The question is on the highlighted verb forms in this passage from Der arme Müllerbursch und das Kätzchen (1857), as collected by the Grimm brothers.

In it, Hans agreed to serve a talking cat for seven years in exchange for a horse.

Einmal sagte sie zu ihm [i.e. Hans] „geh hin und mähe meine Wiese, und mache das Gras trocken,“ und gab ihm von Silber eine Sense und von Gold einen Wetzstein, hieß ihn aber auch alles wieder richtig abliefern. Da gieng Hans hin und that was ihm geheißen war; nach vollbrachter Arbeit trug er Sense, Wetzstein und Heu nach Haus, und fragte ob sie ihm noch nicht seinen Lohn geben wollte. „Nein,“ sagte die Katze, „du sollst mir erst noch einerlei thun, da ist Bauholz von Silber, Zimmeraxt, Winkeleisen und was nöthig ist, alles von Silber, daraus baue mir erst ein kleines Häuschen.“ Da baute Hans das Häuschen fertig und sagte er hätte nun alles gethan, und hätte noch kein Pferd. Doch waren ihm die sieben Jahre herumgegangen wie ein halbes. Fragte die Katze ob er ihre Pferde sehen wollte? „Ja“ sagte Hans. Da machte sie ihm das Häuschen auf, und weil sie die Thüre so aufmacht, da stehen zwölf Pferde, ach, die waren gewesen ganz stolz, die hatten geblänkt und gespiegelt, daß sich sein Herz im Leibe darüber freute.

If you need more context, please follow this link for the full story.


Question 1. Shouldn't the two clauses have gone as follows?

die waren ganz stolz, die blänkten und spiegelten

Question 2. If yes to 1 ordinarily but the story is aiming at some particular effect through the choice of tense, please explain what the effect is.


It seems to me that the die-clauses are describing what Hans saw once the door was open and should be contemporaneous with the daß-clause.

As is, they would be a description of the condition of the horses at a more remote past than the time of the daß-clause.

  • In your suggestion the verbs should be plural.
    – Carsten S
    Jun 29, 2016 at 7:33

3 Answers 3


This is one of the "catalog use cases" of Plusquamperfekt (past perfect) in German, which is very rarely used in the contemporary language.

Plusquamperfekt, as you rightly say, is used for actions (and states) that have already happened or were apparent before the perfect. As all of your story is in perfect, it is used to express that the horses have been like that even before the door was opened (Which is rightly clear - the horses didn't change through the action of opening the door - Schrödinger was not there, yet ...).

It is obviously used here as a break in tenses to express surprise and excitement. In contemporary literature we would most probably use some other device to express that.

  • 1
    +1 for answering a cat-omic question with Schrödinger ;)
    – Jan
    Jun 29, 2016 at 12:51

I am actually translating this text now. I think it is written this exact way because of alliteration. Do you notice the words that begin with the "g" sound? gewesen, ganz, geblänkt, gespiegelt.” In English I would write it as: "ach! great and glorious they were! they glisened and gleamed." There is alliteration in other areas of the also. clothes, …could no [kind] king = Kleider, ….konnte kein König. Hear the words with the initial "k" sound? The English "C" is pronounced as a "k" anyway.You will never read it written this way in English because all English language translators all tend to completely ignore alliteration in the Grimms texts. It is one of the most beautiful sounding and interesting lines in the text.It will be in my forthcoming book of the translation of the 1815 first edition of the Grimms Kinder und Hausmärchen, Vol II by Oliver Loo

As to the comments: Should I understand your answer as an alternative or supplement to the one by torfo? (That is, 'it's for surprise and alliteration,' or 'It's not for surprise but for alliteration.')

I would say in addition, as a supplement - surprise and alliteration. The first word “ach!” has an exclamation point behind it. After that “die waren gewesen ganz stolz!” also has an exclamation point at the end.In order to answer your question, it might be good to go to the source material. Maybe the original manuscript of it still exists. Actually, the source material for this text is Madame d'Aulnoy's: la Chatte blanche. Check out the original French text and see how it treats this line.

I have done some checking. 1. A search for "die waren gewesen ganz" at dwds.de and specifically at: Korpusbelege (Deutsches Textarchiv) shows only the Grimm text 1815 #20 as an exact example. The line appears to be unique in German.

2.The words in the line have never changed in any of the 7 editions of the KHM. It is always written in the same way "ach! die waren gewesen ganz stolz! die hatten geblänkt und gespiegelt." The punctuation is changed in the 1837 edition – the exclamation marks are removed. So the words appear not to be a mistake. I have to be careful here. Your quote is from a later edition that does not have the exclamation marks. If you look at the 1837 and earlier editions, you will see the words written with two exclamation marks. The exclamation marks certainly seem to indicate surprise.

3.The book: "Verbesserte Legend der Heiligen: das ist: eine schöne, klare, und anmüthige Beschreibung des Lebens, Leydens und Sterbens von den lieben Heiligen Gottes, auf alle und jede Täg des gantzen Jahrs" from 1748 has a similar line (here a comma is inserted between waren and gewesen. "Er fande sein Hauß von den Heyden ganz verderbt und eingerissen wie auch die Kirchen so darin waren gewesen, ganz zerstöhrt.” Another example I found is in the book: "Das buch granatapfel. im latin genant Malogranatus. helt in ym gar vil vnd manig haylsam vnd süsser vnderweysung vnd leer..." It is from 1510 and has the same wording: "Doch so vergundt got allain den zwayn Josue vn Caleph under sechs malen hunder tausent die waren gewesen über zwainzig jar/ in das gelobt land" This seems to be this closest to the Grimm text. It looks like a very old and unusual form of writing.

In the 4th line below:

die waren gewesen** über zwainzig jar/ in das gelobt land

Link to the book

Dorothea Viemann told them this text orally. The Grimms also state in the intro how exactly she tells and retells a story. So it seems possible that she also told it to them in this exact way.

So I will say that I think that it is written this way in the Grimm text because of alliteration, surprise and because it is an very old form of grammar. It also seems to be a more poetic way to write it.

  • Thank you again, particularly for La Chatte blanche. By the way your second 'answer' is not an answer in and of itself to the original posting, but a continuation of the first. The site wants to keep strict to the format. I would recommend that you combine these two answers into one. It seems you were 'unregistered' for the first answer; so perhaps move the content of the 1st into this 2nd. Sorry if this technical talk baffles you.
    – Catomic
    Mar 25, 2017 at 6:48
  • 1
    There, I did the combining for you. I hope you're OK with it.
    – Catomic
    Mar 25, 2017 at 6:51
  • I (as original poster) am not notified when an answer is edited, but I am glad I came here again. Thanks.
    – Catomic
    Mar 30, 2017 at 2:23
  • Sure. Yes. Figured proof would be good. Especially now a days. You can see it right there. Line 4. No one can argue about it or say it is "fake news." Mar 31, 2017 at 3:49
  • @Oliver-Grimm +1 alone for you name. LOL
    – Philm
    Apr 21, 2017 at 14:00

Switching tenses like this when they obviously aren't applicable is a literary device; it expresses excitement or even incoherence. For instance, you might be telling a story in the past tense, and at a riveting development you switch to the present tense to add immediacy to the effect you're having.

This passage simply makes more extensive use of that method: the past tense switches over to present tense, and then (maybe because there is no further escalation possible) further back to the pluperfect, and then right back to the past tense.

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