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In an old book “Geflügelte Worte“ that I bought a while ago, there was the following dedication by the author:

Das Buch an die Leser:

Wer könnte mehr von mir erwarten?
Für jeden bin ich eine Welt!
Dem Alter ein Erinnerungsgarten,
Der Jugend ein Entdeckungsfeld.

I am interested to know why he has used the dative in “Dem Alter” and “der Jugend”. I am guessing the phrases are a contraction of

Das Buch ist dem Alter ein Erinnerungsgarten.

i.e. Older folk is the indirect object receiving the benefits of a garden of memories. (Similar logic for der Jugend). Am I heading in the right direction?

Source: “Geflügelte Worte”, Georg Büchmann, Verlag der Haude & Spenerschen Buchhandlung, Berlin 1903.

  • "Den Alten" would be imho grammatically more correct. In the end, nobody will be able to answer this, because poems often don't follow grammar as opposed to normal speech. Therefore only the original author would be able to give you the "correct" answer and I suppose he is dead, judging by the publishing date. – problemofficer Nov 10 '18 at 19:49
  • What means "imho"? Spelling mistake? – Christian Geiselmann Nov 11 '18 at 22:37
  • @ChristianGeiselmann AFAIK that means "in my humble opinion" (de.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/in_my_humble_opinion). It's used for years in short messages. – harper Nov 12 '18 at 6:13
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The verb as well as the subject is the same as in the previous line. The author just avoided to repeat it:

Für jeden bin ich eine Welt!

Dem Alter [bin ich] ein Erinnerungsgarten

Der Jugend [bin ich] ein Entdeckungsfeld.

The dative is here an alternative to für + accusative.

This usage is mostly restricted to written German. In other contexts using the dative for the person who is some way affected by an action is common in spoken language too ("Komm du mir mal nach Hause!").

  • 1
    One thing to maybe add to your explanation would be that the author's use of the dative instead of für and accusative (as well as the elision of subject and verb) makes the lines scan as iambic tetrameter. – David Vogt Nov 10 '18 at 22:25
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First of all:

Note, that in German grammar there is nothing like direct or indirect objects. Open any German grammar book that is written in German language (i.e. for German native speakers). You will not find the term »direktes Objekt« or »indirektes Objekt« in any of those books. This terms doesn't exist in German grammar, so please don't learn them. They can be helpful for a beginner, but they are misleading in many cases.

Please learn what really exist, i.e. accusative object, dative object, genitive object, prepositional object (and some authors also use the term nominative object as synonym for predicative nominative).


Now for your question:

The two sentences

Dem Alter ein Erinnerungsgarten,
To the seniority a garden of memories,

Der Jugend ein Entdeckungsfeld.
To the youth a field of discoveries.

are ellipses, i.e. incomplete sentences. As you can see there is neither a subject nor a verb in them. So the reader has to add both.

But you should use ellipses only when it is clear to everybody what is left out. And here it is clear.
This is the sentence before (subject and verb are marked bold):

Für jeden bin ich eine Welt!
For everybody I am a world!

Here we have a subject (»I«) and also a verb (»am«). And both fit perfect into the two ellipses:

Dem Alter bin ich ein Erinnerungsgarten,
To the seniority I am a garden of memories,

Der Jugend bin ich ein Entdeckungsfeld.
To the youth I am a field of discoveries.


What also might confuse some learners of German is the kind of use of dative case that doesn't exist in languages like English: Dativus commodi.

This use of dative case marks the dative object as the beneficiary or victim of the action. In the first sentence (»Für jeden ...«) this role was marked with a prepositional object, but in the ellipses the author used dative objects (to be interpreted as dativus commodi) for the same semantic aim.


Also note, that what might look like a subject in the ellipses (»ein Erinnerungsgarten« and »ein Entdeckungsfeld«) are not subjects. In German you call this grammatical construction »Gleichsetzungsnominativ«. It is some kind of nominative object (some authors really use this name because it can be interpreted as an object), but more common in the term predicative nominative because it can be interpreted as a part of the predicate.

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