15

Compared to English, German has a fair amount of what I am describing as "Yoda-speak", whereby the order of elements in a sentence are in the reverse order of what they would be in English.

NOTE: If someone knows what the technical term is for what I am calling "Yoda-speak", please tell me what that term is and what the definition for it is.

As a native English speaker myself, in comparison with German, English appears to be much more "Speaker centric" (We even capitalize the first letter in the word 'I' when that is not done with 'ich').

For example:

English: "I could not do that."

German: "Das konnte ich nicht tun."

So in the English version the speaker (I/ich) is on the left side of the verb, but in the German version it is on the right. That's why I term it Yoda-speak, since I don't know what the technical term is for that. (Yoda: "Help you, I will").

I have noticed this pattern for a long time, but as of now, I still have failed to come up with a pattern I could remember that would guide me as to when and where I should put certain sentence elements on the two sides of the primary verb.

Note, I am not concerned with grammatic elements like the verb position alterations that are caused when using conjunctions like "deswegen, etc." which kick the verb to the end of the subsequent clause.

Can someone explain how German speakers think about sentence elements in a way that tells me where I should put the main sentence elements? Most notably, the two primary actors that reside on the left and right side of a sentence's primary verb?

In the example given above, how would a German mentally structure it? What is it about the German thought process that places the primary element the speaker is discussing on the left side of the verb when an English speaker would put it on the right side? In the example above, that sentence element would be the thing that the speaker could not do ("Das").

NOTE: I recognize that there are plenty of German sentences with the same structure as English in the sense that they place a personal pronoun at the start of the sentence. It is the large number of "Yoda-speak" cases that I still am unable to predict when that alternate sentence structure is commonly used.

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    In case that you are not aware of it: the rule in German is that the verb is in second position. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V2_word_order – Carsten S Sep 4 at 17:52
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    What you're naming "Yoda speak" is called "flexibility in word order". – tofro Sep 5 at 5:40
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    "That I cannot/could not do" is completely valid english as well, and used for the same reason - to emphasise the thing you couldn't do over the fact that it was you who couldn't do it. The form is of course not used much in colloquial language, but that's more down due to more-or-less arbitrary cultural preferences rather than genuine language differences. – Cubic Sep 5 at 8:03
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    Just fyi, the sentence "Ich konnte das nicht tun" is just as valid as "Das konnte ich nicht tun". – gartenriese Sep 5 at 9:20
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    As you're asking how Germans think about word order: they don't. Most Germans know exactly two grammar rules: "sounds right" and "sounds wrong". "Ich konnte nicht tun das" sounds as wrong to a German as "That could I not do" to an English speaker, but most native speakers will note that it sounds wrong without ever considering why it does. – Guntram Blohm supports Monica Sep 5 at 9:44
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In English the topicalisation of declarative clauses is facultative, the subject is in first position, and there may be an additional item in front of it. While in German, declarative clauses are always topicalized.

Die Blätter fallen im Herbst von den Bäumen.

The leaves fall from the trees in autumn.

Im Herbst fallen die Blätter von den Bäumen.

In autumn the leaves fall from the trees.

The main difference is German insists on having exactly one item on front of the finite verb. That's why the subject must follow the finite verb if it isn't the topic.

And this explains how German speakers decide which item goes in front of the finite verb.

It's the topic.

  • Nice one - it explains the subtle difference in meaning between the two sentences. – TaW Sep 6 at 10:03
  • Re the "exactly one item" remark: This applies to decalrative main clauses only (as correctly stated in the answer). "fallen im Herbst die Blätter von den Bäumen" could be a question or a conditional clause without "wenn" conjunction. -- Also, onecould force it into a main clause with "fallen" as first word ("Fallen tun die Blätter..."), but in that case indeed "fallen" is infinite and "tun" is the finite verb - with again exactly one item in front ... – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 7 at 6:02
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You could as well say

"Ich konnte das nicht tun."

instead of

"Das konnte ich nicht tun."

which counts against your argument (emphasis mine)

As a native English speaker myself, in comparison with German, English appears to be much more "Speaker centric" ... .


I have noticed this pattern for a long time, but as of now, I still have failed to come up with a pattern I could remember that would guide me as to when and where I should put certain sentence elements on the two sides of the primary verb.

Können is an auxiliary verb in that sentence. The primary verb is tun.

The verb always appears at the second position as @CarstenS mentioned in their comment.

You can check this at the link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V2_word_order .


Can someone explain how German speakers think about sentence elements in a way that tells me where I should put the main sentence elements? Most notably, the two primary actors that reside on the left and right side of a sentence's primary verb?

It may be a concern of emphasis that Das is placed before the ich in your example.


Also your doubts of Yoda Speech don't really apply, in German translations it would be rather

"Nicht tun konnte ich das."

  • re Yoda, just watching clone wars: it would be "Das tun, ich nicht konnte." – dlatikay Sep 6 at 21:11
11

English is an SVO language. This means, the word order is:

  1. Subject
  2. Verb
  3. Object(s)

But German is a V2 language, and this means:

  • There must be a verb at position 2

This allows German to have SPO constructions, like you know them from English:

Tom drinks beer. Tom trinkt Bier.

But German also allows other constructions, for example:

Bier trinkt Tom.

In this particular example this is an unusual order, but it is still allowed and is absolutely correct. You might use this order to highlight that Tom doesn't drink wine or water, but beer.

There are some models to explain what can be used to fill the place left of the verb, and this here sounds quite good to me:

  1. Begin with the order SOV

    This means: Subject at position 1, verb at the very last position, and everything else between them. If a sentence contains more than one verb, only one of them is finite (i.e declined) while all other are infinite (not declined). In this case it's the finite verb that has to stand at the very end:

    Tom Bier trinkt
    ich das nicht tun konnte ("tun" in infinite, "konnte" is finite, its infinite form would be "können")

    BTW: This is the order that you find in subjunctive clauses:

    Ich mag Tom nicht, weil Tom Bier trinkt.
    I don't like Tom, because Tom drinks beer.

    Ich fühle mich schuldig, weil ich das nicht tun konnte.
    I feel guilty, because I could not do that.

  2. Move the finite verb to position 1

    trinkt Tom Bier
    konnte ich das nicht tun

    btw: Now you have the order of a closed question (a question that needs to be answered with yes or no):

    Trinkt Tom Bier?
    Does Tom drink beer?

    Konnte ich das nicht tun?
    Couldn't I do that?

  3. Move another part of speech in front of the finite verb

    1. Tom trinkt Bier
    2. Bier trinkt Tom

    .

    1. ich konnte das nicht tun
    2. das konnte ich nicht tun
    3. tun konnte ich das nicht

Not everything is allowed on position 1. The word "nicht" can not be at position 1:

wrong: nicht konnte ich das tun

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    As I understand the question, it's about how speakers decide what to put at position 1. This isn't covered by the answer. – David Vogt Sep 4 at 20:39
  • Maybe you want to change point 3.1 and 3.2 drinkt into trinkt ^^ so much t and d in drink and trinkt Oo – Allerleirauh Sep 5 at 7:07
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    Small addition: "Nicht" can be on position one, when it is limiting non-verbs, like in [Nicht alle Leute] [trinken] [Bier]. Here it limits the subject of the sentence ([Tom], [Alle Leute], [Nicht alle Leute]). – Bowi Sep 5 at 8:39
  • Bin Yoda Ich!!! – Deduplicator Sep 6 at 20:11
  • Yoda bin ich, isn't it? – Pere Sep 6 at 21:06
10

Just for the record, I'm a native speaker, but not a teacher. The other posts make excellent points about grammar and rules, I'd just like to add a perspective for the everyday speaker that "just knows it" because it's their native language without being able to explain exactly why that is.

English: "I could not do that."

German: "Das konnte ich nicht tun."

You have already learned from the other answers, that

German: "Ich konnte das nicht tun."

is correct, too.

Can someone explain how German speakers think about sentence elements in a way that tells me where I should put the main sentence elements? Most notably, the two primary actors that reside on the left and right side of a sentence's primary verb?

So how do we decide when there are multiple correct versions?

"Das konnte ich nicht tun."

Strongly implies that while you could not do that you could do something else.

"Ich konnte das nicht tun."

Strongly implies that while you could not do it, others could.

So it's a matter of stressing what is important to communicate through this sentence. Somebody could not do something, but the word order gives something like a pronunciation or intonation. It can point out the important part of the sentence.

  • Thanks. Can you think of any cases where either of the sentence forms (word orders) would sound "wrong" to you even if both forms are technically legal sentence structures? – Robert Oschler Sep 5 at 11:26
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    There certainly are some where I can tell that someone is not a native speaker, because it's "correct" by all the rules, but nobody would say it that way. But I cannot think of an example right now. – nvoigt Sep 5 at 12:01
5

IMHO it's about emphasis. The start of a sentence makes more impression than the parts coming later. "Das konnte ich nicht tun" is focused at the quality of "Das" - something abject maybe. "Ich konnte das nicht tun" would shift emphasis rather to the person and its virtues.

3

In addition to the existing (more technical) answers, I'd like to elaborate what was already mentioned in the answer by nvoigt: For spoken language, the emphasis of the words plays an even greater role than the word order. It's hard to define any rules here. I'll try to make up some examples based on the sentence in your question. The differences in the meaning seem to be "intuitive" for me, although others might disagree to some extent.

Imagine someone asked you to buy him a car.

Er fragte mich, ob ich ihm ein Auto kaufen könnte.

In the following statements, different emphasis (indicated by bold words) may carry different meanings:

Das konnte ich nicht tun. Aber ich kaufte ihm ein Fahrrad.

You could not do exactly that, but maybe something similar.

Das konnte ich nicht tun. Aber als ich die Gründe nannte, verstand er sie.

You probably wanted to do it, but simply had not been able to do it.

Das konnte ich nicht tun. Aber sein Vater konnte ihm eins kaufen.

You could not do it, but probably someone else.

Das konnte ich nicht tun. Aber ich konnte ihm mein Auto leihen.

Similar to the first one (maybe without an alternative)


In written language, different word orders may carry differences in the meaning that are similarly subtle as the emphasis in spoken language. Actually, I just tried to permute the words from your statement, and came up with this list, which I (as a native speaker) would consider as (at least loosely) grammatically correct:

  • Das konnte ich nicht tun.
  • Ich konnte das nicht tun (, aber jemand anderes)
  • Ich konnte nicht das tun (, aber etwas anderes)
  • Nicht das konnte ich tun (, aber etwas anderes)
  • Tun konnte ich das nicht (, aber ich konnte es versuchen)
  • Konnte ich das nicht tun?
  • Konnte ich nicht das tun?

An aside: Negations, as the "nicht" in this example, always bear the potential for ambiguities. My favorite example is the famous saying "Glauben heißt nicht wissen". Interpreted as "'Glauben' heißt 'nicht wissen'", it is wrong. Interpreted as "'Glauben' heißt nicht 'wissen'", it is correct...

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