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The German Genitive Case Is Dying!

Learning German you are being taught that there are 4 German cases for nouns, the Nominative, the Genitive, Dative and Accusative.  The German Genitive is one of them. In a nutshell, this case is used when describing possession or ownership. However it is also used by a bunch of prepositions, some of them not so much known to language learners.

Singular: Plural: Question
Nom: der Tisch die Tische Who? What? (subject) – Wer? Was?
Gen: des Tisch(e)s der Tische Whose? (possessor) – Wessen?
Dat: dem Tisch(e) den Tischen Who? Whom? (indirect object) – Wem?
Acc: den Tisch die Tische Who? Whom? (direct object) – Wen?

 
As mentioned previously, the German Genitive is also used to express possession and also used with the following prepositions, e.g. trotz, während, wegen, anstatt, laut, jenseits, angesichts, gemäß, entspechend, entgegen, nahe, …and many more. If you’d like to see the entire list, check out this German site.

Examples:

wegen des Wetters         due to the weather

laut des Gesetzes            according to the law

angesichts der Lage        in view of the situation

trotz des Schnees            despite the snow

nahe des Flusses              close to the river

But, do we Germans really speak the Genitive with these prepositions?

You might be surprised to hear that the German Genitive case is hardly being used in spoken, every day German. Instead we use the Dative.

wegen dem Wetter

laut dem Gesetz

angesichts der Lage

trotz dem Schnee

nahe dem Fluß

Now you may argue that this is only the case with those prepositions. But look at this:

This is my Dad’s hat.

Das ist der Hut meines Vaters. (Genitive)

I’d never say this in spoken language. Rather I’d say it like this:

Das ist der Hut von meinem Vater.          OR          Das ist meinem Vater sein Hut. (both Dative)
German Genitive is Dead
It amazes me that many German language courses haven’t picked this up yet because this development has been going on for many years already. I can think back to my childhood when this trend was already common even though in the written language we still had to use the Genitive.

Using the Dative instead of the Genitive in the German language has become widely accepted now, even in written German and on TV and radio. Already in 2003 an article in the Spiegel covered this topic http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/zwiebelfisch/0,1518,267725,00.html

Even a book has been written by Bastian Sick about this trend. “Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod“. Bastian Sick is a popular German translator, author and journalist who takes on the decay in German grammar and language in a educative, humorous way.

These days you will still find the German Genitive in poetry, legal and official writing and some industries. German linguists and supporters of the German language fight to keep the German Genitive alive. Using the Genitive in spoken language adds sophistication and an up-scaled touch to speech. It also is an intricate part of German language history.

So, should you still learn the German Genitive?

 My answer is: It depends on what you want to focus on. If you learn German for travel and more personal use I’d suggest focusing on the other 3 cases. You should know about the German Genitive but not focus on it. Instead focus on learning how the German genitive is being expressed in spoken language. In the end, you will have less trouble understanding and speaking conversational German.


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  • Craig Klepin July 7, 2010, 2:13 AM

    Absolutely! It is part of the German language…would not be without it. Language is a continual state of flux, with new vocabulary adopted from other languages and new phraseologies as sign of the times/fads/newly coined terms etc. However, certain idiosyncrasies, stylistic aspect must be preserved in our linguistic and cultural mores…language is part of it.
    Does that make me weird or old fashioned by holding fast to the German language and wanting to preserve it’s essence. The younger folk under 30 already uses terms I am not familiar with and I know terms they never heard of…and I am under 40. Before you know it, the German lanugage will be English!

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  • M. Froelicher July 11, 2010, 9:41 PM

    Of course we teach and learn the genetive. It is an intricate part of the German language whatever the usage presently is. We also have always taught and learned that belonging can not only be expressed in the genetive but in the dative as well as shown in the above example. The dative form of “Das ist meinem Vater sein Hut” sounds utterly antiquated to me although grammatically correct.

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  • Olaf Kaufmann July 26, 2010, 12:53 PM

    In the South of Germany there has not been a (spoken) genetive for decades. Different story for written German, of course, but then maybe we southerners speak one variety and write another one.

    Reply