Tag Archives: Eselsbrücke

Weighty matters?

I feel as though I may finally have cracked the code for adjective inflection, thanks to canoo.net. For each word, they supply the various forms that the word may take. For adjectives these are the positive, comparative and superlative forms and the three inflection classes for each of these. Why three classes? Because in addition to gender, number, and case, German requires different inflections based on whether there is no article, a definite article or an indefinite article. These are respectively the strong, weak and mixed inflectional forms and it is these names that now begin to make sense.

The strong or stark inflection is the most varied. For each gender and for the plural form, there are three different forms. However, because there is some overlap, there are only five forms in total. That’s still a lot to remember, hence one needs to be “strong” or “do some heaving lifting” memory-wise when going without an article.

The weak or schwach inflection is the least varied. Each gender takes only two forms and these two forms are the same for all of them – an “e” or an “en” ending. The plural has only one form – an “en” ending. To stay with the idea of heft, two is less than five, thus less “strength” is needed to “pick up”these forms (assuming, of course, that one has mustered the strength to commit the definite articles to memory).

Finally, in the mixed inflection each gender has just two forms, however these vary between them and therefore there are four forms in total (the plural has only one form). For the feminine and the plural, the forms are identical to those of the weak inflection – “e” and “en” endings for the feminine and the “en” for the plural. For the masculine, the ending in the nominative case is “r” and for the neutral, the ending in the nominative and accusative cases is “s” – just as they were with the strong inflection. In the other cases the ending is “en.” In my mind’s eye, I see some barbells. The masculine one has a single weight on one side and three on the other; the feminine and neutral have two weights on each side; and the plural has all of the weights in the middle since it takes only one form.

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Tied by their sounds

I’m not sure how often I notice words that have similar sounds but quite different meanings in English, but this frequently is a source of amusement (and challenge) in German. Today’s example:

die Krawatte – “the tie” (as in “piece of clothing worn around the neck” –think “cravat,” die Krawattenschal, which a combination of die Krawatte and der Schal, “the scarf”)
die Krawalle – “rioting”

I now have an interesting picture in my head of tie-wearing rioters. Hopefully no tie wearers (or perhaps rioters?!) find themselves “miffed” by this image or sich auf den Schlips getreten fühlen (literally something like “to feel [as though] one’s tie has been tread upon”) and now want to put me in “a headlock” (a second meaning for die Krawatte)!

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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 dict.cc, 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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Less Tension from Declension?

How’s this for a memory aid (eine Eselsbrücke)? 
For the articles and adjective forms for the Dative case with definite articles recite:

Two dems (dames) der (dare) a den (Dane) to a definite dativ (date); they’re all –en (in)

   Masculine definite article dative case: dem 
   Neuter definite article dative case: dem
   Feminine definite article dative case: der
   Plural definite article dative case: den

When these articles are followed by an adjective, that adjective takes an n/en ending.

Jemand muß dem armen verzweifelten englischsprachigen Mann helfen.
Jemand muß dem armen verzweifelten englischsprachigen Kind helfen.
Jemand muß der armen verzweifelten englischsprachigen Frau helfen.
Jemand muß den armen verzweifelten englischsprachigen Studentinnen helfen.

Perhaps this little mnemonic will be of some help for some other poor and desperate English speaking person, at least when trying to use the dative case with a definite article with verbs like helfenpassen and danken?!

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Little Teapots and Donkey Bridges

So what do “little teapots” and “donkey bridges” have to do with language learning?! The first make learning a foreign language harder, the second should make is easier.

Das Teekesselchen means a “homonym” or a “game in which you ask people to find homonyms” that is, two words with different meanings but the same spellings (in German there is also the possibility that they have different grammatical genders). Literally, der Teekessel is a “teapot” and the suffix –chen is a diminuitive so Das Teekesselchen would be a “small teapot.” There are several stories about the origin of the term – a British game where things were hidden in teapots, the word Kessel or a variant meaning someone a bit stupid – but it seems a bit of a mystery.

Die Eselsbrücke means a “mnemonic” and eine Eselsbrücke bauen means “to give someone a hint/clue or to use mnemonic device.” Literally, der Esel is a “donkey” and die Brücke is a “bridge.”  The verb bauen can mean “to build.” As I understand the history of this expression, donkeys aren’t keen to cross fast moving streams but their owners still want to get them and the goods they are carrying to the other side. They build a bridge as a means to reach their goal and thus the trip involves a short detour. In a similar fashion, with a mnemonic, you are not trying to learning a new word or set of words directly but instead by making a small detour through something else, the bridge, that you already know or is easier to remember.

Here is an example of a Teekesselchen from a page with ideas for how to keep yourself entertained when the weather outside is frightful:

die Blume – “flower” (this is the meaning that those of us new to German know, and a cognate to boot “bloom”-Blume)
die Blume – “head of a glass of beer”
die Blume – “bouquet” in the sense of the scent of a glass of wine
die Blume – “top round” in the sense of a cut of meat
die Blume – “the white tip of a tail” on a fox

Here is an example of a Teekesselchen where all three grammatical genders are different taken from another lovely book from Duden, Unnützes Sprachwissen: Erstaunliches Über Unsere Sprache (my rough effort at translation – Useless Language Knowledge: [Be] Astonished by Our Language):

das Band – “ribbon” or “measuring tape” or “conveyor belt” or “wavelength” or “ligament”
der Band – “volume” as in one of a series of books
die Band – “music group”

And here is an example that is a not strictly a Teekesselchen as the two words are not spelled alike: „Heute gibt es Wahlessen.“ „Tatsächlich? Blauwal oder Pottwal?“ or “Today we have top quality (Wahl) food. Really, blue whale or sperm whale (Wal)?

Having faced these very dangerous words with multiple meanings, let’s turn our attention to our helpful friends the donkey bridges or mnemonics. (Sadly, I have not yet been able to get my hands on the Duden volume  that covers these – yes, there is one, namely, Eselsbrücken: Die schönsten Merksätze und ihre Bedeutung (Mnemonics: The Best Mnemonic [Sentence]s and Their Meanings) – but if I do, I will share my impression.) There are Eselsbrücke for all sorts of things, I’ve selected a few related to language learning to illustrate the concept.

First one that is supposed to help German speakers with English:

Kurz, betont und einfach – macht Konsonanten zweifach! (Beispiele: sit – sitting, run – running, swim – swimming, jog – jogging) – “When short, stressed (as in syllabic stress) and simple, you | take the final consonant and make it two”

Now one to help German speakers with German:

Wenn „wider“ nur “dagegen” meint – dann ist das “e” dem “i” stets Feind! Wenn „wieder“ nur “noch einmal” meint – dann sind dort ‘i’ und ‘e’ vereint! – “When wider means against, then the e is the i’s enemy. When wieder means one more time, then the i and the e get along just fine.”

And finally, one where it appears that both German and English speakers learn to help them with English:

‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’ or when it spells ‘AY’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’ – which the site from these Eselsbrücke examples come from translates as „I“ before „e“ (except after „c“) if the pronunciation is „ee,“ which was very hard to parse as a helpful mnemonic for English until I realized that the ‘ee’ was the German pronunciation of the double ‘e’ as in the word der Tee and not in the word “tee” (as in the item used in golf or American football to hold a ball aloft)!

Clearly, to help you learn the Teekesselchen, you need a good set of Eselsbrücken. And I wonder whether anyone ever plays with the “volume” meaning of der Band in concert with the “music group” meaning of die Band?

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