My children grow up bi-lingually and sometimes that really helps identify false friends and differences between English and German.

My boy wanted to say the following English sentence in German.

My father's cello case weighs less than my mother's violin case.

Even I struggle, and I was brought up with only German. Getting started with Meines Vaters Cellokasten ist leichter als ... and then it gets real hairy.

Of course, the easy way out is

Der Cellokasten meines Vaters ist leichter als der Geigenkasten meiner Mutter.

I don't know what the grammatical term is for the English way to build these two nominative objects. It is possible to build them in German, but why is it so hard? At what point in time did the German language change to prefer the construct we now consider easier?


You are talking about a possessive genitive, and I don't think it's particularly hard, it's just beginning to sound archaic. In fact it's built almost exactly like in English:

My father's cello case vs. the cello case of my father.

In English, as in German, the first version is slowly replaced by the second in everyday speech, although it remains slightly more common in English. To say "meiner Mutter Geigenkasten" is possible, but sounds positively stilted; we usually use what you call "the easy way out", i.e. "der Geigenkasten meiner Mutter".

Meines Vaters Cellokasten ist leichter (really?) als meiner Mutter Geigenkasten.

  • 6
    >> Really? -- Yes. Carbon fiber for the cello case.
    – teylyn
    Jun 20 '14 at 8:03
  • +1. Im Rheinland (meiner Heimat) geht auch Meinem Vater sein Buch, aber da schüttelt's mich ziemlich.
    – teylyn
    Jun 20 '14 at 11:24
  • 4
    +1. Note the possessive pronoun could be dropped since "Vaters Cellokasten" is interpreted as referring to the speaker's father baring any qualification or specific context. "Vaters Cellokasten ist leichter als Mutters Geigenkasten" isn't even marked. Though of course this only holds for a few nouns (Vater, Mutter, Opa etc).
    – jona
    Jun 20 '14 at 12:01
  • Assuming that the speaker has one mother and father, "Vaters Cellokasten ... als Mutters Geigenkasten" also works. Usually you'd hear "Papas" and "Mamas" or similar forms, though.
    – Raphael
    Jun 21 '14 at 9:25

Concerning your question for the change in time, I have created an ngram.

enter image description here

I guess, this ngram catches many falses, but the trend is visible: from the 1970s on their is large incline in the contemporarily preferred version.

(The version with von is not possible to look for in google ngram.)

  • I'd have expected that such a large increase in the one series would be accompanied by a proportional decrease in the other, but there's none. I think it's not valid to interpret this as a shift in preference. Nov 30 '15 at 15:36

The grammatical term for having one noun modify another, as when marking possession, is called the Genitive case.

In German, articles change with the case (der-> des, die-> der, das -> des) and you also change noun and adjective endings accordingly.

The difference arises because modern English no longer has a Genitive case in that sense; the default now is simply to add an 's as in "my father's cello case."

The construction "[Article] [noun]s meines Vaters" is correct for standard German, so I believe your "easy way out" is the traditionally right answer (though I'm not a native German speaker, so... ;).

Lately, the Genitive is becoming less popular, in a way that to me seems ridiculous and far more confusing. The non-standard structure (mentioned in a comment above) would be something like "Meinem Vater sein Cellokasten ist...[etc]"

The book "Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod" has made fun of this phenomenon.

To me, this sounds like how a stereotypical U.S. southerner might say something like "My daddy? His hound dog is bigger'n that poodle my momma's got." Understandable? I guess so. Standard? No. How I'd want my bilingual kid to talk? ......

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