Guten Morgen Grammar: German Adjective Endings and the Magic Saucepan

Guten Morgen Berlin is broadening its horizons, ladies and gents! As well as the usual occasional quaint ramblings about goings on in this fair city, we’ll now also be featuring lessons in German language and grammar on the site for anyone who is looking to improve their German, revise an important topic or simply loves thinking about the intricacies of cases and word order. That third group of people are truly kings among men. My other readers needn’t fear – there will still be plenty of tales of me falling over and showing my knickers in public to keep you happy in between. And as you can see, all these German language posts – under the oh-so-branded title of Guten Morgen Grammar (oh it’s happening, ladies and gentleman) can also be found neatly categorised in a separate page in the top tabs. Check it out!

And now for our main scheduled program:

grammmm-01

It’s hard for me to come up with a set order that these lessons should come in, particularly since some will cover whole ideas in German, whereas others will be more about specific nuances or details of the language. So I decided to start with a topic which I love, partly because no-one else does, and partly because I used to be one of those people until one long summer, I decided to sit down and figure the whole thing out until I knew it all off by heart. It’s amazing what the pressure of finals will do for your motivation.

Let’s be clear about our terminology here: an adjective is any word which is singly doing the job of describing a noun. They can float in a sentence without a noun, like this:

I feel really sick today.

Man, your dad is so stingy!

This makes things easy in German, because you just whack the adjective in there just like you would in English, no bells or whistles:

Ich fühle mich total krank.

Man eh, dein Vater ist sooo geizig!

Alternatively, adjectives come plonked right in front of the noun they are describing, just as in English:

The big cow = die große Kuh

A crazy dude = ein verrückter Typ

Delicious coffee = leckerer Kaffee

German adjectives are tricky because they add an extra ending on there when they are coupled with a noun to help show the gender and case of a noun (gender and case will be future lessons too!), and unlike in French, we’ve got three whole genders to play with and FOUR cases! Our cup runneth over!

Take a look at the tables in the image at the beginning of this post. Those are the endings that you jam on the end of the adjectives in different situations. Let’s look at the weak ones first.

‘Weak’ adjective endings are the ones which you use on the end of the adjective when you are using the noun with der, die or das – the definite articles. I like to think that they are weak because they are so pathetically uninteresting. grammmm1-01This all sounds complicated and boring, but it’s actually dead simple: if you are using a noun, like ‘crisps’ (Chips) and you are using it with the definite article (die Chips) then you just take whichever ending corresponds to the gender of the noun – in this case neuter – and the case the noun is in – let’s say nominative – and shove the ending on there.

The cheap crisps are actually the best ones!

Die billigen Chips sind eigentlich die Besten!

Or even:

Did you eat the whole bag?!

Hast du die ganze Tüte gegessen?!

 

The best thing is how easy it is to remember these endings. You see that table up there? See that shape drawn in yellow? Notice how all the endings inside that shape are just -e, and all the ones outside the shape are -en. Now notice how the shape kind of looks like a saucepan. I’ve drawn it in for you. It’s the magic saucepan. It is my guaranteed trick to remembering your adjective endings. The rule is, if it’s outside of the magic saucepan, it takes -en. Always and forever.

The ‘mixed’ endings get a bit more wild. As Mr Potatohead is demonstrating here nicely.

mixed-01

‘Mixed’ endings are the ones we use when we are using the noun in question, let’s say ‘possum’ (Beutelratte) with ein, eine or ein  – the indefinite article (eine Beutelratte). Different article, same process: just find the right gender, and the right case – let’s say accusative – and whack that ending on there.

I saw a dancing possum in my bedroom!!

Ich habe eine tanzende Beutelratte in meinem Schlafzimmer gesehen!!

Or even:

Did you kill it with a heavy book?

Hast du sie mit einem schweren Buch getötet?

Easy peasy. And look – there’s the magic saucepan again! This time, every adjective ending inside the saucepan is just following the ends of the definite article (der, die, das etc), and as always, everything outside the saucepan is -en. Outside the saucepan, it’s always -en. Inside the saucepan is where the magic happens. Magic Saucepan.

Ok, now we come to the ‘strong’ endings. These are the endings that you use when the noun in question stands alone, not using either the definite article or the indefinite article (neither ‘der’ nor ‘ein’). In the weak and mixed endings, we had an article there which did some of the grammatical heavy lifting – it was there to provide information about the gender and case of the thing we’re talking about. But when we don’t have an article there to help out, the adjective has to do all the grammar work itself, so the strong endings are more varied between cases and genders:

grammmm3-01

These are the endings we use with expressions like ‘good wine’ (guter Wein), ‘fresh milk’ (frische Milch) or ‘adorable puppies’ (niedliche Hündchen), which stand alone without a ‘the’ or ‘a’. Often these are nouns talking about something that is a substance which doesn’t come in discrete amounts, like ‘chocolate’ or ‘fungus’. So, if we decided to use a masculine noun like ‘coffee’ and use it in the accusative, we just look at the table above and do the usual matchy-matchy:

‘I love good, strong coffee with breakfast.’

‘Ich liebe guten, starken Kaffee zum Frühstück.’

Or even:

‘But breakfast is better with expensive champagne and fine caviar.’

‘Aber Frühstuck ist viel besser mit teuerem Sekt und feinem Kaviar.’

Now, the Magic Saucepan is unfortunately not mighty enough to have power over the Strong adjective endings, but there are still some tricks to remembering them without having to memorise that whole table. See the nominative and accusative endings? They follow the endings of ‘der’ exactly, because they are giving the same grammatical info as ‘der’, so that’s easy pease. Genitive is easy because there are only two endings, same for masc and neut and same for fem and plural. And dative is the best one, because if you put all the endings together you get ‘M R M EN’: MR MEN. Mr Men. Not gonna forget that now, are ya?

I bet you all enjoyed that and are raring to practise your strongs, weaks and mixeds (and I just realised how much the adjective endings sound like cocktails…). Well generous as I am, here is an activity to help you practise! Download here. And come back to this page soon for the answers!

Not dead yet (well, perhaps brain dead…)

Beautiful when it’s on a flower. Hell when it’s soaking into your trousers.

I am the sole editor working on a digital publication which is due to go live in June next year. The amount of work that needs to be done between now and then is the work originally destined to be done by two people, one with far more experience than myself. One of the jobs is to sort and edit a list of vocabulary, adding in individual feedback options for specific correct and incorrect answers, totalling roughly 3,000 words. I work in an office, and I have my own cubicle. The result of all this being? Seven hours a day spent glaring at a computer screen. 

Words on a screen have started to decompose into oscillating lines in front of me now. I imagine them warping into surreal dancing figures like some weird 1960s cartoon set to experimental jazz. I have ceased ‘typing’ and have reached the stage where I just flagellate my fingers at the keyboard and whack the letters in like the actions of an octopus suffering a tremendous electric shock. Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts and Alt codes are wired into my tendons. I read newspapers by lifting the page upwards in quick bursts because I can only read now in the jerky up-and-downyness of a scroll button. I am a German editing machine.

This vocab editing is probably the most punishing part of the project so far. The vocab testing component of the publication is vital, mostly because the poor guys in digital spent many hours and cried many tears trying to programme a vocab-testing template that would actually work and take into account all the ridiculous vagaries words necessitate: did you realise how many synonyms there are for full-cream milk, all of which ought to be marked correct if typed in and therefore have to be programmed into the system so that students don’t get penalised for typing ‘whole milk’ when it’s clearly the same thing? Then there are accents, which are their own can of bloodthirsty tapeworms, because they are different for different languages and although it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money to programme the French ‘é’ into the German foreign characters pad we can’t not because ‘café’ is such an important word. 


The important thing is that we end up testing the students on all of the vocab included in at least one exam board core-level specification, because that is the best (least worst?) yardstick there is for finding a base level of the minimum number of words you might need to complete a GCSE in German to a basic degree of competency. The spec we used, Edexcel, is frankly shameful; there is an actual booklet that students are supposed to print out and learn by wrote, and the booklet makes it unequivocally clear that students will be expected to know all of these words to at least scrape a pass. The list has clearly been sellotaped together by a gang of gibbons with some scissors and a dictionary. It is rife with spelling mistakes, genuinely incorrect translations and genders, and a truly inexplicable choice of words (‘banana’ appears in the list no less than ten times, yet the students are never expected to learn the word ‘animal’). Thanks to this mountainous heap of bollocks on which an entire qualification has been based, I have had to meticulously scrape through this selection of thousands of words deleting repetitions, correcting errors, adding in ‘sich’ for reflexive verbs and other silly bits of housekeeping which take hours and make my retinas crumble into something resembling muesli. 

The tragic thing is that I discovered this booklet before I started. My lovely Mexican colleague, who is on Spanish, didn’t know there was an electronic version available, and typed every single word in the Spanish spec in by hand. When I then discovered that the booklet had been extended since her first collation and new essential words had been added, meaning that she would now have to look through the new booklet and check through her whole list to see what had to be added, she looked at me with such heartbreaking sorrow in her eyes that I felt like a war criminal. 

That’s the ‘core’ list. Then, to make the list extend to the kind of vocabulary higher-level students might aim for, I had to compile a list of more advanced words based on the course structure this digital product is built upon. It’s a slightly wild and left-field selection of ideas when you get to the higher-tier stuff in this course, so this means that higher students will be learning basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘youth hostel’ alongside ‘desertification’, ‘individualist’ and ‘ice-blading’, whatever the heck that last one is. It’s not really within my power to add the kind of words I would want to know into the selection, so sadly they will never learn ‘hedgehog’, ‘moustache’ or ‘unbelievable’. 

As I mentioned, each word needs to have the translation added for it and then potential synonyms so that students don’t get told they’re wrong for getting the gist but putting it in different words. This is difficult. There are thousands of ways to say ‘pleasant’, but since they all basically mean ‘pleasant’ if you’re struggling through an oral exam and you just want to say your holiday was nice, you deserve to get a mark for guessing any of them. My job is to look into the future and think of all the different words and variations people might guess. Then, of course, there are potential wrong answers. Thankfully the Company have deemed that it would be insane to have to enter in every single possible wrong answer the student could give, but we do have to have a couple of specific ones for the occasions when the student might have forgotten the right gender and need a useful hint to pop up that says ‘Hey dude. Did you really think that ‘waitress’ was a masculine noun?’ Unfortunately this means these possibilities must be typed in for every. single. noun. Every noun needs a feminine, masculine and neuter entry without a capital letter (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget that German nouns always start with a capital letter’) and the two incorrect gender entries (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget to choose the right gender’). It’s important though, because if you’re miserably ploughing through tons of dry vocab the least you deserve is a bit of feedback reminding you that you were on the right track but you just needed to think a little bit harder. It’s a shame that we can’t also account for morons who spell ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ the wrong way round and that kind of thing, but what do you guys want from me? I’m only one person!

Why am I bothering to spend so much time on this and do it so meticulously? Because I have studied German to the end of degree level and I can say without doubt that the majority of real German-learnin’ time gets spent rattling through vocabulary. It’s monotonous and it’s dry and the genders really get on your biscuit (one of my favourite German expressions). You have to do it for life. And in the end, you have to learn to enjoy it and love packing your mind with hundreds of useful words because grammar is the skeleton of a language and the words are the meaty, juicy bits that flesh it out to make a magnificent body. The more words you have, the more you ‘own’ the language; feeling eloquent is almost a form of power, because eloquence is the power to express what you want to say in exactly the right way so that people know not only what you want to say but how you want it to be heard. And when you’re being asked what you think about ‘drug taking among young people’ it’s great to be able to say what you mean, not just a key phrase about the dangers of parties.  

When I was learning German at your age we didn’t get stamps, we got a slap on the wrist and a week’s homework. Now sing the bus song, for the love of Pete.

Vorsicht: Kuh.

I’m not a religious person; I don’t believe in God, or heaven. But I do believe in hell. I have been there. In my Monday morning Kindergarten, to be precise.

The Monday Morning Kindergarten is the worst place in the entire world. Every time I go there I wish with every step towards the door that it will be unexpectedly locked like the time the kids came down with swine flu, but then the noise of shrill screams first touches my ears like the very very tip of a razor blade and I know with a sinking heart that the regularly scheduled lesson is unfortunately about to take place. Entering the building, the entirety of which is about the size of a dentist’s waiting room, there is always a scene of chaos and riot to greet me. No matter what the children are doing that morning it is sure to be messy, loud, and involve most of them sitting on the floor howling and covered in snot. This morning I arrived to find every child in possession of a huge ice-cream cone, each topped with a huge Kugel of chocolate (which we all know is the most smeary and sticky flavour). At ten in the morning. These childminders clearly knew that English was coming soon and clearly love to mess with me; they also always tuck my shoes in the cranny behind the door when it’s left open on hot days and wedge it in position with an unmovable brick-thing so that they are impossible to reach, despite moving all the other pairs of shoes by the door to a practical and accessible nearby mat. This morning my English children were still halfway through their mountain of ice cream and were completely covered in it, while the walls, floor and toys in the room had also been smeared with a thick gluey slick of sweetly reeking brown. They came gloopily into the English room and spent the following hour whining and hitting each other or being stepped on by the baby. When I finally came out of the lesson the rest of the children had been cleaned up and were all crying hopelessly while the Erzieherinnen played them a loud song about trains on the stereo and sang along flatly with blank eyes.

There was, however, in the middle of all this throat-closingly horrific kidtastrophe of a morning one single moment of joy, and that came when the kids were singing “The Wheels on the Bus”. They momentarily broke out of their despair when I came to the verse where the people in the bus go ‘bumpety bump’. Apparently ‘bumpety bump’ is the most wonderful phrase in the English language, and having heard it the children joyfully bounced around the room repeating it over and over again as if they liked the taste of simply saying it. This is a magic phrase for every group I teach; no matter how terribly the lesson is going, the ‘bumpety bump’ verse can restore the moment to a state of giddy glee quicker than lemonade and pokemon cards. I like this. Learning a language really is fun sometimes simply because the things you learn sound so great that it’s a treat to say them. 


And this is one huge reason why I am so sad to be moving out of Berlin in a month’s time. When you live in a new country, you don’t just inhabit the place, you’re also living in the language. As I’ve got to know German from the inside, a chance I never had before, I have found so many lovely chunks of it which I enjoy every time I use them and which I will miss so much when I go back to my standard English dialogues.

– I will miss all the words which tell you what they mean in how they are put together. “Wasserhahn” means “tap” because an old-fashioned tap looks a bit like a rooster (a Hahn) with a beak and a comb. “Maultaschen” are ravioli but means ‘bags for your gob’ (Maul is a coarse/animalistic way to say mouth). Stew is “Eintopf” because you make it in one pot. “Verrückt” means crazy because you have been shoved or pushed (rücken, i.e. to move something hefty like furniture) out of place (ver is a prefix describing something being ruined or made wrong/negative). Isn’t that great?

– I’ll miss how many sweet little standard phrases are necessary to social interaction. You have to say “Guten Appetit” before you all start eating, you always give your friends dearly meant greetings – “Liebe Grüβe” – even in texts, and there’s more friendliness and politeness involved in giving and receiving than in even the English language. You ask for something with a ‘bitte’, it is given to you with a “bitte schön”, you thank them kindly with a ‘danke schön’ and in return you get yet another “bitte schön” or even “gern gescheh’n”.

– I will miss the brilliant way that you can tell someone you “wish them a good evening” or “wish them a lovely holiday” without sounding greetings-card corny or derisively ironic. Wünschen is simply a more accepted word in German; people wish things for each other all day and in bakeries and shops people ask you “noch ein Wünsch?” rather than the boring “anything else?” as if you were a old duke rather than a boring customer. It always sounds sweet and kind to my hardened ears.

Umlauts. Umlauts are such a beautiful noise and it makes one happy just to say them. They sound like a vowel said with a smile. Add an umlaut and –chen to any word to make it small and adorable: “Mäxchen”; “Häuschen”; “Gummibärchen”; “Urlaübchen” (well ok, that last one I recently made up to describe my minibreak to the Ostsee but anything goes in German, the LEGO of languages).

–  I will miss all the things that I have here rather than being them. In German I can have hunger, thirst, right and wrong, and best of all I can have or not have Lust and Bock. I suppose you might translate these words as ‘desire’ or possibly just ‘a hankering’ and “Lust haben” or “Bock haben” simply means to want to do something, but the fact that one word comes from the idea of proper yearning lust and the other from a trestle and a type of goat is just plain great.


– I think I will miss “gern” most of all. It works like “happily” or “gladly” in a sentence to express preference, but in German it does so much more. You use it to show someone how much you like their company – “Ich hab dich gern” – or doing something for them – “das habe ich gerne getan”. It pops up when people do each other favours or do things with each other or offer things beyond the traditional call of friendship-duty, and generally is just a bit of a cuddly word. 


Finally, we must give a brief mention to the German sounds that I won’t be making anymore. “BOAAAAHHHH” is a wonderful grunting hooting word which is like saying “woaaaaahhhhh” but sounds even heftier and heavy-metally. “Juhuuuu!” is an even cuter version of “woohoo!”. “Hè?” is a fun way to say “what the heck?” with just one syllable to perfectly accompany a single raised eyebrow. “Nööö!” is like no or nein but oddly sassy and melodious. And, of course, there is the excellent word “krass”, which in fact means nothing but is just an expression of anything being extremely…something. “I just kicked a baby penguin.” “Krass.” “I just travelled ten thousand years back in time.” “Krass.” “I just had a biscuit.” “Krass.”


Oh, and the best word of all? Schweinerei.