I am attempting a translation of some poetry by Heine. I don’t understand the effect on a German native speaker of the lines

Auf grüner Linde sitzt und singt
Die süße Philomele.

In particular, any translation of this phrase into English will require an article. (I can’t write, ‘In green lime tree …’)

Is the idea that the lime tree is not a particular lime tree, but some ‘notional’ lime tree? Is there a difference in meaning, or in connotation, between what’s written and ‘[a]uf einer grünen Linde’ or ‘[a]uf der grünen Linde’?

  • Hi and welcome to German Language Stack Exchange. Feel free to take a tour of the site. Visit the help center for any remaining questions on how it works. Nice question. – Jan Jun 22 '16 at 22:29
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    You are funny. You write »I can't write ...« and then you write exactly what you claim to be impossible to write. You can! You did it! And everybody understands what it means. Man, you are talking about a poem, not about a grammar test at school. Take poems written by the Austrian author Ernst Jandl as example. In some of them (like »schtzngrmm«) it's even hard to identify words in this poem. Who cares about rules learnt in school when writing poems? Here you can listen to the author himself reading his famous poem: lyrikline.org/de/gedichte/schtzngrmm-1230#.V2uv91ckNn8 – Hubert Schölnast Jun 23 '16 at 9:48
  • btw: The poem schtzngrmm I mentioned above is about war. »Schtzngrmm« stands for »Schützengraben« (trench), »t-t-t-t« is gunfire, and you can interpret other »words« also in the context of fighting in a war. – Hubert Schölnast Jun 23 '16 at 9:52
  • Btw., Philomele/-a here is of course a poetic/humanistic metaphor for a nightingale (although elsewhere it may mean a swallow instead), but that doesn’t rhyme with soul or mind either. For an English translation, trees should work fine, but I’m pretty sure I’ve also encountered article-less singulars in poetry and lyrics before. – Crissov Jun 23 '16 at 11:23
  • @Hubert Ha! An amusing catch there, regarding what is and isn't possible! But on the more serious point, I'd be happy to write 'In green lime tree' if the German phrase 'In grüner Linde' sounded weird or offbeat in some way. Jan's answer below suggests to me that it's not odd though, so I'll prefer to not introduce a weirdness into my translation that isn't there in the original. Though I take your point about the looseness of poetry, Heine and Jandl aren't quite in the same camp! – OnyGo Jun 24 '16 at 0:55

One of the most obvious reasons (to me) why Heine left out the article there is verse meter. The poem follows a 4-3-4-3 pattern of emphasised syllables per line. Thus, auf grüner Linde sitzt und singt should have four emphasised syllables — voilà:

Auf grüner Linde sitzt und singt

Concerning the possibility of leaving out the article: German, like English, has a null article (compare ‘I like science’ — no article in there) which is sometimes required, sometimes allowed and sometimes wrong. The less of an article a word has, the more abstract it is typically meant to be understood. Thus, if we had auf der grünen Linde, it would be exactly one, specific, known lime tree. With auf einer grünen Linde, it would be one of many possible ones. And without an article, it is either the most generic of all lime trees or even — as you suggested — only a notional one.

You also should consider the next line of the poem: The sweet Philomele is sitting on said lime tree. Her being a mythological character we cannot really be sure whether a real or an ideal lime tree is meant, whether the picture is supposed to be concrete or abstract, virtual, etc. This side-effect would be lost if there were an indefinite article; it would make the whole picture much more real.

Note that tofro’s example is also a nearly perfect use of the null article:

Bei schneller Fahrt besteht eine erhöhte Unfallgefahr.

It is not the fast driving, it is not a single fast driving, it is the entirety of any fast driving that comes with risk of accident.

  • 1
    Thanks, Jan! The comment about an indefinite article creating a more concrete image in this setting was very helpful. I guessed that might be likely, but I had no way to know if that guess was a false intuition from English. Rendering the effect in English (while preserving the meter!) will be the challenge now, but I have all the info I need to give it a go. Thanks for your help! – OnyGo Jun 22 '16 at 23:40

You could simply argue that poetry is an art and thus is not bound to strict grammar rules - But that is actually too simple.

The fact is that articles are not 100% mandatory in German as they are in English. An indefinite article can be replaced by an affix to an adjective describing the substantive and taking the function of the article.

Note the sentence, built with a proper article would look like

Auf einer grünen Linde sitzt...

So "grüner Linde" is actually different - What happened? Replacing the "n" with an "r" from the indefinite article "einer" we can leave out the article and still get a proper sentence.

This construct is not often used and sounds a bit old-fashioned in modern German. It is still commonly used in legal texts, poetry (such as here) and public administration's "high-speak" like in

Bei schneller Fahrt besteht eine erhöhte Unfallgefahr.

Ha, you can even use the null article twice like in

Bei schneller Fahrt besteht erhöhte Unfallgefahr.


A peculiar feature of the German language is that leaving out articles will generally produce a grammatically correct German sentence, provided that all adjectives are switched to strong inflection. You might recall the inflection tables for German adjectives here. For example,

Ich esse hölzernen Schrank mit gebrauchter Autoreifen als Nachtisch. Es besteht erhöhte Zahnschmerzgefahr.

is grammatically correct.

It is a different question whether statement without article in front of nouns is meaningful. Typically, a noun in German has no article if it is uncountable, as is the case with 'mass nouns' such as

Wasser, Holz, Honig, Milch, Diamant, Gold, Wärme, Kälte, Gewebe, Kunst, Wissen

You will notice some of those words might (rarely or frequently) appear with an article or not. The rule of thumb is that a noun without article refers to a diffuse, unquantified, abstract idea, whereas a noun with article refers to something particular. I presume it depends on the context what a noun means without an article, but it should be related to its meaning when putting 'etwas' in front of it.

That all being said, Heine's grammar is fully correct. But consider the statement

Auf grünem Holz sitzt und singt die süße Philomele.

which is an absolutely contemporary usage of "Holz" without article. It sounds a bit like a Heine is writing more about the material rather than the particular tree. However, with that meaning, Philomele is sitting on green limewood. So probably Heine just played with the grammar for the sake of poetry.

  • mit => dative. – Jan Jun 30 '16 at 17:02

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