A sentence is a stage. Nouns act and collide. They scream, talk, listen, ask, respond, question, emphasize, receive love and hate, return love and hate, point fingers or lift their arms in self-defense, engaging in an eternal conflict between subject and object. The subject possesses the verb and the object receives the action. If the object or the subject is masculine, the change of one letter in the article can change the entire meaning of the sentence.
The subject: der Sänger.
The verb: grüßen.
The object: der Kapellmeister.
Enter: der Sänger.
Is that a sentence?
No, der Sänger needs to act or to be acted upon. Der Sänger, still free and unattached, chooses the first option and he chooses a verb.
Enter: grüßen (to greet).
We must conjugate to complete the sentence.
Der Sänger grüßt.
We call this the “nominative case”. Nominative stems from the Latin word “nominativus” (to name). A case describes the role that a noun plays in a sentence and its relationship to the verb and to other nouns.
In the nominative case, article, noun and verb are in agreement.
Der Sänger grüßt. Das Publikum schläft. Die Regisseurin schimpft.
schlafen = to sleep; schimpfen = to scold
Enter: der Kapellmeister.
Now, there are two characters on the stage: der Sänger and der Kapellmeister. Both have to assume their roles either to be the subject or to be the object. Because der Sänger was first (of course) having grabbed the verb grüßen, the Kapellmeister has to be the object. The greeting is aimed at him. There is nothing he can do. He represents the second case in the German language, the “accusative case.”
Accusative is as accusatory as it sounds. The noun in accusative is at the receiving end of the statement. Accusative stems from the Latin “accusativus” (to accuse, to cause something).
To mark his role as an object, we must change the article of der Kapellmeister. Only then is the sentence complete and correct.
Der Sänger grüßt den Kapellmeister.
Once the article has changed from der to den, we can switch.
Den Kapellmeister grüßt der Sänger.
In an intriguing twist of the plot, subject and object changed their position but not their meaning! Der Sänger is still greeting den Kapellmeister even if the Kapellmeister is number one in the sentence.
Note: It is not the position in the sentence that makes the Kapellmeister an object like it would be in an English sentence. It is the article den – even less, it is this little letter n that replaces r in the masculine article.
This change of the article in the accusative case applies only to the masculine noun and has to be consistent with the indefinite article (ein, einen), the negative indefinite (kein, keinen), possessive pronouns (mein, meinen, dein, etc.), demonstrative pronouns (dieser, diesen) etc.
What if der Sänger aims his greeting at a feminine noun, a neuter noun or even at a plural?
Nothing will change.
Der Sänger grüßt die Regisseurin.
Der Sänger grüßt das Publikum.
Der Sänger grüßt die Freunde.
A certain context can make us switch the positions of subject and object.
Die Regisseurin grüßt der Sänger.
Das Publikum grüßt der Sänger.
It still means that the singer is greeting the female director and the audience. Who greets whom can easily be detected by looking at the article of the masculine noun. If it is not den, but der then the noun is the subject, no matter where it is placed in the sentence. Of course, you have to wait until the speaker is finished and hope that he or she does not change his or her mind in mid-sentence.
Next update: Sunday, September 2st .