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This post is on es and dies as highlighted in this passage from chapter 'Der Fall Robinson' of Amerika (Der Verschollene) by Frankz Kafka.

Da waren zum Beispiel sechs Unterportiers bei sechs Telephonen. Die Anordnung war, wie man gleich bemerkte, so getroffen, daß immer einer bloß Gespräche aufnahm, während sein Nachbar nach den vom ersten empfangenen Notizen die Aufträge telephonisch weiterleitete. Es waren dies jene neuesten Telephone, für die keine Telephonzelle nötig war, denn das Glockenläuten war nicht lauter als ein Zirpen, man konnte in das Telephon mit Flüstern hineinsprechen und doch kamen die Worte dank besonderer elektrischer Verstärkungen mit Donnerstimme an ihrem Ziele an.

QUESTION

  1. Is es an expletive (placeholder)?

  2. Is dies the subject?

  3. If yes, would that mean the sentence could be rewritten as:

    Dies waren jene neuesten Telephone. . .

  4. If I am right so far, why did Kafka use dies (singular) instead of diese (plural) when speaking of multiple telephones? The 'Usage notes' section of this Wiktionary article does not seem to mention dies as a (surrogate) plural form. If dies is indeed sometimes plural, please explain when that is permissible.

4 Answers 4

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1. Yes, this es is an expletive here: i) the roles of subject and subject complement are already filled by dies and jene neuesten Telefone, respectively, and ii) es vanishes when there is no Vorfeld available, for instance Waren dies jene neuesten Telefone?

2. Yes. (The previous version of this answer erroneously claimed the opposite.)

3. In theory, yes. In practice, sounds pretty bad, though it is hard to tell why. Note that the subject of the sentence is "heavy" (i.e. long), and heavy constituents prefer to be further to the right in German. Having an unnecessary word in first position helps, and the following sentence does sound better than the one you provided.

Interessanterweise waren dies jene neuesten Telephone, für die…

Or it might be even simpler: dies by itself rather old-fashioned, but feels natural in fixed phrases such as es waren dies. The latter is, to this day, really popular when a list follows.

Einen besonderen Dank sprach sie den Gaststätten aus, die kostenlos die Sternsinger-Gruppen verpflegt hatten, es waren dies der Brauereigasthof Falter, das Hotel Falter, der Gutsgasthof Frath und das Gasthaus Egner. PNP14/JAN.02352 Passauer Neue Presse, 08.01.2014; Für Flüchtlingskinder gesammelt

4. a. Dies is singular and only singular. When neuter forms such as es, das, dies function as the subject of sein and the subject complement is plural, the verb agrees with the subject complement and appears in the plural.

Using a neuter pronoun allows for a more general reference than an anaphoric pronoun. The following sentence has an unpleasant redundancy that the version with the neuter pronoun lacks:

Diese (Telefone) waren jene neuesten Telefone.

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  1. Yes

  2. Yes

  3. Yes, but the different word order makes for a subtle difference in meaning which is hard to explain. The demonstative dies is a bit softened by not placing it at the beginning of the sentence.

  4. Dies doesn't have to be plural. With sein, a demonstrative as subject can be in singular even if the predicative is plural, e.g.:

Das sind Telephone.

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  • well yes, but no, das is singular, so it should be followed "ist", except of course in less strict speech where "das" and "dies" compares rather well to "that" and "these", so that not much of an explanation should be needed for a native English speaker.
    – vectory
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:22
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Let's work the questions of backwards.

  1. Why did Kafka word the sentence like that? "Es sind dies" is an idiom.

The way it's parsed is idiomatic and does not, I believe, follow standard German Syntax. It is regional (southern?) now, archaic and obsolete elsewhere. It was that this reason caused me to assume a transcription error when reading the phrase elsewhere for the first time. We do say regularly "Es ist der Fall, dass dies ...", which expands the pattern a bit.

That was the important bit.

  1. There are many ways to rephrase the meaning. You seem to understand it just fine.

So one can maintain the anaphora "dies jene" with "Es waren dies[e] neuen Telefone jene Telefone, für die ...". Because "dieser jener", "jener welcher" are also fixed expressions in the same anaphoric pattern. The inflected -e probably just got lost under the semivowel j, and overall simplified like indefinite "Es", or "das".

2 and 1. The subject of the sentence depends on how you want to parse it, and how speakers think about it. I don't know how native speakers parse it. Naively analyzing the sentence, the "Telefone" is the only named object of the sentence, so it must be the subject, and the subordinate clause using the relative pronoun "die" moves the actual subject, "Telefonzellen" into object position.

On the other hand, if comparing "Ihm ist dies/das/es eine Freude", then by analogy "Es" should be an accusative object, like "Ihm", which would be very unusual. It acts somewhat like a conjunction, e.g. "dabei". Otherwise we would use "dem" as accusative object, or a Pronominaladverb. "Dem/Dabei waren [dank] jenen neuesten Telephonen keine Telefonzellen nötig", which transforms somewhat crudely to "Keine neuen Telefonzellen waren dem/dafür [dank] neuesten Telefone nötig]. The gender doesn't quite fit and that's follows trivially because dies

Very naively though, "Es" is the subject of the verbal phrase around "waren", and indefinite (and conjunctive or even prepositional (cp. Hier waren ...)) as it is, rather seeing "dies" quite non-standard as a conjunction similar to "dass", giving a somewhat archaic phrase: "Es war, dass [für diejenigen neuesten Telefone keine Telefonzelle nötig war]".

...

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Es is used like it, and well dies you would use that in English for it but it's a quite old text and nobody will write like this anymore. The sentence in English would be like: It was, that latest phone...

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