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How to Approach a German Text (I)

This is the first part of a three-part series on a method that helps you to get a rough understanding of a German text, especially an aria, a Lied, or a poem.

With a few basics you can cut through the thicket of adverbs, adjectives, interjections, grammatical twists, and colloquial language until you get to the core of a statement, the basis of every sentence: a thing or a person who does something. Gretel singt.

Part 1: To Consider

● Many words are old, written by poets or composers one hundred or more years ago: Weib, hold, minnig, laben. They may have disappeared from the modern vocabulary but not always from German dictionaries. You can find them, e.g., in the Digitales Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (, the digital dictionary of several German Academies of Sciences, which contains German vocabulary from the 1600s on.

● All nouns are capitalized. All of them! These are names, people, things, ideas as well as verbs and adjectives that have been converted to a noun, e.g., das Singen (singing), das Schöne (beauty). All nouns carry one of the three articles (masculine, feminine, neuter). All other words are written in lower case.

● Many compound nouns, the German language is famous for, are a result of the librettist’s creativity. Take them apart, look at the meanings of each part and see how it makes sense: Liebesweh, Fieberschauer, Jubelklang, Herzenskuss, Blumengesicht.

● The way sentences are built can be different in German, depending on the context, i.e., words show up in places you do not expect. Do not forget the iron rule of German grammar: All conjugated verbs are in position number two of the sentence, no matter what occupies position number one.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.

In meinem Herzen kocht der Hölle Rache.

Im Oktober kocht der Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

In der Staatsoper kocht der Hölle Rache in meinem Herzen.

If the verb appears in the first position, then you are dealing with

a) a question (Tanzt Zerbinetta heute?),

b) a command (Tanz Zerbinetta!),

c) a conditional phrase. (Tanzt Zerbinetta heute, bekommt sie Geld.)

You will find more details about how to approach a German text in my latest book “Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas.”

More information: Click.

Soon—How to Approach a German Text, part 2: The Method

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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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