While reading an old shortstory by ETA Hoffman, I found the following text:

Seine Brust wollte zerspringen vor Freude und Seligkeit, kaum konnte er sich aufrecht erhalten als er von der Leiter herabgestiegen.

In the first part of the sentence,

Seine Brust wollte zerspringen vor Freude und Seligkeit

I would expect the verb "zerspringen" to appear at the end, after the word "Seligkeit". Why is this not the case?

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    Are you sure "als er von der Leiter herabgestiegen." isn't actually "als er von der Leiter herabstieg", or "herabgestiegen war"? As quoted the ending is wrong, even allowing for artistic freedom (one might find that highly unusual form in a poem though). In any case, as a German, that sequence is okay. Not unusual. When you have more complex grammar rules you can be more flexible with word order, English has to be strict to compensate :-) – Mörre May 6 '18 at 14:16
  • Can you explain why the first part is ok? I think zerspringen should be last. – tohava May 6 '18 at 14:46
  • And regarding your question, this is a direct copy paste. – tohava May 6 '18 at 14:47
  • Okay, so it's a deliberate style choice (the ending). You can do that for artistic purposes. As for the word order, as I said, the more grammar you have in a language to determine what something means the less need you have for word order. Compare Russian (lots of cases and lots of different endings for each word showing its function regardless of where it is located) and English (word order tells you the meaning because words don't change to show the meaning in the word itself). While you have some order it is not nearly as strict as in English, and you can deviate from it for emphasis. – Mörre May 6 '18 at 16:28
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It's a question of emphasis and topicalization. In German you can say

vor (lauter) Freude und Seligkeit wollte seine Brust (schier) zerspringen

schier zerspringen wollte seine Brust vor Freude und Seligkeit

schier zerspringen vor Freude und Seligkeit wollte seine Brust

That doesn't mean 'everything goes':

*seine Brust vor lauter Freude und Seligkeit wollte (schier) zerspringen

The content(s?) of the sentence is very emotional, so Hoffman's deviant word order is reflecting the person's excitement. This applies also to the second sentence, 'kaum' being placed in the 'Vorfeld' (see Wikipedia).


German does not have a fixed word order, it is very flexible regarding that. Your sentence is also valid today. Putting the words in the given order sets an accent on zerspringen. The downstream information vor Freude und Seligkeit is just like a secondary appendix here.

  • That's not really true. Word order is normally restricted by the principles of "Verbklammer". Saying "Ich will gehen in den Zoo" would sound at the very least unusual and poetic. Such reordering is common only in elevated and antiquated style: "Ich will wandeln vor dem Herrn..." – Kilian Foth May 7 '18 at 10:24
  • @KilianFoth But that kind of deliberately style, deliberately violating a few rules, is what we seem to have here. Your point still is valid overall, of course. – Mörre May 7 '18 at 15:41
  • @Mörre, google „ich könnte schreien vor“, und Du wirst sehen, dass hier keine Regel verletzt wird. – Carsten S May 7 '18 at 20:19
  • @CarstenS This is silly, you know what I'm talking about. And if not -- well, that's tough. Do you think language "rules" are written like laws? RULES exist also when nobody writes them down. The fact that you can tell that his style is unusual means he BREAKS RULES for what is "normal". No, police won't come and arrest him (if he was alive), no laws were broken. Just expectations. People just don't speak like that, regardless of what is in your books. Rules in minds, not rules in books. – Mörre May 7 '18 at 21:17
  • @Mörre, if you think that nobody would say, for example, "ich hätte schreien können vor Schmerzen" then your exposure to the German language has been very limited. It is also quite foolish to expect writers form centuries past to use only those constructions that you would. But comments are not for answering questions, so if you feel that the current answers are wrong or incomplete then please add your own. – Carsten S May 8 '18 at 9:31

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