Kiss It or Hate It: Verb’s Always No 2

One of the die-hard myths about the German language is the idea that the verb has to walk back to the very end of the sentence and remain there until it is spotted and finally mumbled by the speaker. Mark Twain suggested that the verb “should be brought forward to a position where it may be easily seen with the naked eye”.

There is some truth to that myth, but only when a second verb, a so called auxiliary verb is involved; but make no mistake about it, the shaker and maker of the sentence, the one that drives the subject, the real deal, the verb that is conjugated, gets always in the second position. Always. No matter what comes first.

Die Sopranistin singt die Violetta am Sonntag in der Staatsoper.

This sentence has one verb (singen) and four elements, that is who (die Sopranistin), what (die Violetta), when (am Sonntag) and where (in der Staatsoper). We can chose four different variations of this sentence, depending on what we want to emphasize. We can create a merry-go-round, a turbulent swirl with the verb in the middle like a rock. The subject is always close by, either before as in our sentence above or directly after the verb.

Die Violetta singt die Sopranistin am Sonntag in der Staatsoper.

Am Sonntag singt die Sopranistin die Violetta in der Staatsoper.

In der Staatsoper singt die Sopranistin am Sonntag die Violetta.

There is no change when a second verb comes along, for example a modal verb as seen in the title of the concert and latest album of the German baritone Max Raabe in the picture above, taken in a subway station in Berlin. Mr. Raabe is internationally known for his interpretation of German songs and chansons of the 1920s and early 1930s. Here, he presents a more recent composition, titled Küssen kann man nicht alleine.

It’s a melancholic title. The singer sits with his dog on a street curb and the only comfort he can hold on to in his sadness is the iron rule of German sentence structure: The conjugated verb belongs always in second position. To sound poetical, he even puts the infinitive küssen in the first position. The conjugated verb, however, the one that gives meaning to the statement follows immediately.

Try this:

Man kann nicht alleine küssen.

Alleine kann man nicht küssen.

Next update: Sunday, October 7th .

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Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

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