Thursday, March 3, 2011

German Accusative vs Dative Case

If you don't care about German grammar, skip this post. :P

Yesterday, I had a conversation with @DoubleTranslate* on Twitter about their German exercises involving accusative vs dative case. It turns out that languages have exceptions; who knew?? ;)

I had learned in school that when a transitive verb has just a direct object, that object was always marked in the accusative case: "I see him." And if a transitive verb had two objects (a direct and an indirect object), then the former was accusative and the latter dative: "I gave him the book" or I gave the book to him." Wikipedia agrees: "In Latin and many other languages, the direct object is marked by the accusative case, while the indirect object is typically marked by the dative case."

However, it does not seem to be that simple, at least in German. (You saw that weasel-word "typically" above, right?) Wikipedia also says, "The dative is generally used to mark the indirect object of a German sentence. ... Some German verbs require the dative for their direct objects. Common examples include folgen, helfen and antworten."

So it looks like my understanding of accusative/dative for direct/indirect objects is correct generally, but in German there are significant exceptions. I suspect that these exceptional verbs that require their direct object to take the dative will have to memorized, just like whether a verb is strong or stem-changing must be memorizing for each individual verb. There are even lists for this.

@DoubleTranslate's weekday exercises are really great for German beginners to get some practice in. I highly recommend following them, especially if you're self-taught and don't otherwise have homework assignments.


John Cowan said...

Sometimes, not always, the English counterpart of a German dative verb will take a PP with to. English answer, for example, takes an ordinary direct object when it means 'reply', but when it means 'be responsible', then we use a to-PP, as in I have to answer to my boss for these expenses. Old English, like German, had both dative and genitive verbs, and even though the case endings that would allow this distinction to be made have been lost, we can still see some of the effects.

Similarly, there are German prepositions (mostly formal ones) like wegen that take the genitive: the corresponding English is in spite of — note the of.

Language teachers can't assume that their students are lingweenies, so they often don't point out these etymological connections that are just extra baggage for their, um, mundane students, but that give us extra joy (and memory hooks).

BTW, you should add German to the general disclaimer at the top of your posts.