Monthly Archives: June 2015

Upstairs, downstairs

I needed to use the words “upstairs” and “downstairs” – treppauf and treppab – today and I realized that the morpheme »ab« was confounding me as I tried to learn which form was which. The verb with »ab« as a prefix that I use most often is abholen– “to pick up something or somebody” and so »ab« has become associated with “up” in my mind. Learning that treppab means “downstairs” made it crystal clear that this association was not a helpful one from which to generalize. A search turned up a discussion of separable verbs and the most common meanings of the separable prefixes. »Ab«, according to this page at Dartmouth “usually…carries the notion of ‘away from.'” On the list was another »ab« prefixed word that I use with some regularity: ablenken. One of its primary meanings is “to distract” with the sense of “taking someone’s attention ‘away from’ something.” This should work long enough to help me master up- and downstairs and to discourage me relying on abholen to derive the meaning of »ab« when added to another word. Let’s hope it’s not enough distract me into thinking that abstimmen means “to vote down” something – that’s niederstimmen – or to make me want to niederbrennen – `’burn down” – or niederreißen – “tear down” – anything.

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Zu Tränen gerührt sein?

Es gibt eine Konkurrenz zwischen zwei Regeln in meinem Kopf:
• die Präpositionen, die den Akkusativ regieren, wenn man etwas oder sich selbst in Bewegung setzt und
• die Präpositionen, die den Dativ regieren, und in einem Zusammenhang mit Bewegung häufig zu finden sind

Zum Beispiel muss man sagen »Ich fliege nach den Staaten« und »Ich gehe zum Arzt« und nicht »Ich fliege nach *die Staaten« und »Ich gehe zu *den Arzt,« obwohl »fliegen« und »gehen« bestimmt Bewegungen sind.

Weil ich jetzt für diese Konkurrenz besseres Verständnis habe, stoße ich vielleicht nicht so oft auf diesen Stolperstein.


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I, E, I, E, Oh!

Have you ever had a sense of panic that you might have been mispronouncing something for years and no one ever told you? I had such a moment recently when I was reviewing the variety of ways you can form plural nouns in German. There is a subcategory of words that end in »e« (or unstressed »el« or »er«) where there is no need to add an extra »e« when forming their plural forms. Two examples from this list that I use regularly are die Energie and die Familie. When seeing them together on the list of words that refers to as e-Tilgung bei Endung -en (“e-deletion triggered by an -en ending”), I was suddenly thrown into doubt about how their final syllables – »gie« and »lie« – were pronounced.

What’s additionally challenging about this is that one of the first mnemonics you are given for German pronunciation is that with the »ie« and »ei« combinations you pronounce them by saying the name of the second letter of the combo in the ENGLISH alphabet. Therefore »ie« is pronounced like the letter “E” and »ei« is pronounced like the letter “I.”

With doubt sometimes come enlightenment, however. In this case, I discovered that there is a pronunciation rule that governs final »ie« in German (you can read about it and listen to some examples here: In a nutshell, because the stress in Energie falls on the final syllable [enɛrˈgi:], the »ie« is pronounced as you would expect, namely a “long e” [i:] sound as in the English word “bee.” On the other hand, because the stress falls on the second syllable in  Familie [faˈmi:lə] (i.e., the final syllable is unstressed), the »ie« is pronounced [ə] similarly to the final syllable of the North American pronunciation of the English word “cafeteria” [kæfəˈtɪriə].

What is fabulous about learning this pronunciation rule is that I can now purchase parsley – die Petersilie – at the Isemarkt with a confident [ə] on the end! The only other question is then glatt oder kraus.

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Liebe auf den zigsten Blick?

Letzter Donnerstag beschrieb ich, wie ich PONS den Laufpass gab. Aber dieser Donnerstag bin ich mich mal wieder verliebe, weil ich ihres »Deutsche Grammatik & Rechtschreibung« fand. Mein Vertrauen in PONS wiederherstellte, hätte ich nun die Energie, um einen Beschwerdebrief über »Grammatik in Bildern« zu schreiben. Bleiben Sie dran!



Noch ein paar Beispiele von diesem schrecklichen PONS Bilderbuch:

Es gibt nur »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 140) und »Die Ableitungen mit trennbaren Präfixen« (S. 142-143). Keine von den, dass trennbar und untrennbar sein, nämlich (laut durch, über, um, unter, wider.

»Die Ableitung mit Suffixen« (S. 144- 147 fehlt fünfte der Häufigsten -heit, -(ig)keit, -ei, -schaft und -ung.


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Meaningless Coincidence?

Sometimes I notice a relationship between two words that do not in fact share etymology or morphology. When I make such a connection, I worry about whether I should persist in using it to help me increase my vocabulary or avoid using it because it doesn’t reflect reality. Today’s example involves noticing that both verwirrt and geirrt have »irr« inside them. To me, the meanings of “confused” and “mistaken” seem quite similar and so it made sense for these words to have a common morpheme. That is not, however, the case. The »irr« in verwirrt comes from the stem wirr which also means “confused,” while the »irr« in geirrt comes from irre, which means “mad” (in the sense of “insane”), via the verb irren – “to err.” According to Duden online, the roots of these two words are also different.

So, what do I do with this discovery? It feels helpful to me to see them as related and yet I worry what confusion it might bring or what mistakes I might be led to make, given the relationship exists in my head and not in the structure or history of German. And mistakes are probably very likely as according to, there are 371 words which have »irr« as a component and 61 of these contain »wirr.« Many of the words with »irr« are unrelated to the concepts of confusion and error, for example, das Geschirr – “dishes” – while others like der Irrgarten – “maze” – do share some components. And the same goes for »wirr.«  Das Geschwirr is a “buzz” or a “whirring” sound, while wirrköpfig means “muddleheaded.”

My sense is, therefore, that I should tread somewhat carefully when the commonalities I notice comprise only a few letters/sounds – as in the case of »irr« – while feeling on firmer ground with those such as (der) Zufall appearing in the adjective zufällig – in this latter case, it is no “accident” that “coincidence” and “random” share components.

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English, German or Heavy Metal?

I’ve written before about the challenges of syllabification in learning German in Uh-oh, a stop and Breaking up is hard to do and this morning I finally figured out a mistake I was making in trying to figure out an English name. On my run, I go by a column covered in posters for upcoming musical events. I’ve been looking at one of them for a few days and not been able to make sense of the band’s name. My first mistake was to imagine from the somewhat gothic writing that they were a German group (not so, they hail from Texas) rather than a heavy metal one (true). My second mistake flowed from assuming it was a German name and thus should be broken up in German fashion. The third problem is that running and trying to read gothic-style letters at the same time is not as simple as it might first appear. (For those interested in the use of gothic or blackletter fonts, here’s a piece on some of their musical and cultural resonances:

Today I stopped. I looked hard. The mysterious HELLY|FAT or HELLY|FAH was suddenly clearly HELL|YEAH. Phew.

Which got me to pondering the words bisherig and bisher. The first was familiar to me from having moved so often and needing to provide my Bisherige Anschrift – “previous address.” However, I’d never heard this word spoken and made the English-language-driven mistake of syllabifying it in my head as bish•er•i•ge where the “sh” is rendered as [ʃ] as sch would be in German. (Also at play may be the fact that my last name “Hirsh” was anglicised by my grandfather, making it easier for me to see  »sh« as an alternate spelling for »sch« and I’m not helped by the fact that there are many, many loan words with the »sh« spelling and the [ʃ] pronunciation in German.) The actual syllabification and pronunciation is [bɪsˈhe:rɪgə].

I was disabused of this error when I first heard the word bis•her [bɪsˈhe:ɐ̯] – “until now” or “up until now” or “currently” or “yet” – spoken last Saturday. More than the usual number of participants had arrived for Dialog in Deutsch, and so although there was only one leader, we split into two groups. Luckily, at the Wednesday group, one of the leaders had brought a number of sentence stems to start us off on a discussion of our pasts (and to help us practice the perfect tense). The one with bisher in it was Die schwerste Aufgabe in meinem Leben war bisher… It turned out that for many of the group this most difficult task was making or coming to terms with the decision to live in Germany.





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Strange attractors

Today I saw a program being advertised by indicating that it was unterhaltsam – “entertaining,” “enjoyable,” “amusing” or “diverting,” according to online. It wasn’t this new word that struck me, however, but rather the thought that seltsam – “strange” – and selten – “rare(ly)” or “seldom” (notice the spelling similarity selt/d-m) – must be related. Naturally, something that rarely happens is very likely to seem strange. And luckily for me, this sort of something is also likely to seem entertaining, enjoyable, amusing and diverting, once noticed.

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Sagt ein Fehler mehr als 1000 Wahrheiten?!

Heute habe ich das Buch »Grammatik in Bildern Deutsch als Fremdsprache – Jeder kann Grammatik lernen« bei der Bücherhalle Barmbek gefunden. Es ist total neu, in 2015 veröffentlich. Ich liebe den Begriff: man kann mit Bilder schneller lernen und Ideen länger im Kopf behalten. Aber ein guter Begriff allein sind gar nicht genug. Der schriftliche Inhalt muss auch wertvoll sein. Da liegt der Hase im Pfeffer. Als ich das Buch las, fand ich auf Seite 12 zwei Fehler. Die Beispiele für die Laute [b] und [ʒ] sind falsch. Es steht, dass in dem Wort »Ball« der »a« mit [b] verbindet ist. Und auch das, dass in dem Wort »Garage« der »G« mit [ʒ] verbindet ist.

Laut    Bespiel
[b]       Ball
[ʒ]       Garage

Wenn man frisch alphabetisiert ist, könnte man an das glauben und danach sehr verwirrt sein.

Mit meinen Verdacht erregte, fuhr ich fort. Und ich war aus allen Wolken fallen! Auf Seite 18 steht es, dass »das« der Bestimmte Artikel im Genitiv von »der« und »das« steht. Ist Ihr Name Hase?! In diesem Moment hörte ich mit diesem Buch auf. Hätte ich nicht demnächst einen Termin, würde ich direkt zurück nach der Bücherhalle gefahren bin. Ein großer Verlag wie PONS sollte nicht Mumpitz schrieben! Dieser Fall hat mein Vertrauen erschüttert.

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The few, the proud, the many

I picked up a new word today, etliche – “quite a lot” OR “quite a few.” I’d never noticed that in English when we mean “many” we sometimes say “a lot” and other times, paradoxically, say “a few,” if we qualify the latter of these with “quite.” The qualifier is very (or should I say “quite?”) important: compare “I had just a few” with “I had quite a few.” According to this page, the word “quite” can impact the word it modifies in two ways: “Quite is a degree adverb. It has two meanings depending on the word that follows it: ‘a little, moderately but not very’ and ‘very, totally or completely’.”

When “quite” precedes “a few” or “a bit” it is this second meaning of quite – “very, totally or completely” – that is in play. According to Duden online, the third meaning of etliche is a colloquial usage that amplifies or strengthens meaning: »beträchtlich« – “considerable(ly), substantial(ly) or sizeable(ly)” or »ziemlich viel« – “a good deal/a great deal/quite a lot/quite a bit.” They go on to say that it comes from Old High German word with a meaning equivalent to irgendein – “some, any” and in some contexts “any old” as in these two examples from Pons:

  • Welchen Wagen hätten Sie denn gern? —Ach, geben Sie mir irgendeinen,Hauptsache er fährt! – “Which car would you like, then? Just give me any old one, as long as it goes.”
  • Ich werde doch nicht irgendeinen einstellen. – “I not going to appoint just anyone.”

All this has me thinking is that you can learn quite a bit from any old word, if you just take the time to look at it! And no, you don’t need to send in the Marines.

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Until we meet (us) again

I’m working my way through »250 Grammatik-Übungen: Deutsch als Fremdsprache« which covers A1-B2 in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages ( With the exercises I’ve completed so far, I’ve discovered a few gaps, Wissenslücke, in my grasp of German. One of these, Konjunktiv I, or the special subjunctive, is not something over which I will be losing any sleep. The most common use appears to be to indicate that someone else has said something – indirect speech. With the exception of sein, all of the verbs in Konjunktiv I are regular, so if/when I decide to get to grips with this mood, knowing when to use it will be the only challenging piece.

The second gap involves (I was going to say “includes” but can a gap include something?!) the reflexive verbs. It is not that my vocabulary is devoid of reflexives, however, as many of them have to do with activities of daily living – taking a bath/shower, combing/brushing your hair, getting dressed – and I am a childless adult who can take care of these unassisted, they haven’t seemed vital or wissenwert. It is also true that the majority of the ones I have learned either take the dative case (Ich muss mir das überlegen – “I have to think it over”) or have to do with mental events or social actions (Ich will mich nur umsehen – “i just want to look around/I’m just looking” – in response to Kommen Sie zurecht? – “Are you doing okay?/Can I help you?” in a shop). In one case, sich vorstellen, the reflexive verb combines these two factors in that one must learn the difference between the accusative and the dative forms: ich stelle mich vor and ich stelle mir vor – “I introduce myself” vs. “I imagine.” My use of a reciprocal reflexives is also somewhat spotty. I know now to say Wir treffen uns for “We’ll meet” but I can easily forget to add the reflexive pronoun with unterhalten – “discuss” or “talk.”

Luckily, there are good online resources to help me become better acquainted with both the special subjunctive mood and the reflexive verbs. It will be interesting to see what new gaps emerge as I leave the verbs and move onto nouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, particles, sentence forms, etc.

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