Why are German adjectives so weird?

As in many other languages, German adjectives take different endings depending on the case, number and gender of the nouns that they are associated with. For example, in the two noun phrases below, the adjective schwarz ‘black’ appears in two different forms due to the fact that the nouns Hund ‘dog’ and Katze have different genders (masculine and feminine, respectively).

ein schwarzer Hund
a black dog

eine schwarze Katze
a black cat

Although it can be difficult for speakers of languages that have invariant adjectives, like English, to get used to this feature of German, it’s not a particularly remarkable one. It’s an example of the phenomenon known as agreement, which is very common in natural languages. Indeed, agreement occurs in English, although it is less pervasive than in German, occuring consistently only with finite verbs in the present tense, which take the ending -s when their subject is third-person and singular; for example, the verb look appears in two different forms in the two sentences below, because in one of them its subject is third-person or singular, while in the other its subject is third-person and plural.

It looks good.

They look good.

But there is one feature of German adjectives which is decidedly odd. For each particular combination of case, number and gender, there are actually two different adjective endings associated with that combination. One of them is called the strong ending, and the other is called the weak ending. Now, it’s not unusual for there to be multiple sets of adjectival endings in a language, with different adjectives taking endings from different sets. For example, in Latin there are five different sets of endings (or declensions), and in order to put the correct ending on an adjective you have to know which declension it takes. In the two noun phrases below, the adjectives imperiōsus ‘powerful’ and juvenis ‘young’ take different endings, even though they are both agreeing with a masculine noun in the nominative plural, because imperiōsus takes the first/second declension1, while juvenis takes the third declension.

imperiōsī virī
powerful men

juvenēs virī
young men

But the weird thing about German adjectives is that every adjective takes both sets of endings depending on the context in which it occurs. This is quite different from the situation in Latin; in Latin a given adjective always takes the same set of endings. For example, look at what happens if we alter the two German noun phrases given above slightly, so that they begin with the definite article (‘the’) rather than the indefinite article (‘a’):

der schwarze Hund
the black dog

die schwarze Katze
the black cat

The adjective schwarz takes the weak endings, rather than the strong endings, in these two noun phrases, and we can see the difference in the first one, because the strong masculine nominative singular ending is -er, but the weak masculine nominative singular ending is -e. There is no change to the form of schwarz in the second noun phrase, but that’s just because the strong and weak feminine nominative singular endings happen to be identically -e.

The question that I’m going to explore in this post is this: why does this weird system, where there are two different sets of adjectival endings, exist? What purpose does it serve, if any?

First, I should explain how the system works in more detail. The complete sets of strong and weak German adjectival endings are given in the following two tables.

German strong adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -en -er -en -er
Dative -em -er -em -en
German weak adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -e -e -e -en
Accusative -en -e -e -en
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

One thing you can see from these tables is that that the weak endings exhibit a lot of syncretism (the use of the same ending for multiple case-number-gender combinations). In fact, the weak endings only take two distinct forms, -e and -en. They are therefore of little use if you want to use them to determine the case, number and/or gender of the noun associated with the adjective. On the other hand, the strong adjective endings, though not free of syncretism, are sufficiently varied that the ending of a strong adjective, alone, gives you a pretty good indication of the case, gender and number of the associated noun. In other words, the strong adjective endings mark case, gender and number effectively, while the weak endings don’t mark case, gender and number effectively. If the purpose of agreement is to make distinctions of case, number and gender more noticeable, then the strong endings are a lot more functional than the weak ones. This observation will be important later on.

But first, there’s another essential piece of information we need to know: when are the strong endings used, and when are the weak endings used? Well, first I should note that adjectives may not take any endings at all. German adjectives only take endings when they are attributive, i.e. when they come directly before the noun they are associated with. Adjectives can also be linked to a noun indirectly, most commonly via the verb wesen ‘to be’, in which case they are said to be predicative. For example, in the following sentence, schwarz is predicative and therefore does not have the weak nominative feminine singular ending -e as it would if it were attributive.

Die Katze ist schwarz.
The cat is black.

One way of thinking about this is that predicative adjectives are actually being used as adverbs; schwarz in the above sentence is associated to the verb ist, rather than to the subject of this verb, die Katze, and it accordingly takes no endings, as usual for adverbs.

When adjectives are attributive, they often come after another word which is called a determiner. Determiners are rather like adjectives in that they are associated with nouns and come directly before them; the main differences are that when a determiner and an adjective are both associated to a noun, the determiner goes before the adjective, and determiners are never predicative, although the distinction is not entirely clear-cut. The most common determiners are the two articles, der ‘the’ (the definite article) and ein ‘a’ (the indefinite article). In German (and English), every singular noun has to be associated to a determiner; the only time nouns do not have determiners in front of them are when they are plural (or if they are abstract nouns or mass nouns, which are unmarked for number) and indefinite, since ein was originally the numeral 1, so it can only be associated with singular nouns).2

It is the determiner that comes before an adjective that determines which set of endings it will take. As you already saw in the example above, adjectives that come after the definite article der take weak endings, and adjectives that come after the indefinite article ein take strong endings, although there is actually a catch in the latter case: when the noun associated to an adjective that comes after the indefinite article is in the dative or genitive case, rather than the nominative or accusative case, the adjective takes weak endings rather than strong endings. Of course, the genitive and dative weak endings all take the same form (-en), so this is really only a minor amendment to the general pattern that adjectives after ein take strong endings. But the set of endings that adjectives after ein take is sometimes treated as a separate set of endings called the mixed endings; the table is shown below for clarity.

German mixed adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

There are other determiners besides the definite and indefinite articles. Some of them are der-like, in that adjectives that come after them take weak endings. These include dieser ‘this’ (commonly also ‘that’ in modern usage), jener ‘that’ (rare in modern usage), welcher ‘which’, solcher ‘such’, jeder ‘every’ and mancher ‘many’. Others are ein-like, in that adjectives that come after them take mixed endings. Apart from ein, the only other ein-like determiners are kein ‘no’ and the possessive determiners derived from personal pronouns: mein ‘my’, dein ‘your (singular, informal)’, sein ‘his, its’, ihr ‘her, their’, unser ‘our’, euer ‘your (plural, informal)’ and Ihr ‘your (formal)’. Both the der-like and ein-like adjectives are declinable: they take different endings depending on the case, number and gender of the nouns they are associated with. Interestingly, der and the der-like determiners all take one set of endings (although the endings take slightly different forms when added to the stem d- of der, because the stem d- does not constitute a whole syllable by itself and hence endings that come after it are stressed), while ein and the ein-like determiners all take a different set of endings. These endings are shown in the two tables below.

German der-like determiner endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e (stressed: -ie) -es (stressed: -as) -e (stressed: -ie)
Accusative -en -e (stressed: -ie) -es (stressed: -as) -e (stressed: -ie)
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en
German ein-like determiner endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -∅ -e -∅ -e
Accusative -en -e -∅ -e
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

There are also determiners which are indeclinable (i.e. they take no endings). Note that not all of these would normally be regarded as determiners, but it is convenient to think of them as determiners for the purposes of this post. This group contains quite a few different kinds of word:

  • Numerals greater than two, although ein ‘one’ is not included because it is the same word that is used as the indefinite article and hence takes the ein-like endings. German is thus unlike English, in which a and one are separate words in every respect, although it is possible to tell via intonation when ein is being used as the numeral 1 or as the indefinite article.
  • Quantifiers derived from noun phrases such as ein bisschen ‘a little’ and ein paar ‘a few’.
  • The comparative particles, mehr ‘more’ and weniger ‘less’.
  • Proper nouns in the genitive case such as Jesu ‘Jesus”, Vatis ‘dad’s’ or Muttis ‘mum’s’, which, unlike other nouns in the genitive case, precede the nouns they are attached to (it is obviously stretching the definition a bit to call these indeclinable determiners, but for the purposes of this post it’ll do).

The strong endings are taken by adjectives which come after these indeclinable determiners, and also by adjectives which come after no determiner at all. Note that there are a few adjectives like viel ‘much, many’, wenig ‘few’, einige ‘some’ and mehrere ‘several’ which have very determiner-like meanings, but are classified as adjectives on the basis of the endings that they exhibit (although many of these adjectives exhibit idiosyncrasies, e.g. viel and wenig take no ending in the singular when no determiner comes before them). Adjectives which come after other adjectives are inflected as if the preceding adjective was not present; what is important is the determiner (or lack thereof) which comes in front of the sequence of adjectives.

So, that’s the situation which we’re trying to understand here. Now, we already noted the high degree of syncretism in the weak adjective endings, which makes them of little use for the purpose of marking case, gender and number. The second important thing to note is that there is a one-to-one correspondance between the three kinds of determiners, as classified by the endings that they take, and the endings that adjectives that come after them take (weak, mixed and strong, respectively). For example, there are no determiners that decline like der but induce strong adjective endings, nor are there determiners are indeclinable but induce weak adjective endings. This suggests that there is some sort of causal link connecting the determiner endings and the adjective endings. And it’s not too difficult to see what this causal link might be. Think about how effectively each set of endings marks case, gender and number; let’s call this quantity marking capability. (This is not a standard term.) The weak adjective endings have a low marking capability. The strong adjective endings and both sets of determiner endings, on the other hand, exhibit relatively little syncretism and therefore have a high marking capability. The mixed adjective endings have a high marking capability in the nominative and accusative cases, but a low marking capability in the genitive and dative cases. And the indeclinable determiners, which take no endings, do not mark case, gender and number at all and therefore have zero marking capability. Let’s put all of these observations together in a table.

Determiner endings Adjective endings
der-like (high m.c.) weak (low m.c.)
ein-like (high m.c.) mixed (high m.c. in nom./acc., low m.c. in gen./dat.)
none (zero m.c.) strong (high m.c.)

You can see that there is a negative correlation between the marking capability of a set of determiner endings and the marking capability of the set of adjective endings that are associated with it. That is, if a determiner has a high marking capability, an adjective that comes after it will have a low marking capability, and vice versa.

So, we might explain the presence of two sets of adjective endings in German like this. Determiner-adjective sequences that come before nouns agree with nouns as units. The case, gender and number of the noun needs to be marked, but it can be marked either on the determiner or the adjective (or both); either way, it satisfies the requirement that the determiner-adjective sequence should mark the noun’s case, gender and number. When the determiner does the marking, there is no need for the adjective to do the marking as well—hence adjectives after der-like determiners take weak endings. When the determiner doesn’t do the marking, the adjective needs to do the marking instead—hence adjectives after indeclinable determiners take strong endings.

An extension of this approach also allows us to explain why the strong adjective endings in the genitive masculine singular and genitive neuter singular are -en (like the corresponding weak endings) and not -es (like the corresponding der-like determiner endings). In German, noun endings don’t mark case, in general, only number; case marking is left to the preceding determiner-adjective sequence. However, most masculine and neuter nouns take the ending -es in the genitive case. So, we can explain the use of the ending -en on both strong and weak adjectives before such nouns as due to the fact that the -es ending is already there on the noun.

This is the approach taken by many descriptions of German grammar; many learners of German as a second language find it illuminating, and it may well, to some extent, be how the system is understood by people learning German as their first language (it would be interesting to see if there have been any studies on this). However, it doesn’t explain everything. For example, the fact that adjectives after ein-like determiners take mixed endings is awkward to account for in this framework, since the ein-like determiners are no worse at marking case, gender and number in the nominative and accusative cases than in the genitive and dative cases (in fact, they’re probably better at it).

Can we take the analysis any deeper? Well, up until now, we’ve been examining the system from a synchronic rather than diachronic perspective, i.e. without regard for how it has changed over time. But it could be very much worth examining it from a diachronic perspective. The reason for this is that in general, languages tolerate a lot of contingent, more or less non-functional phenomena that are basically the result of historical accidents. For example, the plural of the word ox in English is oxen, rather than the expected *oxes. From a synchronic perspective, this is unexplainable; having this irregular plural doesn’t make the language more functional, all it does is make it necessary for learners to memorise an extra rule (“ox adds -en in the plural instead of -es”). But from a diachronic perspective, we can understand that oxen is a retention of the Old English plural oxan, with the ending -an, which was the regular plural ending of a class of nouns (the weak nouns) which was quite large in Old English. Over time, the alternative plural ending -as, used for another large class of nouns, was extended to more and more nouns. Historical linguists, drawing on studies that have been made of many different languages as they changed over time, know that changes like this (which are called analogical changes) tend to diffuse through the lexicon, affecting different words at different times—and this is what you would expect if you consider the nature of the processes, such as learner error, that drive this kind of change. So it is unsurprising that there is still one English word which is still holding out against the generalisation of the Old English -as plural ending. Of course, we can’t really answer questions like “why is it the word ox, in particular, which has retained this old ending?” It’s true that more common words are more likely to retain archaic traits, but that’s not a complete explanation. The diachronic perspective allows us to understand that we can’t expect this question to be answerable, since the diffusion process which causes words to acquire regularised plural endings in -es ~ -s is non-deterministic.

So, let’s have a look at how the system worked in the ancestor of the modern German language, which is known as Old High German, or OHG for short. It turns out that the system was quite similar in some respects. Just as in modern German, each OHG adjective took two different sets of endings depending on context; the endings from one set are known as the strong endings, and the endings from the other set are known as the weak endings, and indeed the modern German strong and weak adjective endings can be more or less straightforwardly derived from the OHG strong and weak adjective endings by regular sound change. The OHG forms of the strong and weak adjective endings are given in the table below.

OHG strong adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -ēr -iu -aʒ -e -o -iu
Accusative -an -a -aʒ -e -o -iu
Genitive -es -era -es -ero -ero -ero
Dative -emu -eru -emu -ēm -ēm -ēm
OHG weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -o -a -a -on -ūn -on
Accusative -on -ūn -a -on -ūn -on
Genitive -en -ūn -en -ōno -ōno -ōno
Dative -en -ūn -en -ōm -ōm -ōm

One important difference between the systems of OHG and modern German is immediately apparent from the tables above: the heavy syncretism of the weak adjective endings is more or less absent in OHG. Yes, they do exhibit some syncretism, but not significantly more than the strong adjective endings. In fact, if you compare the OHG weak adjective endings with the modern German strong adjective endings it is the latter which are more syncretic.

I can’t find much information on the circumstances which determined whether adjectives took strong or weak endings in OHG, although as far as I can tell, the key rules were the same as in modern German—adjectives took weak endings after the definite article dër and took strong endings when they did not come after a determiner. However, I do have access to more detailed information on the adjectives of another old Germanic language: Old English (OE). Although modern English has lost the distinction between the strong and weak endings entirely—indeed, it has lost all adjective endings except for the comparative and superlative endings, and even these are replaced by phrasal formation (more beautiful, most beautiful) for many adjectives—OE did inflect adjectives with two different sets of endings which are clearly cognate to the strong and weak adjective endings of OHG. The OE adjective endings are given in the two tables below.

OE strong adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -∅ -(u) -∅ -e -a -(u)
Accusative -ne -e -∅ -e -a -(u)
Genitive -es -re -es -ra -ra -ra
Dative -um -re -um -um -um -um
Instrumental -e -re -e -um -um -um
OE weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -a -e -e -an -an -an
Accusative -an -an -e -an -an -an
Genitive -an -an -an -ena -ena -ena
Dative -an -an -an -um -um -um
Instrumental -an -an -an -um -um -um

The bracketed endings in the table above only appear after stems which consist of a single light syllable, i.e. a syllable ending in a short vowel followed by a single consonant. This is due to a sound change which eliminated word-final short vowels after heavy syllables in pre-OE.

So, what determined the use of the strong or weak endings in OE? The following information is from Ringe & Taylor (2014).

First, note that unlike modern English or German, OE had no indefinite article. The word ān ‘one’, out of which the modern English indefinite article developed, could be used as an indefinite article, but it was optional; see, for example, the sentence below, in which æþelum brydguman ‘noble bridegroom’ appears without an article before it.

ond heo wæs þær beweddedo æþelum brydguman.
and there she was married to a noble bridegroom.

There was a definite article, although it was identical in form to the distal demonstrative (‘that’), se. (The modern English definite article comes from the nominative masculine singular form of the distal demonstrative3, while the modern English singular distal demonstrative that comes from the neuter form þæt.) The appropriate inflected form of se always appeared before definite nouns, unless definiteness was already inherent due to the noun being a proper noun or a pronoun, or already marked by a possessive. That said, in the earliest Old English poetry (e.g. Beowulf), we do see some definite nouns which do not have se before them; evidently the use of se as a definite article had not fully developed at the time these poems were written.

In general, weak endings are used after the demonstratives, þes ‘this’ and se ‘that’ (including the latter when it is used as a definite article), possessives and proper nouns (e.g. Carl Fǣtta ‘Charles the Fat’), while strong endings are used elsewhere. Strong endings are sometimes seen after non-pronominal possessives, but weak endings are much more common in this environment. The rule is thus quite similar to the German one, although there is the notable difference that in German adjectives takes mixed endings, not weak ones, after pronominal possessives, and they always take strong endings, never weak ones, after non-pronominal possessives.

Now, what do demonstratives, possessives and proper nouns have in common? Well, we just mentioned that possessed nouns and proper nouns never come after the definite article, because they are inherently definite. Definite nouns can be defined, roughly, as those which are associated with a particular referent, as opposed to indefinite nouns, which represent members of a certain class of things, with the identity of the members within the class not having any relevance. In English, possessives tend to be used only with definite nouns; when the noun is indefinite, constructions along the lines of a friend of mine are often used instead. One can use possessives with indefinite nouns too, but the option of using an alternative construction is there and, at least to me, the alternative construction usually sounds more natural. This is probably due to the fact that the most prototypical nouns that occur after possessives are body parts and kinship terms, which tend to be unique and hence definite (everybody has a single biological father, and hence nobody says a father of mine unless they are using the word father to mean something other than a biological father). I don’t know for sure whether the same could be said of the Old English possessives, but the fact that they behave like demonstratives and proper nouns—both of which have inherently definite referents—with respect to adjective endings does suggest so.

It seems, then, that the Old English rule can be briefly described as follows: adjectives before definite nouns take weak endings, adjective before indefinite nouns take strong endings. Now, it would be interesting to see what endings adjectives take before those nouns in Beowulf which are definite but do not have it marked by the demonstrative se. None of the sources I’ve read give any actual examples, but here is an apparent example from the Electronic Introduction to Old English:

gomela Scylfing hrēas heoroblāc.
the old Scylfing fell, mortally wounded (lit. “sword-pale”).

Here, the adjective gomela, which modifies the definite noun Scylfing (the Scylfings were the members of a particular Swedish royal family, and the phrase gomela Scylfing here is clearly intended to refer to a Scylfing called Ongenþēow mentioned earlier in the text; phrases like this were used in epic poems to avoid repetition of a name; hence why we know the noun is definite) has the weak nominative masculine singular ending -a, rather than its strong counterpart -∅. So it does seem that the use of the strong and weak endings is in accordance with the stated rule: weak endings appear before definite nouns. Of course, the proper thing to do here would be to do a full investigation of every definite noun that does not have se before it in Beowulf, but as this is just a blog post, which is getting long enough already, we’ll leave it here.

We can now see the original function of the weak endings. As there was no definite article in early Old English, the choice of the weak endings rather than the strong endings was the only thing that marked a noun as definite or indefinite. The use of the weak endings was not determined by morphological and syntactical factors, as in modern German, but by semantics: you added weak endings to indicate that a noun was definite, strong endings to indicate that a noun was indefinite.

It is likely that this system where the weak endings function as markers of definiteness operated in the same way in Proto-Germanic itself. Both Gothic and Old Norse (the two most divergent well-attested members of the Germanic family; the others are part of the West Germanic subgroup) had turned the Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative *sa ‘that’ into a definite article, and so had already progressed to the stage where the use of strong or weak endings no longer expressed a semantic distinction in its own right but was determined by the form of the determiner before the adjective. This situation must have developed from a system like the one we see in early Old English; that’s why we reconstruct such a system for Proto-Germanic.

Of course, the system doesn’t go back to Proto-Indo-European, because none of the other Indo-European languages have anything like it (we already talked about Latin, for example). So, one last important question remains. We now know what purpose the differentation between these two sets of endings served. But how did this differentiation come about?

Let’s have a look at the Proto-Germanic weak adjective endings, as reconstructed by Ringe (2006).

Proto-Germanic weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative *-ō̄ ? ? *-aniz *-ōniz *-ōnō
Accusative *-anų *-ōnų ? *-anunz *-ōnunz *-ōnō
Genitive *-iniz *-ōniz *-iniz *-anǭ̄ *-ōnǭ̄ *-anǭ̄
Dative *-ini *-ōni *-ini *-ammaz *-ōmaz *-ammaz
Instrumental ? ? ? *-ammiz *-ōmiz *-ammiz

Although some of these endings are not reconstructible, of those that are, we can see a clear pattern: in general, each ending consists of a suffix of the form *-Vn, where the V is one of the vowels *a, or *i, followed by an ending which is the same for each gender. There are a couple of exceptions: the nominative masculine singular ending is *-ō̄, with no *n-containing suffix at the start, and the ending of the nominative and accusative neuter singular is *-ō, not *-iz as in the nominative masculine and feminine plural or *-unz as in the accusative masculine and feminine plural. Also, the *-n at the end of the suffix assimilates to *-m before the *-m- that begins the dative and instrumental plural endings, and the resulting cluster *mm is simplified to *m after the long vowel .

Compare the following endings, which are the endings of a particular nominal declension in Proto-Germanic, the consonant-stem declension:

Singular Plural
Nominative *-s, *-z, *-∅ *-iz (neuter *-ō)
Accusative *-ų *-unz (neuter *-ō)
Genitive *-iz *-ǭ̄
Dative *-i *-maz
Instrumental ? *-miz

These endings are more or less precisely those that appear after the *n-containing suffixes in the weak adjective endings. The only discrepancy is with the weak nominative masculine singular ending *-ō̄, but this can be traced back to pre-Proto-Indo-European *-ons, with the regular nominative singular ending *-s; a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) phonological rule reduced this ending to *-ō, which became *-ō̄ in Proto-Germanic. The classical example of this rule is Sanskrit śvā́ ‘dog’ (< PIE *ḱwṓ), the nominative singular corresponding to the vocative singular śván (< PIE *ḱwón; nouns in the vocative singular took no ending in PIE). Indeed, there are a couple of consonant stems ending in *-n- that have survived in PGmc (*ḱwṓ only survives in a suffixed form, *hundaz < PIE *ḱuntós), and these show the same loss of the -ns ending, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding -o, in the nominative singular, such as *sēmō̄ ‘seed’ (< PIE *séh₁mō, from pre-PIE *séh₁mons).

The final question, then, is where this *n-containing suffix came from. As far as I can tell, there is general agreement that it is related to a suffix attested in Greek and Latin which is used to “individualize” nouns. This suffix was a source of a few Roman cognomina: Catō, which has the genitive singular Catōnis, is derived from the adjective catus ‘shrewd’ (so Catō means ‘the Shrewd’), and Strabō, which has the genitive singular Strabōnis, is a Latinization of Greek Strabṓn, from strabós, an adjective that describes somebody with a squint (so Strabṓn means ‘the Squint-Eyed’). Jasanoff (2002) reconstructs the PIE form of the suffix as amphikinetic *-on- ~ *-n-. I haven’t tried to understand the details of his derivation, so I’m not sure how exactly how he explains the distribution of the three different vowels that appear in the *n-containing suffix.

The sources I can find are vague on the matter of how, exactly, the nickname-forming meaning in Greek and Latin is presumed definiteness-indicating meaning in Proto-Germanic. All I can do is give you my ill-informed speculation. Perhaps the Greek and Latin meaning is the more original one, and the indication of definiteness developed due to the inherent definiteness of proper nouns. But I’m not very confident about this. What we need here is an example of a language where a definite article, or some other way of indicating definiteness, is known to have developed from a similar source.

Anyway, we do now have a general idea of how the strong and weak adjective endings have developed, despite this respect (and others which I haven’t touched on, like the origin of the German mixed endings) in which the details aren’t clear. It might be helpful to give a brief summary.

In Proto-Indo-European, the distinction between weak and strong adjective endings did not exist. The weak endings were formed by adding regular endings onto a suffix of the form *-Vn. This suffix, which is used to form nicknames in Greek and Latin, somehow came to indicate definiteness in pre-Proto-Germanic. So, for example, adding it to *fullaz ‘full’ produced *fullō̄ ‘the full person or thing’. I am glossing it here as if it were a noun, but in Proto-Germanic (and also in modern German), nouns and adjectives could be freely interchanged; *fullaz when used as a noun would have meant ‘a full person or thing’, and *fullō̄ could be used as an adjective, so it could be placed in front of *gumō̄ ‘person’ giving *fullō̄ gumō̄ ‘the full person’. Due to sound changes, the separation between the suffix and the regular endings added to it became less clear in the individual German languages, so we generally speak of two sets of adjective endings, the strong endings (the original4 ones) and the weak endings (the endings with the remnants of the *n-containing suffix at the start). In Old High German, the distal demonstrative dër ‘that’ started to be used as a definite article, which made the original semantic function of the weak adjective endings redundant. Instead, they became simply variants of the strong endings which appeared in particular circumstances. Later sound changes in the German language caused many of the weak endings to become identical in form, so that in the end they only took two different forms, -e and -en. This enabled the synchronic analysis of the strong endings as “compensating” for the lack of marking capability in the weak endings (and, although I haven’t actually looked into it, I would imagine that this has something to do with the development of a new set of mixed endings).

By putting the development of the weak and strong adjective endings in a diachronic perspective, I’m not intending to say that the synchronic analysis of the German adjective ending system given above is worthless; in fact it seems likely that the synchronic analysis is valid in the sense that it may approximate how the system is understood by learners, and it may be the best explanation for the more recent developments that have occured in the system. But I do find that taking the diachronic perspective as well gives me a much more complete sense of understanding. If I took only the synchronic perspective there would still be a lot of questions that would seem like they needed answering, the most obvious being that of why German speakers bother having the weak adjective endings in the first place—wouldn’t it be much easier to just, say, not inflect the adjectives in the contexts where they take weak endings? And why not just make every adjective take the strong endings—the redundancy is not a problem, for if it were then why make adjectives agree with the nouns they are associated with at all? With the diachronic perspective, these questions no longer trouble me, because I can see that the weak adjective endings once served to indicate a particular meaning (that of definiteness), and now that this function has now been made redundant, they have only remained distinctive because their continued distinctiveness brings no significant costs, even if it brings no significant benefits either. And I think much the same could be said for other linguistic phenomena; a diachronic perspective is always useful, perhaps essential, for understanding. I think this is the main reason why my interests in linguistics tend more to the historical side.

  1. ^ The first/second declension is named thus because the Latin adjective declensions are more or less the same as the noun declensions, but there is the difference that each adjective takes endings associated with each of the three genders, while each noun only take endings associated with one gender (the gender of the noun). The nouns which take the first declension are mostly feminine, the nouns which take the second declension are mostly masculine or neuter, and the nouns which take the third declension can be of any of the three genders. (There are a couple more declensions, but these three account for the majority of nouns.) With adjectives, we find that some of them take the endings of the second declension in the masculine and neuter and the endings of the first declension in the feminine, while others take the endings of the third declension in the masculine, feminine and neuter. We therefore say that the first kind of adjectives take the first/second declension, while the second kind of adjectives take the third declension. None of this has any relevance to the point of the post, but I figured you might want to know.
  2. ^ Articles are sometimes omitted before singular nouns in certain kinds of sentences, e.g. in ich bin Schriftsteller ‘I am a writer’, but the article always appears, according to my Oxford German Dictionary, if an adjective comes before the adjective, so one says ich bin ein bekannter Schriftsteller ‘I am a famous writer’, never *ich bin bekannter Schriftsteller.
  3. ^ se had two different initial consonants, depending on which form it appeared in: s in the nominative masculine singular and nominative feminine singular, þ in every other form. In late Old English the initial consonant þ was generalised to every form, and the resulting nominative masculine singular form þe is the ancestor of modern English the (þ was the Old English way of writing th).
  4. ^ Actually, the Proto-Germanic strong adjective endings are considerably different from the original PIE adjective endings; they have largely (or even wholly) been replaced by “pronominal” endings, those of the distal demonstrative *se and other related words. The extension of pronominal endings to other classes of words is a pretty common development across the Indo-European languages, although it seems to have been more complete with respect to the Proto-Germanic strong adjective endings than in most of the others. It is unclear whether this has anything to do with the development of the strong and weak endings, or whether it is a completely independent development.

5 responses to “Why are German adjectives so weird?

  1. In regard to your footnote (3) citing the as being derived from the nom. masc. sing. form, I remember learning a slightly different explanation of the, where Middle English speakers became sloppy with all of the th- forms of the definite article / demonstrative pronoun and began to just swallow the vowel and leave off the ending consonant (when there was one), meanwhile forgetting about the se, seo forms. At the same time, there may have been some influence from the Old English relative particle the (written with a thorn, of course).

    So I’m curious as to where you got your explanation of the history of the. This is not meant as a criticism or challenge, by the way; the explanation I think I remember is from a long time ago; I can’t cite the source; and it might well have been just one author’s opinion. I find this issue particularly interesting because I see development of our most common word the as sort of symbolic of English’s overall modern-day personality, having evolved into a much more analytic language than most of its family members.

    For that matter, I’m curious as to where you get all of the data (words, inflectional endings, etc.) you use for your linguistics posts. I would love to have an access to currently-hypothesized Germanic / Indo-European roots (apart from my American Heritage dictionary of some IE roots), as well as old inflectional endings. Anyway, sorry for dumping a bunch of increasingly long comments on your old posts. Your blog has been an enjoyable distraction from my work today.

    • The thing is, the has two pronunciations: /ðə/ when unstressed and before a consonant, /ðiː/ when stressed or before a vowel. The simplest way to account for /ðiː/ is to say it reflects a particular OE form of the definite article, and the only forms which would regularly develop into /ðiː/ are se and sēo. (I concede that it could have come from either of those; they would have ended up being pronounced identically in ME.)

      Actually, that’s not quite a regular development, because the replacement of /s/ by /ð/ is irregular. I guess you could say that while the vowel of the comes from se and sēo specifically, its consonant comes specifically from all the other OE definite article forms—so it’s still quite a nice example of a mongrel word.

      (There are other ways I can think of that you could account for /ðiː/. For example, the indefinite article a has a stressed pronunciation /ej/ in Modern English. This pronunciation is probably based on the spelling; if it was a continuation of the original unreduced vowel in one, we’d expect /ow/. So maybe /ðiː/ is a spelling pronunciation too? That’d only account for the /ðiː/ pronunciation in emphasis. But it’s possible that /ə/ might regularly become /iː/ before a vowel—c.f. Barbara Allen > Barb’ry Allen—so that’s not a problem. So this is a plausible hypothesis, but in the absence of further evidence I think we can on Occam’s Razor grounds favour the other one.)

      The best resource I know of for the history of English is a series of books by Don Ringe, which give amazingly comprehensive overviews of each stage in the development from Proto-Indo-European to modern English. The series isn’t complete yet, but you can access an uncorrected proof of the most recent one, which is about the development from Proto-Germanic to Old English, here. The other book which has been released is Ringe (2006), which is about the development from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. You’d have to buy that one, but I can definitely recommend it if you’re interested in this stuff. That one can serve as a good introduction to historical linguistics as well.

      Thanks for the comments! I don’t mind them at all 🙂 The longer, the better 🙂

  2. Thanks a lot for the references and links! I’ll certainly look into buying the first Ringe book. If I’m remembering right, I got a lot of my knowledge of the history of English from a book whose author’s last name is Freeborn, but that book didn’t really cover anything prehistoric; it just started with early Old English.

    I’m not yet convinced that your se / seo explanation for the vowel in our pronunciation of stressed/pre-vocalic the is the simpler one. I had always assumed your other suggestion: that we quite recently began to pronounce it with a /i:/ probably due to spelling. It would seem like a natural thing to do, particularly before a word starting in a vowel (it makes sense to switch the schwa to a high vowel such as /i:/ or /u:/ if you want to avoid a glottal stop). I’d be more convinced if I saw a late Old English document that uses a form starting with th- for the masc. or fem, nom. sing. definite article. (I guess they were already starting to become careless with grammatical gender by then?)

  3. David Marjanović

    the verb wesen ‘to be’,

    No, the infinitive is sein. You’re confusing it with Dutch.

    This is the approach taken by many descriptions of German grammar; many learners of German as a second language find it illuminating, and it may well, to some extent, be how the system is understood by people learning German as their first language (it would be interesting to see if there have been any studies on this).

    I’m a native speaker of German, and I can confirm this for myself: case and gender marking is (largely, messily) outsourced to the definite article. This also works in the converse – when we translate from e.g. Latin or Russian, we’re always tempted to add a definite article to proper names to convey the fact that they’re declined! I’m not aware of any studies either, though.

    the article always appears, according to my Oxford German Dictionary, if an adjective comes before the adjective, so one says ich bin ein bekannter Schriftsteller ‘I am a famous writer’, never *ich bin bekannter Schriftsteller.


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