Practical Deutsch
Photo credit Robert Agthe

I even got to use my words today. At the German stall in the multicultural festival, I said, Kransky, bitte, and the lady smiled and said, Mit alles? and I said Ja, danke because I had no idea how to say nicht cabbage, but I wanted the onions, and I had even less grasp on how to say nur onions.

So, part marks, and I went around the corner and scraped the mushy cabbage into a bin.

A friend, when I related the story on Facebook responded: “As for the cabbage, you could either say nur Zwiebeln bitte or ohne Kohl bitte.”

der Kohl = cabbage
der Kransky = not a German word, apparently!
nur, ohne = only
die Zwiebel (-n) = onion


Oh boy, did this innocent post stir up die Tauben! I posted the story on Facebook, and one of my delightfully nerdy German friends responded. As a matter of fact she was there at the gate when I landed in Germany for the first time ever after a surprise visit to Wales that almost had me missing my flight. Boy was I glad to see her! She taught me a few words, amongst them the pertinent phrase schon Mädchen
with which I managed to embarrass her immensely.

Here she writes:
 “…grammar nerd here. Mit alleM.”

Uh-oh. There’s more than way to say “all” in German?

She helpfully went on, ignoring my despair,
alles is the nominativ clause. Alles ist gut (everything is fine). You ask Wer oder was ist gut?

Mit allem is the dativ clause. Mit wem oder was? is the question you use to check if it is the correct ending)”

TMI! I knew that there were cases, but I’d kind of hoped to avoid them for as long as possible. In English we can say “the dog bites the man” or “the man is bitten by the dog”, and understanding the difference between bites and bitten is crucial. 

I found a chart listing the cases for alles.

Okay. In this example, “mit allem?” is standing in the place of a longer sentence which in English would be “Would you like your meal with all the extras?”

Clearly “all” is not nominativ, and by process of illumination I arrive at the dativ. My question now is why “allem” rather than “aller” or “allen”?

My Facebook grammar nerd replied,
“In this particular case, a complete sentence would be something like Mit allen Zutaten/Extras? Also dativ case, but as you see, allen because plural (all the ingredients/extras). To be honest, I’ve never thought about it before, so I’ll just guess that you use allem as a short form of mit allem drum und dran (something along the lines of “with all the trimmings” but clearly that’s not a one to one translation). That expression is very common (and colloquial!) to express completeness and even more common is it to shorten it to mit allem.”

Colloquial is good. Colloquial is something I can jump into and not worry too much about spending a couple of hours spread over a day or so to puzzle out why one single freaking letter in a two-word phrase is not what I expected.

But this is stuff I need to understand and get a grip on. If I don’t grasp German cases, I’m forever going to be stuck at the Mich Tarzan, Du Jane level of German.

Final word or two belongs to my mate:

“I’ve come up with this image of central European languages (German, French, Spanish) versus English: the former are like a high wall behind which there is a flat, easy landscape: you need to learn a lot of grammar, structure, exceptions to the rules and vocabulary to get past the wall, then it’s fairly easy to get going. English, on the other hand, is like an only slightly elevated hill that everyone can manage easily. But the further you try to go upwards ( = learn more of the language) the steeper it gets, the less easy it becomes because there are so many traps. Unlike the other languages I mentioned, you hardly need a conjugation to start speaking English and people can understand what you say pretty easily. But try to get more fluent and you hit all sorts of obstacles. With German or French, on the other hand, you need to learn a lot of things before you can make yourself understood in a conversation. But once you have managed all those things, it is plain sailing, just stick to what you’ve had to learn to get going.”


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