2

The question is on vor as highlighted in this passage from Kafka's Der Verschollene.

Sie aber gingen weiter und kamen an eine Tür, die oben einen kleinen Vorgiebel hatte, der von kleinen, vergoldeten Karyatiden getragen war. Für eine Schiffseinrichtung sah das recht verschwenderisch aus. Karl war, wie er merkte, niemals in diese Gegend gekommen, die wahrscheinlich während der Fahrt den Passagieren der ersten und zweiten Klasse vorbehalten gewesen war, während man jetzt vor der großen Schiffsreinigung die Trennungstüren ausgehoben hatte. Sie waren auch tatsächlich schon einigen Männern begegnet, die Besen an der Schulter trugen und den Heizer gegrüßt hatten. Karl staunte über den großen Betrieb, in seinem Zwischendeck hatte er davon freilich wenig erfahren. Längs der Gänge zogen sich auch Drähte elektrischer Leitungen, und eine kleine Glocke hörte man immerfort.
      Der Heizer klopfte respektvoll an der Türe an und forderte, als man »Herein!« rief, Karl mit einer Handbewegung auf, ohne Furcht einzutreten. Dieser trat auch ein, aber blieb an der Tür stehen. Vor den drei Fenstern des Zimmers sah er die Wellen des Meeres, und bei Betrachtung ihrer fröhlichen Bewegung schlug ihm das Herz, als hätte er nicht fünf lange Tage das Meer ununterbrochen gesehen.

Question

The only way I can make sense of the sentence is to think that the relative placement was (as it were) from the viewpoint of the windows. They are looking out to sea, and so the waves are vor them. (Here, Karl is not a reference point. If he were outside the ship, the waves would be still vor the windows.)

Now the questions:

  1. Am I right to think as above?

  2. Is this a common usage of vor? For example, if you were behind a house door and referring to milk bottles lying outside on the doormat, do you say that they are vor the house door? (Again you are not a reference point. The bottles are vor the door whether you are inside the house or out.)

  3. Suppose there was a table in the ship's cabin near the window. Can Karl say that the table was hinter the window? (This would be in keeping with the ocean waves being vor the window. The opposite side becomes hinter.)

  4. Supposing again the same table by the window, can Karl say that the table was vor the window? (Here Karl would not be speaking from the window's viewpoint, but his. The window is far from him, and the table is near. So the table is vor the window.)

  5. Suppose a man was cleaning the exterior surface of the window's glass (hanging on a rope as they do when cleaning high rise office buildings). Can Karl say that he, the cleaner, was hinter the window. (This would be in keeping with the table being vor the window. The opposite side becomes hinter.)

3

Vor is a tricky little preposition in this context. It can come in two forms.

  1. As part of a set phrase.
    vor der Tür / vor dem Fenster
    Always refering to the outside of an enclosed space, typically a room or house, but also a vehicle.
  2. As part of the contrasting pair
    vor etwas / hinter etwas
    With vor describing something between the observer and a second object and hinter something behind said object.

So regarding your examples:

  • 1 and 2: Use vor as the set phrase.
  • 3 and 4: The table would be vor the window (between Carl and the window). If Carl described the table as hinter, he would be outside.
  • 5: In theory, you could use hinter. My language instinct as native speaker would pick vor - the set phrase taking precedence.
  • Vor der Stadt? Or does that count as an enclosed space? – Jan May 2 '16 at 18:27
  • @Jan metaphorically, yes. Think "Stadtmauer" and "vor den Toren der Stadt". Same principle. – Stephie May 2 '16 at 19:01
3
  1. Yes
  2. Mostly Yes. In case of a housedoor the term »vor« is very clear. If you have a door that separates inside from outside, then »vor der Tür(e)« is always outside. If you think of a windows, it is not so clear. In this case it depends on the context.
  3. No. »Hinter« is always at the opposite side of the person. So in your example (window) »vor« and »hinter« can mean outside. »Vor« can mean inside as well.
  4. Yes.
  5. Yes.

When reading Kafka, you also must keep in mind, that he wrote this book 100 years ago in Prague. He lived in Prague where German was a common language when he wrote this book. Until 1850 more people spoke German than Czech; now almost nobody speaks German there, but the German from Prague in 1915 was not absolutely identical with modern German.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.