As You Read and Write It: The Simple Past – Part One

Berlin, Alexanderplatz, Mai 1945, 2015

As you look back, you see the irretrievable past. In language terms, it is called simple past. In German it is called Präteritum, mostly used in written language.

The simple past or Präteritum describes an activity in the past that does not continue anymore. It happened, it is finished, a one-time event. When we speak we often use the perfect tense, a combination of an auxiliary verb and a participle.

Present tense: Ich singe die Arie.

Perfect tense (as we speak – so to speak): Ich habe die Arie gesungen.

Simple past (as you would write it in your memoir): Ich sang die Arie.

Regular verbs change differently than irregular verbs. Our most important verb singen is an irregular verb and appears in the past tense as ich sang, du sangst, er, sie, es sang, ihr sangt, wir, sie, Sie sangen.

Verbs like singen, trinken, essen, sprechen, bringen, rufen etc. are old words and therefore irregular verbs and as such they do not follow the modern rules of verb declension. It changes its vowel.

Regular verbs, on the other hand, are easy fellows. Ad a –t or an –et and they are gone from the present.

Wir sagen, wir sagten. Ich sage, ich sagte. Ihr sagt, ihr sagtet.

Here are two more examples of regular verbs in simple past, probably the most common activities in opera: lieben and hoffen.

ich liebte                  hoffte
du lieb
test                hofftest
er, sie, es liebt
e        hoffte
ihr liebtet                 hofftet
wir, Sie, sie liebten  hofften

We treat all new verbs that enter the language as regular verbs.

Caruso googelte Maria Callas. Sie twitterte, dann flirtete sie mit ihm.

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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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