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This is an excerpt from Der Verschollene by Kafka.

»Wenn ich daran denke, welche Schwierigkeiten mir das Englisch gemacht hat. Das ist allerdings schon seine dreißig Jahre her. Gerade gestern habe ich davon gesprochen. Gestern war nämlich mein fünfzigster Geburtstag.« Und sie suchte lächelnd den Eindruck von Karls Mienen abzulesen, den die Würde dieses Alters auf ihn machte.

Question

What is the reference of seine? Is it perhaps das Englisch?

Why or how does the sentence mean what it's supposed to mean? Is seine + length of time + her a set phrase?

  • 2
    It’s a special use of sein, not limited to time: Das wird so seine fünfzig, sechzig Euro kosten. – chirlu Jan 20 '16 at 7:24
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    @chirlu. Can you say Die Maschine wird so seine fünfzig, sechzig Euro kosten? Or does that now become Die Maschine wird so IHRE fünfzig, sechzig Euro kosten? Or maybe you cannot start a sentence of this form with anything but das? – Catomic Jan 20 '16 at 7:50
  • 1
    It would indeed become ihre with Maschine. – chirlu Jan 20 '16 at 8:37
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I think it would best translate to

This was some thirty years ago.

This usage of seine describes an approximate date and I feel like nowadays it is only rarely used in written text.

I can only speak for the Eastern part of Austria, where I live, where it is used in day-to-day speech.

  • Thank you. So I suppose seine does NOT refer to das Englisch in the Kafka sentence. Can we say that it refers to Das (in Das ist), in however formalistic a sense? Or should I just give up on assigning any reference to seine? – Catomic Jan 20 '16 at 7:40
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    seine in this case refers to Das as in Das Ereignis (the event that English caused difficulties). In your example in the comment to your question one would say Die Maschine wird so ihre fünfzig, sechzig Euro kosten. – jera Jan 20 '16 at 7:54
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The construction is idiomatic but it is not a set phrase and it is not limited only to durations (and not even to the past). Examples:

Meine Schulzeit ist schon ihre fünfzig Jahre her.

Der Mann wird schon seine vierzig Jahre alt sein.

Die Feier wird sicherlich ihre hundert Euro kosten.

Er läuft jede Woche so seine dreißig Kilometer.

Ihr Vorschlag wird bestimmt seine drei Jahre zur Umsetzung brauchen.

The seine/ihre references the subject of the sentence it is in. Compare the last example: Der Vorschlag means that we are dealing with masculine seine; it is not her because that would require feminine ihre. In your example sentence, the subject is das which is in turn a reference to das Lernen or das Englisch — but which one exactly is fuzzy and not necessary, we got the picture.

The expression as a whole is used to denote uncertainty. A good translation into French (I don’t know how well you speak that) would be […] cinquantaine d’ans […], […] quarantaine d’ans […], […] centaine d’euros […] and […] trentaine de kilomètres […]. (French doesn’t allow for an equivalent translation of the some three years; as far as I know the -aines are limited to steps of ten.)

It can be used more or less with anything where the number is followed by a ‘unit’ of some kind, even if the ‘unit’ is something like people or grains. But just giving a number does not work:

Mit zehn Würfeln wird er schon seine zwanzig wüfeln.

Mit zehn Würfeln wird er schon seine zwanzig Augen würfeln.

Of course, it does not work as well in the present tense since it’s usually clear what the extent of something present is, but it is not impossible. Usages in past of future tense are more common, though.

And finally concerning the usage, to the best of my knowledge this expression is used all across the German-speaking area in both written and spoken language.

  • Thank you. Do both zehn würfeln and zehn Augen würfeln mean throwing a ten (e.g. a four on one die, and a six on a second)? – Catomic Jan 20 '16 at 13:00
  • @Catomic The former would be better phrased as eine Zehn würfeln but otherwise yes. – Jan Jan 20 '16 at 13:01

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