Everyday Use of German
Subject, Predicate, Object, Old Man!

The German language appears to be being increasingly abbreviated by its speakers.
The German language appears to be being increasingly abbreviated by its speakers. | Photo: © Wilhelm Busch/gemeinfrei

The fact that language changes is a natural phenomenon. Languages that are used every day, show signs of wear and tear. But does the feeling that the language is being reduced and simplified correspond to reality?

Let’s be honest. Languages change when they are used. That’s how it is. Words like “flugs” (quickly) or “Mannequin” (mannequin) have practically disappeared from German language use, and Goethe would do more than raise an eyebrow if he could hear how we talk. When they say something, speakers try to reach an objective with as little effort as possible. They aim to persuade, inform, entertain or express how they feel.

Progress through change?

If that can be done in a few words, so much the better. Linguistic conversation maxims say that one should only say what is informative, true and important, and should do so clearly and precisely. The German language appears to be being increasingly abbreviated by its speakers, which is not entirely a bad thing. Shortening word endings, for example, seems to be quite acceptable: “Ich mach’ das Fenster auf” (I’ll open the window) does not sound very different to “ich mache das Fenster auf”. And that today people say “es ist viertel nach sechs” (it’s a quarter past six) and not “es ist viertel nach sechs Uhr” (it’s a quarter past six o`clock) as they did in the fifties, is quite understandable and does not hurt the listener’s ears. And over time, people have got used to the fact that hardly anyone knows the difference between “dasselbe” (the very same item) and “das gleiche” (an item of the same kind), in spite of the fact that it is impossible for my friend to have the very same sweater that I am wearing (“denselben Pullover”), because that is my pullover. It is one of a kind. She has an identical one (“den gleichen”).

In spite of getting used to linguistic changes that originally resulted from variant forms, some people often shudder to hear what is being said in the street. The genitive appears to be disappearing and my father’s hat is now “der Hut von meinem Vater” instead of “der Hut meines Vaters”.

Well, where are we then?

But where have all the prepositions gone? According to academic studies, the German language has nearly 300 prepositions and admittedly, it is not always easy to use them. But prepositions indicate the relationship between people, things and situations. And it is important to know whether I am going into the cinema or staying outside. Or whether I am going around the cinema or onto (the roof of) the cinema. Or one of countless other possibilities. So what is one to think when one hears a statement like “Ich geh Kino” (I go cinema)? I would not like to imagine what would happen if you missed an appointment because you were waiting behind the restaurant instead of in front of it. And there is a difference between working until six o’clock sharp or until after six o’clock.

Recently, I heard a girl on the tram saying on the telephone, “Ich bin Bernauer Strasse!” (I am Bernauer Strasse). And I thought: “Really! ‘So you are Bernauer Strasse... That’s interesting!”. Of course, after overcoming my bewilderment, I understood that she meant to say that she was at Bernauer Strasse station. But I still do not know why she did not say that.

Have insults become good manners?

And what has become of the good old subject-predicate-object word order? It is still found sometimes, but often with the addition “Alter!’” (old man), which does not add anything to the information value of the sentence, but still appears quite frequently, particularly in youth language. “Ich geh’ ins Schwimmbad, Alter!” (I’m going to the swimming pool, old man). It is used among friends all the time, and it does not matter whether they are addressing just one person or several. There is a sociocultural motivation behind the use of this appendage. And many different groups, such as young people, use their own jargons, so-called sociolects. All the same, I would still not be flattered to be called “Alte” (old woman)! “Ey, Alter!” (Hey, old man) can be heard both as a friendly greeting and as an insult. How should one know how to interpret it? This use of “Alter” does not conform to good conversation etiquette, either.

Verbs, an overvalued word type?

Another common phenomenon is to leave out articles. And some speakers even seem to have lost their verbs in the course of time. They make do with the auxiliary verb, and when someone asks me to pass the jam by saying “Kann ich mal bitte die Marmelade?” (Can I please (have) the jam?), I ask what is admittedly a rather mean question in response “What do you want to do with it? Throw it at the wall?” The change in the use of modal verbs is another linguistic variant that changes our language but also keeps it alive. And how do the sayings go? You get used to everything and change leads to progress.