Declensions is a linguistics term describing the process of modifying words based on their function within the sentence, for example, a word being the object or the subject. In German, nouns, adjectives, and pronouns are modified according to the actions taking place within a sentence.
Declensions are essential in the German language in order to distinguish between the roles of words in the sentence. These roles include direct and indirect objects, subjects, and possessives. Whereas in English, these sorts of distinctions are achieved via the order of words or various prepositions, in German this is achieved primarily through declensions, and additionally in part due to word order and prepositions.
Declensions in the German language can be divided into four grammatical cases: nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive. These cases necessitate specific declensions for specific situations, and I will briefly detail the situations in which each case is applied below.
The nominative case is representative of the subject of the sentence, in other words, the thing that is doing the action. This is the form shown in a dictionary or on a list. I will underline the nominative nouns and their articles in the following examples:
Der Junge spielt mit dem Ball.
- The boy is playing with the ball.
- In this case, a boy is doing the action of playing, and is thus nominative. The ball is being acted upon, and as such, not nominative
Matthew liebt Taylor.
- Matthew loves Taylor.
- Here, Matthew is doing the action of loving, so he is nominative, whereas Taylor is being loved, and not nominative
Hamburg ist eine Stadt in Deutschland.
- Hamburg is a city in Germany.
- In this example, there is a city (Hamburg) that is doing the action of existing, followed by a description (a city). Descriptions after “is” are nominative. Because Germany follows “in”, it is a description conditional to the preposition, and is not nominative
The accusative case is representative of the direct object of the sentence. In English, the only instance where the accusative case exists is in the usage of different pronouns: for example, “she” is nominative, and “her” is accusative. To exemplify this in a sentence: She can see me, but I can’t see her. Here, “she” is the nominative noun doing the action of seeing, but later, “her” is the direct object being seen.
In German, the principle is much the same, but applies to much more than just pronouns. In addition to direct objects, there are other cases in which accusative can appear, for example after certain adverbs or prepositions.
Here are some examples, again with the accusative nouns and their articles underlined:
Ich habe einen Apfel gegessen.
- I have eaten an apple.
- The apple is the direct object of my action of eating
Genau diesen Song möchte ich hören. Alt.: Genau dieses Lied möchte ich hören.
- I would like to listen to precisely this song.
- Here, the song is the direct object being listened to
Wir gehen durch den Park.
- We are walking through the park.
- In this example, the preposition “durch” (through) necessitates the accusative case. This will be discussed later in more detail in prepositions
The dative case is representative of the indirect object, or beneficiary of an action. In English, this can be represented in a couple of ways, namely “to (followed by an indirect object) and “whom”. In German, just as in the accusative case, the dative case is necessitated by receipt, or sometimes through verbs or prepositions.
Here are some examples, with the dative nouns and their articles being underlined:
Ich gebe meiner Schwester mein Handy.
- I am giving my sister my cell phone.
- Because my sister is the recipient of my cell phone, and I am the one performing the action, she is the indirect object, thus necessitating the dative form. I am in nominative, as the performer (subject), and the cell phone is in accusative, as the object being acted upon
Du vertraust niemandem.
- You don’t trust anybody.
- This is a case in which a verb, “vertrauen” (to trust), will always necessitate the dative case for the object of the trust. So, you, the doer of the action of trusting, are in nominative, but nobody, the word following the verb of trust, is the dative object
Aus eigener Erfahrung kann ich sagen, dass Deutsch nicht schwer ist!
- From personal experience, I can say that German is not difficult!
- This is a case in which a preposition, “aus” (meaning “from” in this example), necessitates the dative case. Again, this concept of specific prepositions requiring specific cases will be discussed in more detail later in prepositions
The genitive case is representative of some sort of attributive relationship shared between two objects. Whereas in English one would say “my friend’s house” with an apostrophe to indicate that the house belongs to the friend, one would use the genitive case in German to indicate the same meaning: das Haus meines Freundes.
It isn’t used exclusively for possession, however. There are cases in which the genitive describes a relationship between nouns, or is simply necessitated by a preposition or verb, similar to the dative and accusative cases.
Here are some examples, with the genitive nouns and their articles being underlined:
Die Lautstärke der Musik ist zu laut.
- The volume of the music is too loud.
- In this example, the music is sharing an attributive relationship with the volume, as the music itself is not the nominative subject but rather an additional attribute to specify a detail of the music. Thus, it is written in the genitive form
Während des Films habe ich viel Popcorn gegessen.
- During the movie I ate a lot of popcorn.
- Here, the preposition “während” (during) necessitates the genitive form, and a more complete list of such prepositions will be included later in prepositions
Wien erfreut sich eines schönen Wetters.
- Vienna is enjoying beautiful weather.
- Again this is an example of a verb, “sich erfreuen” (to enjoy), necessitating the usage of a particular case, here the genitive, for the object being acted upon. Whereas Wien (Vienna) is the doer of the action of enjoying, the beautiful weather is the subject of the action
What Changes According to Declensions?
Now you understand that four cases exist, but how do you know what parts of the sentence will be subject to changes due to declensions?
I regret to inform you that with the exception of verbs and prepositions, most components of a sentence will change, namely nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles.
The intention of this section is merely to provide an overview of declensions and cases, concepts that must be understood before going further in your German studies, as they are integrated into most aspects of the language.
As such, if you are looking for specific declensions’ charts and rules, please refer to the below sections for the part of speech you are looking for.
- Adjectives: Strong Inflection
- Adjectives: Weak Inflection
- Adjectives: Mixed Inflection
- Pronouns: Personal
- Pronouns: Possessive
- Pronouns: Reflexive
- Pronouns: Demonstrative
- Pronouns: Relative
- Pronouns: Interrogative
- Indefinite Pronouns: man
- Indefinite Pronouns: jedes/jede/jeder
- Indefinite Pronouns: jemand/niemand
What to Read Next
- German Nouns: Gender, Masculine, Feminine, and Plural Forms
- German Articles: Definite, Indefinite, Negative, and Zero
- German Pronouns: Personal, Possessive, Reflexive, Table, and More
- German Clauses: Independent, Dependent, and Types
- German Adverbs: Explanation, List, and Usage
- German Prepositions: Accusative, Dative, Genitive, and More
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