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I was a little surprised to not find more information about this kind of construction in German, e.g.

eine Tasse Kaffee

ein Glas Wasser

My intuition said that this could be a genitive (in the second noun, I mean) that goes unnoticed because of the absence of an article — seems like it's mistaken.

Another plausible explanation I found in some sites (like this one) is that it is a partitive (which in German would actually be a double-nominative construction), but I couldn't find any authoritative source — e.g. the Wikipedia article says that the partitive is 'unknown in German'.

So, what is it?

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Welcome to German.LU! ...I don't see a direct reation with partitive: 1) partitive is a case. As you pointed out, that case doesn't exist in German. 2) in the examples, Tasse and Glas are telling precisely which quantity of coffee and water are considered; if I'm not mistaken, partitive just leaves that quantity unexplicit. But maybe I just misunderstood your point. Anyway, I think the question is great! :) und bin mal auf die Antwort gespannt! +1 –  c.p. Apr 8 '14 at 4:01

1 Answer 1

up vote 13 down vote accepted

"eine Tasse Kaffee" is a cup of coffee in English. Where most languaguages use a partitive genetive German has a special construction nominative + nominative. The first noun describes the quantity a cup, a bucket, a sack, the second noun describes "of what": coffee, water, flour.

Today the construction for "how much of what" is nominative +nominative. But in older language it was nominative + genitive:

Schiller, around 1800: ein Becher Weines

As feminine nouns have no genitive ending it was "ein Glas Milch" and it was clear from the meaning of the words that the first noun described "how much"and the second noun "of what". So one learned that the genitive ending of the second noun was not necessary and in the course of time it was dropped.

If you can find nothing about this problem in your grammar you should try to get a better one. You can check the quality of a grammar just by checking what a grammar says about a special problem such as this special construction with a double nominative.

PS Don't consider Wikipedia as an authority in languages. They compile a lot of things and often they don't get it right. As you see German had a partitve genitive (for nouns of masculine and neuter gender), but the genitive ending was dropped. But there are a lot of expressions where a partitive relation is expressed with "von": Tausende von Büchern/ Tausende Bücher. Oder: Vieles von dem, was in Wikipedia über Grammatikbegriffe gesagt wird, kann man nur als verunglückt bezeichnen.

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Note that even today similar construct like "Ich hätte gerne einen Becher von dem Wein" are used, just similar to older (sometimes used in poetic contexts) "ein Becher des Weines". –  PlasmaHH Apr 8 '14 at 12:53
Also, if a definite article is used on the secod word, you also use the genitive, not the nominative: "Ein Glas des besten Weines", not "Ein Glas der beste Wein". –  celtschk Apr 11 '14 at 6:35

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