At my recent UK workshop “German for Opera Singers” at the Rich Mix cultural center in London, we discussed the linguistics of arias from Entführung aus dem Serail and Fidelio, as well as the poetry of a Schumann Lied. To the participants, altogether 17 singers from Australia, Cyprus, Ireland, the UK, and the US, I introduced the following approach to a German text, a way to identify the basic meaning, at least the core statement, and the mood of the language.
Before you start, keep in mind:
Old words, hard to find
Many words in classical operas and Lieder are old words and not used anymore (e.g. das Weib, hold, wunderlich). It might be difficult to find them in a dictionary.
Weird word order
The way sentences are build in German can be different from your language, depend on the context, i.e. words show up in places you did not expect. (See below.)
In German, all nouns (proper names, things, ideas) are capitalized as well as verbs and adjectives that were made a noun (e.g. das Singen = the singing, das Schöne = beauty). All other words are written in lower case. A noun is a word that can do something. If in doubt, add the verb haben (to have) and look if it makes sense.
Facing a text, employ the following method:
1. Mark all nouns.
2. Identify the verbs (activity words) and look how they are conjugated, meaning changed in spelling according to ich, du, er, wir etc.
3. Look at the meaning of the verb (activity) and find the thing, person (name, function) or pronoun that is doing this activity. Keep in mind, the thing that is doing this activity, called “subject” does not have to precede the verb. Depend on the context, it even can be the last word of the sentence. (See below)
4. Find the thing, person (name, function) or pronoun to whom the activity is directed. This thing, called object, is not affiliated to a verb, it is passive, but it’s possible that it is the first word of the sentence. (See below)
Now, you might get a general sense what the text is about.
If you still have trouble understanding the meaning or cannot find the meaning of the verb look at these three questions:
A. Is the sentence written in future or past tense?
Then it has probably a second verb that helps to create the future or the past tense. For future, it is wollen, for past tense (or the perfect tense) it is haben or sein.
B. What are the “little words”, e.g. negative pronouns (kein, nicht), particles (intensifier, words that carry emotions), etc.? If you remove them, does the sentence make more sense to you?
C. What is the word order?
The iron rule in building a sentence is: The conjugated verb appears always in the second position. It does not matter what you put first, even if a singer like Maria Callas is involved. Maria Callas singt heute in der Berliner Staatsoper.
You can mention the time, for example heute (today), or the place, for example Berliner Staatsoper, it must be followed by the verb, for example singt.
Heute singt Maria Callas.
In der Berliner Staatsoper singt Maria Callas.