Tag Archives: syllable boundaries

It could have been a contender

I came across the word der Mitstreiter in an article in Hinz&Kunzt about Marily Stroux from Wohnschiffprojekt Altona e.V. winning a prize for her work with refugees. It was the occasion for one of my incorrect initial mis-syllabifications. Der Mitstreiter is mit + Streiter (that is “with” + “contender” or “militant” or “champion”) not *mits + Reiter, although the idea of someone who’s “riding with” someone else does capture the meaning of Mitstreiter –”comrade-in-arms” or “ally” – in a poetic sort of way.

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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: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/inspiredby/2014/10/typography-from-gothic-to-blackletter.html)

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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Uh-Oh, a Stop!

I was very happy when I finally had my residence permit, die Aufenthaltserlaubnis, so happy in fact that I was telling everyone and in doing so, getting some strange looks (well, more strange than I usually get when I am attempting to speak German). I realized quickly that the problem was where I was breaking this word up into syllables. The correct break, so that the different pieces that make up this compound word stay intact, is like this (the • indicate the breaks between syllables):


But I was breaking it like this:


Now there are two things that happen when you change the breaks in die Aufenthaltserlaubnis. The first is as mentioned, the integrity of the words forming the compound is compromised, there is no word or stem *serlaubnis. The second issue is with the pronunciation. If you are trying to say *serlaubnis, you begin with a /z/ and if you are trying to say halts, you finish with an /s/.

A second word that threw me off in terms of syllabification is the verb sich beeilen – to hurry (oneself). Was I to put the second e with the first e or with the i or was this a new vowel sound composed of all three? The answer is that you put the second  e with the i and add a glottal stop (the sound you make when you say “uh-oh” or  include all over the place if you speak certain British dialects) to make doubly sure your listener knows where the boundary falls, indicated here by underlining the vowel that is preceded by the glottal sto:p sich beeilen. This is in part because eilen is itself a verb that means “to hurry” or that something “is urgent” and thus be– is a prefix. The glottal stop (der Stimmritzenverschlusslaut) also is used because it commonly precedes vowels when they are the first letter of a word or a stressed syllable. In the one piece of linguistic research I looked at on this point, there is evidence the you see a glottal stop most often with a content word (rather than a function word(, when the initial vowel is stressed (rather than unstressed) and with a slow speech rate. Thus many native speakers of German may be unaware of them popping up regularly in speech – one example those of you who are native speakers might try is der Arm (“arm”) and arm (“poor”), in the former the tendency is to begin with a glottal stop.

In some cases, the presence of a glottal stop affects the meaning, compare these two verbs which you can hear pronounced at this site:

vereisenDie Scheibe vereist schnell “The window pane gets icy quickly”

verreisenEr verreist morgen nach Polen “He travels to Poland tomorrow”

In the first case the prefix ver– has been added to the noun das Eis and then the new form is converted to a verb (according to Canoo this is a fairly common word formation process and so likely deserves a post all its own at some point). Verreisen is formed from adding the prefix ver– to the verb reisen. Using the glottal stop helps to indicate that the break is between the ver and eisen. Not to include it would be a bit like my combining the s from halts with Erlaubnis.

With that return to where we started, thus beendet this post!

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Sich [sic] as a dog

It is somewhat scary as an English speaker when you learn that a verb you want to use is a reflexive verb because we have so few examples in English. Even trickier are the verbs which have BOTH a reflexive and a non-reflexive form and in particular those verbs where the meaning change is not exactly transparent. Note that the convention for marking verbs as reflexive is to use the 3rd person singular reflexive pronoun sich. I think that there are two reasons for this. The first is that when learning verbs, one is typically given the 3rd person singular past tense form since this signals the sound/spelling form in irregular verbs. The second, specific to reflexive verbs, is that sich is unique in being the one pronoun that does not change between accusative and dative case (direct and indirect object, roughly) and also the only one that is not used in other situations that require an accusative or dative pronoun. That is, you use sich for both the accusative and dative cases with a reflexive verb and for both 3rd person singular and plural and, in addition, there is no distinction among the different grammatical genders. Finally something that is a bit easier – normally the 3rd person singular in the accusative case is ihn/sie/es – for er/sie/es – and in the dative it is ihm/ihr/ihm and the 3rd person plural is sie in the accusative and ihnen in the dative – even if remembering which verbs are reflexive is not.

I want to start by sharing some verbs that a novice German speaker wants or needs to use that are reflexive and thus require not just one but two pronouns (in some cases, it may help to think about the extra pronoun indicating that the subject of the sentence is doing something to her/himself).

sich beeilen – “to hurry up” (more on this verb in a future post because it is a great example of how one must be aware of syllable boundaries to ensure correct pronunciation)
sich duschen – “to take a shower”
sich erinnern – “to remember”

You basically need to be saying “I take a shower myself,” “I hurry myself up” and “I remember to myself” (in the sense of “I bring back into my mind”). These three differ in terms of their related forms. Sich beeilen (goodness, that looks odd with the sich capitalized, I wonder if there is a rule that disallows this?) is the simplest as it has no non-reflexive form. Sich duschen is a bit more complex as there is a duschen and it can mean either “to shower” or “to give somebody a shower.” Sich erinnern has a non-reflexive form ups the ante a bit:

erinnern – “to remind someone of somebody” or “to remind someone to do something” or “to be reminiscent of someone/thing”

Compare Du erinnerst mich an meinen Vater – “You remind me of my father” – and Ich erinnere mich an meinen Vater – “I remember my father” (note as well that in English “remind” and “of” go together like erinnern and an but that unlike English, where you can’t say “I remember *of…,” an also goes with sich erinnern).

While this is challenging to remember, the connection between the meanings is pretty direct The best example of a common word where relationship between the non-reflexive and reflexive forms is more convoluted is:

fragen – “to ask” – and sich fragen – “to wonder”

One could think of “wondering” as “asking yourself” but it would be very peculiar to say “I ask myself if it will rain today” even if you were a meteorologist!

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