Tuesday, June 29, 2004

What's tricky with the Germanic languages (eg German, Dutch and Swedish)

Every language family has its own peculiarities, as does every language. In attacking the Germanic languages, the number one troublespot is... German. This article will not untangle all the confusions. My more humble purpose is to mention a few big issues where I have some practical advice to offer. Here, then, are some things you should know about before you start with the Germanic languages.

1. What are strong and weak verbs?

Weak verbs are more or less regular. To use them you stick on the standard endings and away you go. A weak verb in English is "to learn." Its forms are easy: I learn, he learns, we learned, they have learned, etc. Strong verbs rely on something called umlaut, which is German for "muck up the vowels". A strong verb in English is "to do." Its forms are hard: I do, he does, we did, they have done, etc.

In studying the Germanic languages, you'll find that they all follow that charming English tendency to be regular except when they're irregular according to patterns that hold except when they don't. The good news is that they all tend to do this in similar ways, except where strong verbs have become weak, i.e. easy anyway.

2. What are noun declensions and cases?

In grammar, "case" means that you put endings on nouns and adjectives to indicate their role in relation to the other words in the sentence. In English, we only have one case: we add "'s" to make something possessive, as in "John's car". All other relationships are indicated by word order or position. For example, in the sentence "John's car is a blue Mustang," car, blue and Mustang all take their role based on where they are; only "John's" is explicitly marked for its function.

German has four cases, nominative - subject, accusative - direct object, dative - indirect object and genitive - possessive. For Dutch and Swedish, case won't be a problem, though gender still will.

3. What's this gender thing?

In language, gender is not an indication of sex, but of which case endings to use together. "Maiden" and "miss" are neuter - it - in the Germanic languages, because of the word endings, for example. Gender did at one time sort of correspond to sex where human beings were concerned, sort of, but in a system where blenders are masculine and food processors are feminine, one shouldn't try to read too much into things.

The big thing to know about gender is that, as I said, it indicates how to put case endings together. Specifically, when you use an adjective it has to be marked for the same number and gender as what it modifies. This means that even in Swedish and Dutch, where cases aren't such a problem, gender is an issue. If you're talking about a "little girl," "little" has to have the right ending to be paired with "girl."

4. What's the deal with Swedish articles?

Indefinite articles (a) come before the noun; definite articles (the) come after as suffixes. It's more complicated, perhaps, but that's enough to get you started.

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