German declension

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German declension is the paradigm that German uses to define all the ways nouns can change their form to reflect their role in the sentence: subject, object, etc. Declension allows speakers to mark a difference between subjects, direct objects, indirect objects and possessives by changing the form of the word—and/or its associated article—instead of indicating this meaning through word order or prepositions (e.g. English, Spanish, French). As a result, German can take a much more fluid approach to word order without the meaning being obscured. In English, a simple sentence must be written in strict word order (ex. John sees Mary). This sentence cannot be expressed in any other word order than how it is written here without substituting one word with a synonym. A transliteration of the same sentence from German to English would appear rather different (ex. John-subject sees Mary-directobject) and can be expressed with a variety of word order (ex. Mary-directobject sees John-subject) with little or no change in meaning.

As a fusional language, German marks nouns, pronouns, articles, and adjectives to distinguish case, number, and gender. For example all German adjectives have several different forms. The adjective "new" (neu), for example, can be written in five different ways (neue, neuer, neues, neuen, neuem) depending on the gender of the noun that it modifies, whether the noun is singular or plural, and the role of the noun in the sentence. English completely lacks such declensions, meaning that an adjective can be written in only one form.

Modern High German distinguishes between four cases—nominative, accusative, genitive, and dative—and three grammatical genders—feminine, masculine, and neuter. Nouns may also be either singular or plural; in the plural, one declension is used regardless of gender―meaning that plural can be treated as a fourth "gender" for the purposes of declining articles and adjectives. However, the nouns themselves retain several ways of forming plurals which often, but not always, correspond with the word's gender and structure in the singular. For example, many feminine nouns which, in the singular, end in e, like die Reise ("the journey"), form the plural by adding -n: die Reisen ("the journeys"). Many neuter or masculine nouns ending in a consonant, like das Blatt or der Baum ("the leaf" and "the tree") form plurals by a change of vowel and appending -er or -e: die Blätter and die Bäume ("the leaves", "the trees"). Historically, these and several further plural inflections recall the noun declension classes of Proto-Germanic, but in much reduced form.

Articles[edit]

Definite articles[1][edit]

The definite articles (der, etc.) correspond to the English "the". Certain other articles also decline like der: all-, dies-, jed-, jen-, manch-, solch-, welch-. These are often referred to as der-words.

The general declension pattern is as shown in the following table:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

However, there is one exception: the definite article for the nominative and accusative neuter is not "des", but "das".

For example:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Genitive des der des der
Dative dem der dem den
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative dieser diese dieses diese
Accusative diesen diese dieses diese
Genitive dieses dieser dieses dieser
Dative diesem dieser diesem diesen
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative jeder jede jedes alle
Accusative jeden jede jedes alle
Genitive jedes jeder jedes aller
Dative jedem jeder jedem allen

Indefinite articles[2] [edit]

The indefinite articles (ein, etc.) correspond to English "a", "an", or "one". Possessive adjectives and kein also follow this pattern; they are often called ein-words. The German term for "possessive adjective" translates as "possessive article" (Possessivartikel).

Ein has no plural; as in English, the plural indefinite article is void, as in "There are cows in the field." ("Es gibt Kühe auf dem Felde.").

The general declension pattern is as shown in the following table:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative - -e - -e
Accusative -en -e - -e
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

For example:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative kein keine kein keine
Accusative keinen keine kein keine
Genitive keines keiner keines keiner
Dative keinem keiner keinem keinen

Euer is slightly irregular: when it has an ending, the e is dropped and endings are added to the root eur-, e.g. dative masculine eurem.

However, when the indefinite article is used as a pronoun (and doesn't have an additional article), then the indefinite articles work the same way, only this time one adds "-er" and "-es" for the nominative case, and "-es" for the accusative case.

The general declension pattern is as shown in the following table:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

For example:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative deiner deine deines deine
Accusative deinen deine deines deine
Genitive deines deiner deines deiner
Dative deinem deiner deinem deinen
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative ihrer ihre ihres ihre
Accusative ihren ihre ihres ihre
Genitive ihres ihrer ihres ihrer
Dative ihrem ihrer ihrem ihren
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative eurer eure eures eure
Accusative euren eure eures eure
Genitive eures eurer eures eurer
Dative eurem eurer eurem euren

Note: The neuter gender in the nominative and the accusative case can also use "eins" in place of "eines".

Nouns[edit]

Only the following nouns are declined according to case:

  • Masculine weak nouns gain an -n (sometimes -en) at the end in cases other than the singular nominative.
  • The genitive case of other nouns of masculine or neuter gender is formed by adding -s (sometimes -es).
  • Nouns in plural that do not already end in -n or -s (the latter found in loanwords) gain an -n in the dative case.

There is a dative singular marking -e associated with strong masculine or neuter nouns, e.g. der Tod and das Bad, but this is rarely regarded as a specific ending in contemporary usage, with the exception of fossilized phrases, such as zum Tode verurteilt ("sentenced to death"), or titles of creative works, e.g. Venus im Bade ("Venus In The Bath"): In these cases, the omission of the ending would be unusual.

For the exact usage of the Dative-e and further examples see: German Wikipedia

Pronouns[edit]

Personal pronouns[3][edit]

Genitive case for personal pronouns is currently considered archaic [3] and is used only in certain archaic expressions like "ich bedarf seiner" (I need him). This is not to be confused with possessive adjectives.

Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
ich - I mich - me meiner mir - to/for me
du - you (familiar singular) dich - you deiner dir - to/for you
er - he ihn - him seiner ihm - to/for him
sie - she sie - her ihrer ihr - to/for her
es - it es - it seiner ihm - to/for it
wir - we uns - us unser uns - to/for us
ihr - you (familiar plural) euch - you eurer euch - to/for you
Sie - you (formal singular and plural) Sie - you Ihrer Ihnen - to/for you
sie - they sie - them ihrer ihnen - to/for them

Note that "er" and "sie" can refer to any masculine or feminine noun, not just persons. When they refer to inanimate objects, they would be properly translated "it".

Interrogative pronouns[edit]

Main article: Interrogative word
Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
Personal ("who/whom") wer wen wessen wem
Impersonal ("what") was was
-
-
  1. There is neither a dative nor a genitive of the impersonal interrogative pronoun. Generally, prepositions that need to be followed by either case merge with "was" to form new words such as "wovon" ("whereof") or "weswegen" ("for what reason").

Relative pronouns[edit]

Main article: Relative pronoun
Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative der die das die
Accusative den die das die
Genitive dessen deren dessen deren
Dative dem der dem denen

Possessive pronouns[edit]

Main article: Possessive pronoun

Possessive pronouns (Possessivartikeln) are treated as articles in German and decline the same way as kein; see Indefinite articles above.

Demonstrative pronouns [4][edit]

Main article: Demonstrative pronoun

These may be used in place of personal pronouns to provide emphasis, as in the sentence "Den sehe ich" ("I see that"). Also note the word ordering: den corresponds to "that", and ich corresponds to "I". Placing the object at the beginning of the sentence places emphasis on it. English, as a generally non-declined language, does not normally show similar behavior, although it is sometimes possible to place the object at the front of a sentence for similar emphasis, as in: "Him I see, but I don't see John".

The table is the same as for relative pronouns (q.v.).

Reflexive pronouns[edit]

Reflexive pronouns are used when a subject and object are the same, as in Ich wasche mich "I wash myself".

Nominative (Subject) Accusative (Direct Object) Dative (Indirect Object)
ich - I mich - myself mir - to/for myself
du - you dich - yourself dir - to/for yourself
er/sie/es/man - he/she/it/one sich - himself/herself/itself/oneself sich - to/for himself/herself/itself/oneself
wir - we uns - ourselves uns - to/for ourselves
ihr - you (pl.) euch - yourselves euch - to/for yourselves
Sie - you (formal) sich - yourself/yourselves sich - to/for yourself/yourselves
sie - they sich - themselves sich - to/for themselves

Indefinite pronouns[edit]

The pronoun man refers to a generic person, and is usually translated as one or generic you. It is equivalent to the French pronoun on.

Nominative Accusative Genitive Dative
man - one/you/they einen - one/you/them sein - one's/your/their einem - to/for one/you/them

Attributive adjectives[edit]

Predicate adjectives (e.g. kalt in mir ist kalt "I am cold") are undeclined.[5] Attributive adjectives use the following declension patterns.

Strong inflection[6][7][edit]

Strong declension is used when there is no preceding article.

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -en -er -en -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

Here is an example.

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative schwieriger Fall rote Tinte schönes Haus alkoholfreie Getränke
Accusative schwierigen Fall rote Tinte schönes Haus alkoholfreie Getränke
Genitive schwierigen Fall(e)s roter Tinte schönen Hauses alkoholfreier Getränke
Dative schwierigem Fall(e) roter Tinte schönem Haus(e) alkoholfreien Getränken

Note that the ending for genitive masculine and neuter is -en. This is a source of confusion for learners, who typically assume it is -es, and also native speakers, who interpret some of the less common definite articles (e.g. jed-, see below) as adjectives with no article, to be declined strongly.

Weak inflection[6][7] [edit]

Weak declension is used when there is a preceding definite article ("der-word").

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative -e -e -e -en
Accusative -en -e -e -en
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

All endings are -en except the highlighted group, which are -e.

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nom. welcher schwierige Fall solche rote Tinte dieses schöne Haus alle alkoholfreien Getränke
Acc. welchen schwierigen Fall solche rote Tinte dieses schöne Haus alle alkoholfreien Getränke
Gen. welches schwierigen Fall(e)s solcher roten Tinte dieses schönen Hauses aller alkoholfreien Getränke
Dat. welchem schwierigen Fall(e) solcher roten Tinte diesem schönen Haus(e) allen alkoholfreien Getränken

Mixed inflection[6][edit]

Mixed declension is used when there is a preceding indefinite article (i.e. ein, kein), or possessive adjective (mein, dein...).

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative -er -e -es -en
Accusative -en -e -es -en
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

Mixed inflection is the same as weak inflection, except highlighted suffixes (masculine nominative, neuter nominative and accusative) that are the same as strong inflection.

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative mein schwieriger Fall seine rote Tinte euer schönes Haus keine alkoholfreien Getränke
Accusative meinen schwierigen Fall seine rote Tinte euer schönes Haus keine alkoholfreien Getränke
Genitive meines schwierigen Fall(e)s seiner roten Tinte eures schönen Hauses keiner alkoholfreien Getränke
Dative meinem schwierigen Fall(e) seiner roten Tinte eurem schönen Haus(e) keinen alkoholfreien Getränken

Non-declining geographic attributive adjectives[edit]

Many German locality names have an attributive adjective associated with them which ends in -er, for example Berliner for Berlin and Hamburger for Hamburg, which are not marked for case but always end in -er. Das Brandenburger Tor (‘the Brandenburg Gate’) is perhaps the most prominent example of this. Note the -er ending despite the neuter gender of the word Tor. If the place name ends in -en, like Göttingen, the -er usually replaces the terminal -en.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 55
  2. ^ Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 58
  3. ^ a b Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 209
  4. ^ Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 213
  5. ^ Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 169
  6. ^ a b c Canoo guide to adjective inflection
  7. ^ a b Handbuch zur deutschen Grammatik, Third Edition, p. 170

See also[edit]