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From Frankfurter Allgemeine:

Am Abend des 9. Oktober 1989 hatten in Leipzig mehr als 70 000 Menschen gegen das SED-Regime demonstriert. Es war der bis dahin größte der Protestzüge, die Ende der achtziger Jahre in Leipzig montags nach den Friedensgebeten in der Nikolaikirche stattfanden. Waren es zunächst kaum hundert Menschen, kamen im Herbst 1989 Montag für Montag immer mehr Bürger in die Leipziger Innenstadt.

The word ordering in both subclauses of the bolded sentence is surprising to me. Both subclauses have the verb in the first position, but there is no conjunction that requires the verb to be there. I would say:

Es waren zunächst kaum hundert Menschen, (aber) im Herbst 1989 kamen Montag für Montag immer mehr Bürger in die Leipziger Innenstadt.

Why is the ordering in the quoted paragraph as it is?

13

The German Wikipedia article on Verberststellung (that is positioning of the verb before the subject) gives three examples for this syntactical order in subordinate clauses:

  • Konditionalsatz:
    Hätte ich mehr Zeit gehabt, hätte ich einen kürzeren Brief geschrieben.
    (Alternativ: Wenn ich mehr Zeit gehabt hätte, hätte ich...)
  • Konzessivsatz:
    War der Auftritt auch etwas misslungen, so hatte er immerhin Aufmerksamkeit erregt.
    (Alternativ: Wenn der Auftritt auch etwas misslungen war, so... / Obwohl/Wenngleich der Auftritt etwas misslungen war, ...)
  • Kausalsatz:
    Er gab die Hoffnung auf, hatte er doch seit einer Woche keine Nachricht erhalten.
    (Alternativ: Er gab die Hoffnung auf, wo er doch seit einer Woche keine Nachricht erhalten hatte./...weil er seit einer Woche...)

Your sentence

Waren es zunächst kaum hundert Menschen, kamen im Herbst 1989 Montag für Montag immer mehr Bürger in die Leipziger Innenstadt.

belongs to the second category. It could be rephrased by using obwohl, auch wenn and the like:

Obwohl es zunächst kaum hundert Menschen waren, kamen im Herbst 1989 Montag für Montag immer mehr Bürger in die Leipziger Innenstadt.


As it was discussed in the comments, there is (at least) a fourth category:

  • Adversativsatz:
    Hat es gestern noch geregnet, so scheint heute schon die Sonne.
    (Alternativ: Während es gestern noch geregnet hat, scheint heute die Sonne.)
    Example taken from Canoo.net

If you want to distinguish adversative and concessive constructions, then your example can be included into this category and it can be rephrased with während:

Während es zunächst kaum hundert Menschen waren, kamen im Herbst 1989 Montag für Montag immer mehr Bürger in die Leipziger Innenstadt.


As I understand/feel it, in the above cases the Verberststellung is used to omit the conjunction. For my taste this is a very formal word order that is used not very often in every-day speech.

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  • 1
    Couldn't it be better rephrased by "Während es ... waren, kamen ..."? Or is this covered by "and the like"? ;-) – Gerold Broser Oct 22 '14 at 20:25
  • 1
    For reference: Wiktionary, während, Subjunktion: "[3] adversativ: wohingegen (drückt einen Gegensatz aus)" – Gerold Broser Oct 22 '14 at 20:35
  • Yeah, if you want to be strict, the adversative and the concessive conjunctions should be distinguished. Obwohl and my the like are the concessive conjunctions, während is an adversative conjunction. If you distinguish the two, there should be (at least) a fourth category; if you don't distinguish adversative and concessive, then während is included in my the like. ;-) – Chris Oct 22 '14 at 20:35
  • Strict is beautiful! Less misunderstandings. ;-) – Gerold Broser Oct 22 '14 at 20:38
3

Mit der besonderen Wortstellung in "Waren es zunächst nur..." weiß man sofort, dass ein gegensätzlicher Satz folgt. Das Gleiche kann man auch mit einer Nebensatzeinleitung machen, aber ohne Konjunktion und mit Inversion ist der Satz schneller/kürzer. Ein stilistisches Mittel der Satzverkürzung.

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2

In the written language the bolded sentence by Frankfurter Allgemeine is correct. But it's only used in the written language, no German would ever talk like this. But it is typical for a text where something is reported to the reader. Beginning the sentence with

Es waren zunächst kaum …

is a bad writing style because the previous sentence already started with “Es war der ...”. So the author wanted to avoid beginning 2 sentence in a row with “Es war(en) ...”. An other way the sentence could start would be Zunächst waren es kaum hundert Menschen but in this case it is hard to continue the sentence without using something like “dann kamen im ...”. This first – than (German: “Erst das, dann das”) construction of a sentence is a a really cheap way of describing a temporal progress. The author obvious wanted to achieve a different standard.

By starting the sentence with a verb you are kind of forced to continue the sentence with a verb in the subclause. But again, it is more an old use of constructing a sentence, specelly when you leav out the “so” before “kamen”. If you read books from older writers like Schiller, Goethe or other you will probably find this type of sentence more frequently.

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2

Interesting question. Being a native German speaker I don't realize that this is even worth raising a question.

Both is correct, of course. I'd say it's just a matter of style. It sounds more fluent to me within the given context. With „Es war“ at the beginning of the previous sentence a repetition by „Es waren“ is avoided.

Additionally, with "Es waren" at the beginning and without the „(aber)“ it would be better two sentences. That breaks the flow of reading a bit and sounds more unemotional, just reporting for me. This was probably not the writer's intention.

I'm pretty sure there's a grammatical term for this kind of Verb ..., verb ... construct, but I can't tell at the moment. Fellow friends of the German language: The stage is yours! ;-)

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2

The sentence in the newspaper sounds more smooth than the alternative, which requires the word "aber". The contrast between what is described in the two subclauses is automatic.

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