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Somebody showed me the following statement in a German grammar book:

Der Verkäufer leistet dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst, damit er seine Tochter heiratet.
(The salesman is doing faithful service for the covetous merchant in order to marry his daughter.)

Why it is heiratet, when the salesman is just hoping to marry?

Is it because the author thinks the salesman can (will) really marry the merchant’s daughter? That is, because he thinks it’s not unrealistic? I thought if the salesman is doing the work in the hope he might be able to marry the merchant’s daughter, it is more natural to write

... damit er seine Tochter heirate.

Please someone explain it to me if my understanding it correct.

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Here is a similar construct (with very similar meaning) where you can use the subjunctive I:

Der Verkäufer leistet dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst mit dem Wunsch, dass er seine Tochter heirate.

What is going on here is this: The subjunctive is not triggered by wishes as such (though many grammar books falsely claim so or at least accidentally imply this), but by an indirect speech, or a very similar dependency. A good litmus test for this is if you can phrase the same thing in direct speech, without changing the rest of the sentence:

  • In the above example, this works:

    Der Verkäufer leistet dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst mit dem Wunsch: »Heirate meine Tochter.«

  • By contrast, this doesn’t work with your sentence:

    * Der Verkäufer leistet dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst (damit): »Heirate meine Tochter.«


Here is a similar construct where you can use the subjunctive II:

Der Verkäufer leistete dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst in der Hoffnung, dass er seine Tochter heiraten würde.

Here, using the subjunctive II implies that the merchant did not actually marry the daughter. It is relevant that everything happens in the past so we can now what actually happens. Another requisite for the subjunctive is using in der Hoffnung instead of damit. The former leaves room for the possibility that the marriage does not happen. By contrast, damit implies a direct cause-and-effect relationship to some extent and therefore cannot trigger a subjunctive.


Finally note that a similar, archaic conjunction that triggers the subjunctive is auf dass:

Der Verkäufer leistet dem geizigen Kaufmann einen treuen Dienst, auf dass er seine Tochter heirate.

This is a fossilised construct and therefore it is best to learn it as such instead of trying to explain it by modern rules.

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  • I see, so you say 'damit' does not mandatorily tirgger the subjunctive because it can imply direct cause-and-effect. (but auf dass, or in der Hoffnung implies subjunctive(imaginary, or assumption).) Thank you! – Chan Kim Jun 22 '19 at 14:09
  • @ChanKim: Almost. In der Hoffnung does not imply subjunctive, but it can go with it – if you want to indicate that it was a false hope. – Wrzlprmft Jun 22 '19 at 15:48
  • Conversely, damit allows the transposition damit heiratet er seine Tochter. – vectory Jun 23 '19 at 8:17
  • @vectory: I fail to understand your comment. The example you seem to give neither appears to be grammatical nor feature a transposition (word-class transformation). I also fail to see which part of my answer you are addressing. – Wrzlprmft Jun 23 '19 at 8:21
  • I addressed your rewrites, to augment the examples. Of course it is grammatical, if you can ask womit heiratet er, which is especially important if talking about bride price. – vectory Jun 23 '19 at 8:27
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damit allows the transposition damit heiratet er seine Tochter. Which makes it into a matter-of-fact statement, indeed. It seems the inverted word order that marks a dependent clause is enough of a subjugation. In contrast, the conjunctive II heirate may have been avoided to avoid impressions of irrealis. The conjunctive I heiratet is simply not different from the present tense.

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  • I am still not sure what you mean by transposition here, but the only linguistic usage of the term I could find at a first glance is this, which is probably not what you mean here. – Wrzlprmft Jun 23 '19 at 9:42
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    Can you please try and expand your fragment damit heiratet er seine Tochter into a meaningful example sentence? - Your answer doesn't make a lot of sense like this. – tofro Jun 23 '19 at 10:09
  • @Tofro, is Er tu dies und das; Damit hat er Erfolg example enough for the construction that I mean? – vectory Jun 25 '19 at 0:00

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