Week 8 Anniversary or You Can Have It Both Ways

This example from pons.eu allows me to connect to the earthquake theme and to discuss a concept that can make the German learner feel as though the very foundations of her or his knowledge base are shaking. The example is

nach dem Erdbeben waren nur ein paar Häuser stehen geblieben – “after the earthquake, only a few houses were left standing”

and it uses one of the verbs, stehen (well actually a verb with stehen as its base, stehen bleiben) from a family with some interesting features. Here are eight (or seven depending on how you want to count) of its members.

stehenstellen – “to stand, to be situated” – “to put (in a standing position)”
liegenlegen – “to lie, be situated” – “to put (in a lying position)”
hängen – hängen – ” to be hanging” – “to hang something/someone”
sitzen – (sich) setzen – “to be sitting” – “to sit down”

The first verb in each pair is a “strong” verb, which means that the stem changes with the tense (and in some cases, although not for the four here, it changes with the person and number). The second verb in each pair is a “weak” or regular verb (there are also mixed verbs, perhaps I’ll cover them at some point.) that can be conjugated without a stem change.

The first verb in each pair is also one that is used to describe where something is located. The second describes movement of something somewhere. I’ve seen this described many times as the first set answering the questions Wo? and the second the question Wohin? but my sense is that this would only make sense to someone who already knows German as the distinction between Wo? and Wohin? feels more subtle than the distinction between something being in a place or being moved to a place. Thus I find it more helpful to call the second set the Exercise or E-words. In two of three that have different forms (hängen is conjugated two ways in the past tense but the infinite is the same), the movement-describing (or exercise-describing!) words have “e” as their initial vowel. I also find this helpful because the verbs in the second group require an agent that can “exercise” its right to move things. The remaining pair, stehenstellen feels the simplest to me as an English speaker since “staying” contraindicates movement (or exercise).

If one knows a bit of grammar, one can also differentiate between the first and second members of each pair in terms of transitivity. The first member of each pair is intransitive and the second member is transitive. The best English example that I know comes from “The Language Instinct” by Steven Pinker (A WONDERFUL BOOK, the year it came out in paperback I gave it to almost everyone close to me for Christmas):

“Melvin dined” – “dined” is an intransitive verb, it cannot take an object
“Melvin ate the pizza” – “ate” is a transitive verb, it can take an object or it can stand along “Melvin ate”
“*Melvin dined the pizza” is therefore ill-formed (although you native speakers did not need me to tell you this!)

The final layer of complexity is that these verbs take the so-called “two-way prepositions” whose objects can be in the dative case – the first member of the pair – or in the accusative case – the second member of each pair. One often hears the dative compared to the indirect objective in English and the accusative to the direct object but as you will see below, these word pairs made me rethink the value of this analogy!

Okay, let’s look at some examples, courtesy of a page at the University of Michigan:

stehen, stand, gestanden – stellen, stellte, gestellt
(infinitive, 3rd pers. sing. preterite (simple past), past participle)

First look at the stem change: steh becomes stand when you conjugate stehen in the past tense. Then look at how stell keeps its form. Next look at the table below and notice the meaning difference between the two columns, the location verb is on the left (cyan/turquoise) and the movement or exercise verb is on the right (green).

Eine Mumie stand mitten in ihrem Wohnzimmer (dative: location). Sie stellte die Mumie (accusative: direct object) in die Ecke (accusative: motion).
A mummy stood in the middle of her living room. She put (stood) the mummy in the corner.

These examples also show the different cases that are triggered by the preposition in for the two members of the pair. You use in+dative for the location verb stehen and this is where the indirect object comparison breaks down. No one is receiving a living room as they would be if this were a traditional indirect object, as in for example, “She received a mummy from the British Museum.” You use in+accusative for the exercise verb stellen . Using the accusative for the object being moved fits the direct object (or patient role, to use the linguistic term) but one also uses the accusative for the place to which it is being moved, which is where the analogy with the direct object breaks down unless you want to say that the corner changes from a state of being empty to one of being full.

So, I hear you saying, while stehenstellen seems rather complex, at least you have the clue of two different verb stems. But what about the two forms of hängen? Let’s take a look!

hängen, hing, gehangen – hängen, hängte, gehängt
(infinitive, 3rd pers. sing. preterite (simple past), past participle)

This makes it look pretty easy, one must simply remember that for the location version of this verb, you make a stem change when you conjugate it in the past tense and for the exercise version, you don’t.

Der Kronleuchter hat im Keller (dative: location) gehangen. Wir haben den Kronleuchter (accusative: direct object) ins Wohnzimmer (accusative: motion) gehängt.
The chandelier was hanging in the basement. We hung the chandelier in the living room.

However, creating an example in the past tense conveniently hides the fact that in the present tense BOTH versions are conjugated in exactly the same way, for example in the 3rd pers, sing. both would be er/sie/es hängt. Thus you need to look at the other clues such as the case taken by any prepositional objects and how the verb fares on the “dined” test to make sure you have understood which meaning/verb is intended. Are those chandeliers swaying pretty violently or what?!

One last tidbit that I loved from this page was this explanation of the use of sitzen and sich setzen: “unlike the English “to set,” [sitzen and sich setzen] can only be used with things that have knees and can thus actually sit: people, dolls and puppets, and certain animals, but not, for example, worms, fish, or inanimate objects other than dolls and puppets.” [bold in original] I haven’t found any other sites that confirm this and thus I’d love to hear from native speakers: does this rule fit with your intuitive grasp of Deutsch/German? Meanwhile, I’ll be pondering which leg joints in the animal kingdom might safely be counted as knees!

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