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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

Is Mienen in the plural?

According to this Wiktionary entry, Miene is not a weak noun; so Mienen must be plural.

But in English, a mien typically comprehends all that could be found in a person's face or outer bearing indicative of his inner condition; thus you could have at most one mien at a time.

Should I conclude that the usage of Miene is different and that someone could have many Mienen at once?

  • 2
    Is it necessarily multiple expressions at once? – chirlu Jan 20 '16 at 7:26
  • @chirlu I suppose not. There may be a series of succeeding Mienen. But I would be surprised if it turns out that German Miene is just like English mien (in being typically singular) thus forcing us to posit multiple succeeding Mienen within the limited time courtesy allows for inspecting someone's countenance. – Catomic Jan 20 '16 at 7:36
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The Deutsches Wörterbuch says that the plural is used to emphasize the diversity and vividness of the moving face ("im plural, das mannigfaltige und lebendige in dem bewegten gesichte hervorhebend"), and gives various examples:

  • wenn er solch freundlich ansinnen durch rauhe und unbarmherzige minen von sich gestoszen hätte.
  • wenn dir ein mann, den du nicht kennst, begegnet, der lächelnd schleicht, und dich durch minen segnet.
  • sie warf dir hier und dar geneigte minen zu.
  • beherrsche deine mienen gut!

and more.

I haven't seen this usage in modern German; I would always use the singular unless speaking of several people.

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The text does not necessarily mean that the different face expressions have to occur simultaneously. It is possible, and realistic, I think that they can come up within a few seconds or one second. Then, the plural makes sense.

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You are right, that the plural is not used very often.

Gute Miene zum bösen Spiel machen

shows this. On the other Hand, the noun

Mienenspiel

clearly indicates the same plural. As chirlu points out, these could simply happen one after the other, but in

keine Miene verziehen

also suggest several. So I would conclude, that today most frequently Miene is a summarizing noun, but obviously nothing prevents you using the same noun for its components like mouth expression, eyebrows, eyes, frowning, etc.

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  • 1
    Thanks. But why does keine Miene suggest the possibility of plurality? Don't we have kein wasser without suggesting plurality of water? – Catomic Jan 20 '16 at 8:51
  • This is tricky; there surely can be a varying amount of water. But if there could only be "eine Miene" or "keine Miene", one would more likely use a different phrase, as "die Sonne schien nicht" instead of "keine Sonne schien". Accordingly the phrase would tend to "er verzog die Miene nicht". All of these are not strict rules, however, since "es war kein Mond am Himmel" is perfectly possible in a poetic/higher language level. – guidot Jan 20 '16 at 9:13
  • @Catomic: An Tisch 3 waren noch vier Wasser, eins davon still. – user unknown Jan 21 '16 at 9:08
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Weak nouns with +n in GenSg (and possibly Akk and Dat as well) are masculine. Miene is a feminine noun. All of these have no inflection endings except for +n in DatPl (if possible) in contemporary standard German. In older and local varieties of German they may well have suffixes, though, especially +n after schwa -e and especially if used without a determiner, e.g. auf Erden = auf der Erde.

It’s therefore not entirely impossible that Kafka used Mienen as DatSg, but it’s more likely DatPl since that’s more standard and “Karl” could well make one Miene after the other which the female protagonist tries to read.

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