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German language doesn’t have a present continuous/progressive tense like English, Dutch or Spanish.

German has no present progressive tense (am going/are buying). The German Präsens ich kaufe can be translated into English as I buy or I am buying, depending on the context.

http://german.about.com/library/anfang/blanfang04b.htm

Although, there are different ways to show continuous aspect and it varies in different dialects. There is even a form called Rhinish progressive form.

There is no continuous aspect in standard German. The aspect can be expressed with gerade as in er liest gerade meaning he is reading. Certain regional dialects, such as those of the Rhineland, the Ruhr Area, and Westphalia, form a continuous aspect using the verb sein (to be), the inflected preposition am or beim (at the or on the), and the neuter noun that is formed from an infinitive.

For example, ich bin am Lesen, ich bin beim Lesen (literally I am on/at the reading) means I am reading. Known as the rheinische Verlaufsform (roughly Rhinish progressive form), it has become increasingly common in the casual speech of many speakers of standard German, although it is still frowned upon in formal and literary contexts. In Southern Austro-Bavarian, the aspect can be expressed using tun (to do) as an auxiliary with the infinitive of the verb as in er tut lesen for he is reading.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuous_and_progressive_aspects

(emphasis mine)

  • So why doesn’t German have a present continuous tense like some other Germanic languages?
    • Is there any historical change or reason behind this?
    • What are the historical reasons behind different forms to express continuous aspect?

Further findings:

From the book "Germanic Heritage Languages in North America: Acquisition, attrition and change" edited by Janne Bondi Johannessen, Joseph C. Salmons:

enter image description here

From the book "Approaches to Grammaticalization, Volume 2" by edited by Elizabeth Closs Traugott, Bernd Heine:

enter image description here

  • 3
    The short answer is that the English language has developed the continuous aspect after it had left the continent: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Carsten S Dec 30 '14 at 2:44
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    @CarstenSchultz: It says: "Rise of the periphrastic aspect, particularly the progressive form (i.e. BE verb-ing: I am writing, she was singing etc.). The progressive form developed in the change from Old English to Middle English. Similar constructs are rare in Germanic languages and not completely analogous." We can still see progressive tense in Germanic languages that didn't leave the continent. For example, Dutch. It would be nice to get more details on this topic. – ermanen Dec 30 '14 at 3:29
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    It does, it's just not (yet) considered as standard as in other languages. And you know how hard it is to pin down why one construction is considered more prestigious than another. – Kilian Foth Dec 30 '14 at 10:31
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    Dutch does not have a continuous tense. Ik ben aan het lezen is a form we use in English too: I am on the run = running, I am on the job = working, etc. The Formula is: Helping verb - a form of To Be + Main verb - in the present participle. That's why Spanish has a continuous tense with its Yo estoy dormiendo. – user18326 Sep 21 '15 at 11:46
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    @Crissov: It doesn't have the "tense" but there are semantically approximate forms. – ermanen Sep 22 '15 at 15:23
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First a correction regarding the underlying facts:

  • It is misleading to say that standard German does not have a progressive aspect. As pointed out in a passage you quoted, standard German has an extremely short and efficient method to express the progressive aspect: adding the adverb gerade, which roughly translates to right now. It's just not obligatory. And most German dialects have additional ways of marking progressive aspect that are structurally more similar to how it is done in English. Moreover, for intransitive verbs the Dutch style of marking the continuous with daran sein, etwas zu tun (literal translation: to be at it to do something) is well established in colloquial German of most regions by now. (All not obligatory.)
  • Another feature of colloquial standard German that got some attention (and its name) rather recently is the absentive aspect. Structurally this is about as similar to the English progressive aspect as possible, the only difference being that it uses the infinitive rather than the present participle, just like the Dutch progressive does. (The commonality is that in all three languages it's the verb form that functions ordinarily as a noun.) The real difference is (for now) in what it expresses. The absentive typically expresses that someone is in a different location right now in order to do something there that can only be done there. E.g., if we are in my kitchen and you ask me where my wife is, I might answer "Sie ist kochen". This doesn't just mean that she is cooking right now; it implies that she regularly goes to some other place in order to cook there, and that's where she is right now. Dutch also has this construction with the same meaning.
  • It is misleading to say that English has the progressive aspect in common with most other Germanic languages and many other languages. In English it is (essentially) obligatory to mark this aspect, i.e. in most cases when it can be marked it must be marked. Whereas ways of marking progressive aspect abound in all sorts of languages and in fact many have more than one, this obligatory nature is actually quite rare. In particular, English is the only Germanic language which has this phenomenon.

So English is about as odd in this respect as German.

Proto-Germanic

Proto-Germanic did not have a progressive aspect. It also did not have a future tense or a composite tense like the present perfect. This all came up later, mostly in parallel in many European languages (including non-Germanic ones), probably under the influence of Latin and each other.

Latin (and French)

Latin has had a lot of influence on the evolution of Germanic languages, not just as the ancestor of French, but also directly as the scholarly lingua franca for many centuries. When scholars wrote grammars of languages that were previously not standardised, they were generally influenced by Latin grammar. Latin does not have a progressive aspect in the same strong sense that English does. It has two forms of the past tense (perfect and imperfect), one of which carries the progressive aspect, and it permits optional marking of the progressive in any tense by using present participles as in English. French has être en train de faire quelquechose (be in the course to do something), but this is quite clumsy and not obligatory.

I guess that when German scholars tried to establish a standard variety of the language for all German speakers (an attempt that was successful except for the Low Countries opting out), a literal translation of the Latin progressive using the present participle sounded too wrong to be seriously considered. Gerade is quite satisfactory for expressing this aspect anyway, and the various other dialectal ways of doing it were quite different from each other and not really a good basis for the standard. Side note: Dutch covers a much smaller region for which iets aan het doen zijn (be at the do[ing] something) was a common alternative to nu (now), so there was no real obstacle to it becoming part of standard Dutch.

How progressive aspects and similar features come up

Grammatical features evolve naturally and gradually, often out of idioms. Maybe some people once started saying something like "She is in the count's kitchen in order to cook" rather often until it became an idiom. Idioms initially start as expressions that can be understood by straightforward analysis, but then they are used so extensively that it becomes possible to (a) shorten them in such a way that an analysis no longer makes sense, and (b) extend them to situations in which the original analysis doesn't make sense. (A good example for (a) is "I could care less", which is the result of removing the negation from an idiom. Any figurative use is an example of (b).)

This is how the above example sentence may have been abbreviated to "She is in order to cook", then "She is to cook" and finally "She is cooking". Here you need to understand that even English once had infinitives that were clearly distinct from finite verb forms and more similar to the present participle, so that it was quite natural to switch from cook to cooking at some point, as an analysis of the short final form is closer to making sense with cooking than with the infinitive cook.

Note that I am not claiming that this is how it happened. To the extent that the history of this construction is known, it is actually a bit more complicated. For anyone who wants the real details, see pages 6ff of this paper. This is just an illustration of how it could have happened.

How aspect marking can become obligatory quickly

Speakers of all languages like to mark progressive aspect because it tends to make statements livelier and stronger. So there is a natural tendency to come up with progressive aspect markers and then use them more and more over time. However, if (or so long as) they are as clumsy as aan het doen zijn, they have little chance of becoming obligatory.

Among the Germanic languages, English is in many respects the one with the fastest development. (A fast evolution is often seen in languages that are the synthesis of several different languages. English started as the German dialect spoken by the Angles and Saxons who invaded England, then it was adopted by speakers of Celtic languages and influenced further and rather strongly by speakers of Scandinavian and French.) This is one reason why it's natural that its progressive marker was simplified faster. Another is that a lot of English speakers used to be bilingual with a Celtic language, and as far as I know these generally have obligatory progressive marking as well. So they will have pushed towards overuse of the progressive and thus indirectly to simplification.

Once it was simplified to its current state (or nearly), likely there was no real obstacle left to making it obligatory, and at that point the Celtic speakers probably treated it as such in any case.

How aspect marking can stay non-obligatory for a long time

Dutch-style progressive marking is still very clumsy in German, and extremely so for transitive verbs. Clumsy constructions generally don't get the kind of overuse that permits them to become obligatory, and only working for one class of verbs doesn't help, either. Add to this the fact that Latin doesn't have progressives, so scholars were prejudiced against them, and the generally conservative nature of standard German - and you have an environment that is quite hostile to obligatory progressive marking. (Standard German has always - to some extent - felt to speakers like a written language that one can also speak, or in other words as a language of culture that lives alongside the dialects. In yet other words, the way Germans treat their standard language has some similarities with how one treats a foreign language. This is probably why standard German is slower to follow the trends of colloquial German than English and recently Dutch are.)

  • Thanks for the through answer. I added further findings to my questions also. – ermanen Sep 22 '15 at 15:04
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    My Latin is very rusty, but as far as I know Latin has a kind of progressive aspect, as in Marcus laborans (but I'm not sure whether this can be considered a sentence, although I'm sure est can be left out). Italian and Spanish have the gerund: Marco sta lavorando, está trabajando. – Walter Tross Sep 23 '15 at 20:20
  • Exellent point re Latin progressive using present participle. This is actually believed to have had an influence on the situation in English. Also, apparently one can think of the imperfect vs. perfect distinction in Latin as marking progressive aspect. From that point of view Latin even has special verb forms for it, though only in the past tense. I have made some corrections above. – user2183 Sep 23 '15 at 21:31
  • +1 "this guy is washed with all waters" :) – user19546 Dec 25 '15 at 21:07
9

It does not make much sense to ask why a certain language has this or that feature.

Why does english have just only one noun class (i.e. gender)? (with the exception of pronouns for persons; he, she, it). German has three such classes (male, female, neuter) and Swahili has 22.

Why does modern English just have 3 grammatical cases, while old english had 5, German has 4, Latin has 6 and Hungarian has 31?

What about compound nouns? In German you can build words that are hundreds of letters long, you can't do this other languages.

Why has English no special letters like »ð« and »þ« in Icelandic or »ß« in German?

There are languages where there are no words for left and right, but very specific terms for north, south and so on. You can't say: »John is sitting left of me.« You have to say: »John is sitting north of me« (if you are facing east).

In other languages you must reveal your own gender in every sentence, because the declination of the verb depends on the speakers gender.

In Japanese you can build sentences without using any grammatical tense, which means, you don't need to tell in every sentence if you are talking about past, present or future.

The answer why Languages are so different simply is: In some languages this properties did develop, in some other it did not. Period.

More important:

None of the features of any language are really necessary to be able to communicate. If you are speaker of a certain language, you know how to use its possibilities.

When we German native speakers talk German with each other, we don't need continuous tense. We have no need to use it. That's why there is no continuous tense in German and many other languages. Some dialects have it, and in these dialects you can use it.

I'll give you another example: My really first Language that I learned as a little child was a German dialect spoken in the south-east of Austrian province Styria. The dialect of the region does not have a genitive case, and dative and accusative case was almost the same. So I grew up with a version of German that had just 2.5 cases (nominative and dative/accusative), and I was not missing anything. I had to learn genitive case in school like a foreign language, and also had to learn to distinguish between dative and accusative case.

But the important thing is: That there is a German dialect without Genitive shows, that Genitive case is not really necessary. And this is true for almost all features of all languages.

So if you are missing some feature of your own native language in some other language, don't ask why those people didn't come up with something useful. The fact is: Although it seems useful to you, since you are used to it, it is not really necessary.


So here are the answers to your questions:

  • So why doesn’t German have a present continuous tense like some other Germanic languages?
    Because it is not necessary.
  • Is there any historical change or reason behind this?
    Not really. It just happened without any further reason.
  • What are the historical reasons behind different forms to express continuous aspect?
    People in different regions developed different habits of speaking.

Addendum:
I've just found a nice little video, that perfectly fits to this topic:
»Fantastic Features We Don't Have In The English Language« on Youtube

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    Mich erschreckt, dass dieses Plädoyer für Ignoranz Upvotes erhalten hat. – Carsten S Sep 23 '15 at 12:31
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    @CarstenS: Acht andere Leute wird erschrecken, dass es jemanden gibt, der dieser Antwort ein Downvote gegeben hat. Denn was einer gerne als »Plädoyer für Ignoranz« missverstehen möchte, haben die anderen offenbar sehr wohl als korrekte Antwort auf die gestellte Frage verstanden und entsprechend bewertet. – Hubert Schölnast Sep 23 '15 at 13:39
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    Asking why something exists the way it is, is the driving force behind the human pursuit for knowledge. Denying that it makes sense is purest ignorance. @CarstenS is right about that, and it is disturbing to see this kind of ignorance on a question & answer site. You are also ignoring the field of historical linguistics and the OP's interest in it. "This properties did develop... Period." Development may have a reason, and it does make sense to ask for that reason, even if we cannot always find an answer. We will not learn if we say "Period." – Matthias Sep 24 '15 at 7:33
  • Ich muss zugeben, ich bin zwiegespalten bei dieser Antwort. Der erste Teil mit Beispielen für generelle Unterschiede zwischen Sprachen gefiel mir. Aber der zweite Teil...hm...dem stimme ich nicht zu. – nixda Sep 24 '15 at 13:29
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    Hubert is right. Asking "why" regarding languages does not lead anywhere. Yes, we may track down how things in languages have developed over centuries (or more as long as we have documents for comparison), but this is not an answer on "why", rather on "how". Asking "why" you impute something like reason or the force of natural laws behind it. Which is a fallacy. – Christian Geiselmann Nov 5 '17 at 12:58
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In my view

Wir waren beim Jagen

is a continuous form and it corresponds to an older form

We were ahunting

in English. The question should be why English dropped the preposition before the gerund. My answer: Because English has a strong tendency to shorten.

There is a difference. German does not use the form beim/am + gerund as systematically as English. In German this form is used only occasionally.

  • Thanks rogermue. Also, I mentioned another language close to German: Dutch. It is not only about comparing English and German. But we can ask your question on EL&U :) – ermanen Dec 30 '14 at 17:14
  • Dutch has the same formula as German. Ik ben aan het lezen. Word for word: I am at the reading. Correspomds to English: I'm reading. (en.wikipidia: Continuous and progressive aspects) – rogermue Jan 1 '15 at 6:16
  • Dropping the preposition was easy, as the preposition-less form still makes sense ("a happy man" -> "a man is happy" is clearly understandable, so why shouldn't "a hunting man" -> "a man is hunting" be?) and somehow - maybe indeed due to the tendency to shorten you suggested - it came to be widely used. (In German, "ein jagender Mann" -> "ein Mann ist jagend" would make just as much sense for its mere content, but absolutely didn't come into stylistically acceptable usage.) – O. R. Mapper Jul 15 '15 at 20:00
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The Rheinische Verlaufsform - the proper scientific term being “am-Progressiv” - is seeping into common language. It is mostly used with a valency of zero or one in High German.

There are other variations, such as sein + beim + verb and rare occurrences - only applicable in few situations - of sein + im + verb. Note that the verb has to be capitalized.

The remaining question is why it is not mandatory? Well, German has abandoned it’s aspect system between Old High German and Middle High German. It is the same with the tense system, which is far less strict than in other languages (main tenses are Präsens and Präteritumperfekt).

I don’t know about the reasons, however.

  • At least for am, the Rechtschreibrat, Duden etc. will hopefully accept lowercase infinitive soon, since the words that look like prepositions with fused dative +m are really inseparable particles of their own, much akin zu in other INF constructs. – Crissov Sep 22 '15 at 19:55
  • What nowadays if often called "Rheinische Verlaufsform" is common in other regional forms of German as well (always has been). "I bee am Haia" [Ich bin am Heuen = Ich mache gerade Heu] my ancestors in Swabia have said in the 1700s as well as in the 1900 and 2000s. And there is no Rhine anywhere. All the waters go into the Danube. – Christian Geiselmann Nov 5 '17 at 13:02

protected by Community Sep 21 '15 at 12:40

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