Verbal Secrets

Shhhhhh. Keep this under your hat. Some German verbs are living a lie, hiding a terrible Geheimnis.

This is a lesson from the VHS. Some verbs objectify a little oddly for our tastes as native English speakers. Saying “*Ich helfe dich” would earn you an urgent stage-whisper from the instructor: “Psscht! Was ist das Geheimnis von helfen?!1

For some of these verbs, you can sort of see a reason for another object in the English translation’s use of a preposition. For others, there is just no discernible reason for these verbs to force their objects into case-drag.2

German English
helfen + Dativ to help
danken + Dativ to thank
entsprechen + Dativ to correspond to
folgen + Dativ to follow
bedürfen + Genitiv to require (have need of)
gedenken + Genitiv to commemorate (someone)

Entsprechen and bedürfen are two that come to mind as somewhat understandable, since they correspond to common English equivalent expressions having need of a preposition to get the meaning across properly.

See what I did there?

You couldn’t, in good conscience, say “*Your software solution corresponds exactly my expectations.” “To correspond” in English requires an extra preposition before its object. That’s your clue that its German equivalent might be one of those Dative-forcing verbs.

Bedürfen is even trickier, because

  1. it’s got a modal verb snuck in there, so you’ve got the atypical conjugation of dürfen to worry about, and
  2. it’s fancy. You probably could just use some form of brauchen, which is gloriously mundane in every possible way, including its treatment of objects, or in some contexts verlangen, which is very nearly equally boring.

When I thank you for having read this far, who is the subject? I am, of course. Who is the object? You are. There are no other parties involved — just you and me.3 What’s the action here? The thanking. The action is acting directly upon…[drumroll please]…you. So why the hell doesn’t “you” behave like a direct object (Accusative) here? That’s the Dativ-Geheimnis of danken. Kannst Du mir folgen?

  1. Oddly, the German subtle attention-getter is not “Pßt!” []
  2. It puts the Genitive on its skin OR ELSE IT GETS die Hose AGAIN. []
  3. Or are we you and I? That’s another post. []

One thought on “Verbal Secrets

  1. Oh yeah, and is anyone brave enough to ask a native speaker warum das Buch MICH fünf Euro kostet and not MIR? Is there an Akkusativ-Geheimnis attached to kosten?

    On second thought, the average native speaker probably isn’t the best reference after all. Ask a grammarian; ideally someone who gets paid to explain this sort of thing.

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