I thought I’d return to earthquakes for inspiration in this first post of the second week of the Earthquake Words blog. To help me, I checked out a children’s book on volcanos and earthquakes (just the sort of thing I devoured as a young girl). One of the first things that struck me was that I found it quite a bit easier to read this piece of non-fiction than to read fiction aimed at roughly the same age group. I see two reasons why this might be so. First, and perhaps obviously, non-fiction mainly sticks to a theme. When you know the theme, your guesswork is simplified. For example, if a word has multiple meanings, some of them are excluded by the context. In a book about volcanos, you are on relatively safe ground assuming that der Ausbruch means “eruption” rather than “outburst” or “escape.”
The second thing that I have noticed about children’s fiction is that it tends to use the simple past tense rather than using the compound tense that is more commonly heard in speech. And in German, for many irregular verbs the simple past tense is is anything but simple…as a couple of examples will illustrate.
SEHEN – “to see”
Friendly compound tense: Ich habe das gesehen
Scary simple tense: Ich sah das
GEBEN – “to give”
Friendly compound tense: Ich habe ihr es gegeben
Scary simple tense: Ich gab ihr es
KOMMEN – “to come”
Fairly friendly compound tense: Ich bin gekommen (this is a compound formed with sein “to be” rather than the more common haben “to have”)
Scary simple tense: Ich ging
I chose the words above for their relatively straightforward form in the compound tense (in fact, they might be a misleadingly easy because their past participles are irregular in that they keep the –en ending rather than replacing it with a t as happens with regular verbs: SAGEN “to say” past participle – gesagt, simple past – ich sagte). But to give German its due as a source of word forms that really shake things up, here are a few other examples in the form INFINITIVE “translation” – simple past form where the infinitive and the simple past tense diverger greatly: DENKEN “to think” – dachte; ESSEN “to eat” – aß; GIEßEN “to pour” – goss; LEIDEN “to suffer” – litt; and SITZEN “to be sitting” – saß.
My favorite, though, is ZIEHEN “to pull, to draw, to move, to go” – zog (past participle gezogen). It is an incredibly productive verb that enters into a large number of set expressions and can be coupled with a large number of prefixes. As a result, you see and hear words and phrases built from this irregular base all over the place.
In researching this post, I not only rekindled my love for the earth sciences, but also discovered that my struggles when trying to read children’s fiction in German are not that surprising given it is a general rule that written language uses the simple past and spoken language the compound past (for more on forming the past tense in German, click here).