no logic to this, you've just got to learn 'em. Ditto with Verbs. Some verbs demand a certain case. There are some extremely tedious books that list these verbs and all you can do is learn 'em. Or ignore them, which I advise.
I've bored you stupid with the background and its now time to get pragmatic.
How can you get around these lists and actually speak the language?
if you practise long enough you eventually get the hang of it most of
the time. But even if you emigrate to deepest Bavaria, marry a local
farmer's daughter and spend 50 years giving speeches in local government
you will still make gender and case errors. Even Germans do. My advise
is to distil the lists to the bare minimum and you'll then realise a
lot of the cases either repeat themselves or sound similar. Although
different on paper, you often can't hear the difference between 'dem'
and 'den' or 'keiner' and 'keine'. So
my solution (and rule three) is simple:
Well, if you practise long enough you eventually get the hang of it most of the time. But even if you emigrate to deepest Bavaria, marry a local farmer's daughter and spend 50 years giving speeches in local government you will still make gender and case errors. Even Germans do. My advise is to distil the lists to the bare minimum and you'll then realise a lot of the cases either repeat themselves or sound similar. Although different on paper, you often can't hear the difference between 'dem' and 'den' or 'keiner' and 'keine'.
So my solution (and rule three) is simple:
right anything down, and MUMBLE.
Never right anything down, and MUMBLE.
Hopefully you're convinced not to give grammar a second look. Just remember, you've got the sex wrong, and everything changes all the time anyway, and then there are tedious lists of exceptions, so what's the point? If you can accept that there is no point, then we're getting somewhere.
The human brain is only capable of holding so much pain. By the time you've closed your first German grammar book, you're beyond this threshold and there is no room for more hurt. It's the same for German pre-schoolers, so now things get simpler. In short, the fourth rule:
There is no room for any more confusion
Where English gets hard, German gets easy: namely with verbs and vocabulary. Where we invent a new word for every nuance possible, there is simply no space left in a German cranium so they have to invent as few words a possible to cover all those little differences*. A simple trick is to add a small word to something to change its meaning - that way, you learn a one-off list of small words, a couple of verbs and the odd bit of vocab and you're off and running.
For example, take the verb Brechen to break. Add 'ein' and you get einbrechen (break in or rob), or 'ver' to get Verbrecher (burglar) and zerbrechen (break into little pieces) and so on. Think of it as having precious little hard drive space in your German speaking brain, you've got to compress the data. Just change words by adding little fillers to them.
Du bist ein totale Babe. You want to sleep with me?
Hey, who won the war anyway?
Haefst thu hors to sellenne? Norse:
Hefir thu hross at selja? Ek hefi tvau hors enn einn er aldr. A
simpler and understandable pigeon English developed, where many verb
endings and the gender of nouns were dropped, and plurals and adjectives
were simplified. Over time, this became the accepted language with
a much simplified grammatical structure. Many of the nouns where kept,
which is how English developed a rich vocabulary: words of Anglo-Saxon
and Norse origin were kept, as for example hide (Anglo-Saxon)
and skin (Norse), ,
find it beautifully ironic that we have the Germans to thank for the
simplicity English language.
English:Have you a horse to sell? I have two horses but one is old.
Anglo-Saxon: Haefst thu hors to sellenne?Ic haebbe tu hors ac an is eald.
Norse: Hefir thu hross at selja? Ek hefi tvau hors enn einn er aldr.
A simpler and understandable pigeon English developed, where many verb endings and the gender of nouns were dropped, and plurals and adjectives were simplified. Over time, this became the accepted language with a much simplified grammatical structure. Many of the nouns where kept, which is how English developed a rich vocabulary: words of Anglo-Saxon and Norse origin were kept, as for example hide (Anglo-Saxon) and skin (Norse),craft (Anglo-Saxon) and skill (Norse)
, orwish (Anglo-Saxon) and want (Norse).
I find it beautifully ironic that we have the Germans to thank for the simplicity English language.