This is my second question about the beginning of Aschenputtel (see here for the first).

Einem reichen Manne, dem wurde seine Frau krank, und als sie fühlte, daß ihr Ende herankam, rief sie ihr einziges Töchterlein zu sich ans Bett und sprach: ...

There was a rich man whose wife became sick, and when she felt that her end was near, she called her only daughter to her to her bed and said...

I would like to ask about "Einem reichen Manne". Is this phrase a dative of possession?

I happen to know of a similar feature in Greek and Latin, which is actually what confuses me, because in those languages there is a conjugated form of "to be" included. What's interesting about the German construction is that not only does the possessor go in the dative, but the subject in the nominative can take on any verb. This is where it differs, you see, from Greek and Latin, since the subject in the nominative often takes on esse (Latin) or εἰμί (Greek).

I conclude by asking, is this a dative of possession, and is this syntax common? That is, the syntax of placing the possessor in the dative, and reserving any verb for the subject? Does the German construction not require a conjugated form of "to be" here?

  • 2
    Don't know the grammatical rules, but I would say that it happened to him, hence the Dativ. Not posession, just indirect object. Sep 8, 2017 at 8:06

2 Answers 2


Einem reichen Manne, dem wurde seine Frau krank.

Yes, this is dative of possession. The man is the owner of his wife, which perfectly fits into the philosophy of life from 1812, when this story was written. (This age of the text is also the reason for the e at the end of Manne, which is an outdated form to build dative case. In modern German it would be »Einem reichen Mann, ...«)

This is another sentence, that uses the same construction:

Mir ist mein Fahrrad kaputt gegangen.

This means: »My bicycle has broken down.« But you could have said this also in this sentence: »Mein Fahrrad ist kaputt gegangen« which is perfectly correct German. But it misses a subtile information, that is inside this special dative of possession: What is missing, is: »... and now I am suffering from this damage.«

You use this construction to tell two things:

  1. Something, that is owned by the person named in dative case became damaged
  2. The owner of the broken thing now feels sad or is suffering

But the focus is clearly on #1 (the damage itself). #2 is just a less important subtile side-effect.

So a translation of the first part of the sentence, that covers both aspects might be:

A rich man's wife became sick, which made this man suffer.

But if you write it this way, this suffering becomes much too prominent in the sentence. It looses it's subtile character, that it has in German.

  • Ah, so it adds emotion to the sentence, where the possessor is the one feeling the emotion. Whereas "Mein Fahrrad ist kaputt geworden" would be more matter-of-fact. Do I understand you correctly?
    – ktm5124
    Sep 8, 2017 at 8:12
  • @ktm5124: Yes. But you can also see it from the aspect, that Rudy mentioned in his comment to your question: There is something bad happening to the owner (not to the thing owned). So you could it also understand this way: The fact, that the bicycle broke down happened to me (not to the bike). And also: The fact, that the wife became sick happened to her husband and harmed him (not her). Sep 8, 2017 at 8:19
  • 2
    "Einem schönen Mädchen, dem wurde der Vater krank ..." - jetzt nochmal zur Frage der Philosophie und des Eigentums, bitte. Sep 8, 2017 at 12:44
  • "Yes, this is dative of possession." - it is a dative, all right. But "of possession"? Why? I doubt the dative expresses any possession here (even though, as explained in your first paragraph, it might in this particular case coincide with the idea of possession). Further down, you mention "Mir ist mein Fahrrad kaputt gegangen.", so let's add another very similar example that sounds equally natural: "Mir ist dein Fahrrad kaputt gegangen, als ich in deiner Garage etwas holen wollte." Here, it becomes obvious that the owner ("dein") is different from the person denoted in dative. Jan 9, 2022 at 22:06

What you face here is unusual word order together with dative instead of genitive:

Einem reichen Mann, dem wurde seine Frau krank. (speech, a lot of focus on the rich man)

Einem reichen Mann wurde seine Frau krank. (speech, focus on the rich man)

Eines reichen Mannes Frau wurde krank. (genitive, focus on the rich man)

Die Frau eines reichen Mannes wurde krank. (standard)

Dative is normally used instead of genitive in speech only, so there aren't too many rules about this. Dialects rule it, and fairy tales are captured as spoken, with only the most unintelligible dialect phrases removed.

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