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One German translation of Handel's Messiah has an aria that features the line:

Alle Tale macht hoch und erhaben, und senkt die Berge und Hügel vor ihm, macht eb’ne Bahn, und, was rauh ist, macht gleich.

Another reads:

Alle Tale macht hoch erhaben, und alle Berge und Hügel tief, das Krumme grad und das Rauhe macht gleich.

Why isn't Täler used here? The only form of Tal that is Tale that I can find is the singular dative, but in that case, shouldn't alle also be in the dative? Besides, I can't find a subject for the clause if it isn't alle Tale, unless I am misunderstanding the purpose of macht here. That too seems problematic though, as my understanding is that alle Tale should be plural, which is inconsistent with macht.

(For reference, the Luther Bible translation of the relevant passage from Isaiah is easier to understand grammatically for me. I really don't understand why a different translation is much less comprehensible to me.)

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    Your fault is that you're tring to use grammar on old AND poetic texts. Yes, its gramatically wrong, but Tale sound better in the context of singing this line. – Hobbamok Dec 3 at 14:49
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The German language has a variety of nouns that carry two plural forms. There is Land, Länder, Lande, Tuch, Tücher, Tuche, and Wort, Wörter, Worte. The first plural form collects several independent instances of the object the noun describes, whereas the second is used to form a collective plural.

Worte is used in modern language (albeit often only to give the prose a fake purple tone, and not with the intent of forming collectives), but the other two only appear in very specific contexts, and there are other questions on this site that address them individually.

In the spirit of this answer, let me try to address them collectively: I harbour the suspicion that Tale stands besides Täler in much the same way, and a (very superficial) search for other instances where Tale is used seems to indicate that, whenever a poet's Worte might speak of Lande, he would also speak of Tale: The point is not to bring to the reader's mind several Täler in blissful ignorance of each other's existence, but a collection of Tale, which might well be part of the surrounding Lande.

In particular, I strongly reject the idea that the form used by Händel was simply wrong at the time of writing.

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    Not "used by Händel", but used by the German translator of Händel's (English) oratorio. – fdb Dec 4 at 13:17
  • I've never heard it this way. But I like it much (+1) – Gottfried Helms Dec 4 at 16:52
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    Translators even. – Toby Bartels Dec 4 at 16:53
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    @fdb Handel (note the English spelling of the name, adopted by the man himself for use in England) also did not write the English libretto, although that is the one he actually set to music. It was compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James bible (1611) and the Coverdale psalter (1535), with some adaptation. The passage is Isaiah 40:4. For what it's worth, an online source I found for Luther uses Täler, but a PDF copy I found has thale. Modern translations seem to use jedes Tal instead. – phoog Dec 4 at 20:10
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Adelung, in his dictionary from 1801, already states the plural als Thäler (Tal was spelled Thal then) but also mentions, that the German bible translation frequently uses Thale instead. I guess that the text was taken directly from a contemporary (18th century) edition. A related question is here.

Your Luther bible reference seems a strange mix of updated spelling and old words, the original is noticably different, as can be seen here:

Alle Tal sollen erhöhet werden / vnd alle Berge vnd Hügel sollen genidriget werden / Vnd was vngleich ist / sol eben / vnd was höckericht ist / sol schlecht werden.

Update: The German Messiah translation was created by Christoph Daniel Ebeling (1741-1817), which was later used for Mozart's arrangement. Since Ebeling still was a school boy, when Händel died, Händel could not know that text.

8

I'll try to answer a bit more generally. In a language that has declension classes, or different ways to form the plural, it is to be expected that nouns occasionally change the way they form the plural. New High German uses the endings -e, -n, -er, -s and no ending (Nullplural in German).

When a new form is introduced, there are three possible outcomes:

  1. The new ending does not take root and the old one persists. Example: The form Stiefeln appeared and went out of fashion again, older Stiefel persisted.

  2. The new ending takes over, the old one dies out. Example: Helde was replaced by Helden.

  3. Both endings persist. Usually, one of the forms will be perceived as more old-fashioned or poetical than the other. For instance, Goethe uses Sinnen instead of Sinne: Ha! welche Wonne fließt in diesem Blick / Auf einmal mir durch alle meine Sinnen!

    Alternatively, the forms take on different meanings. The standard example of this is Worte versus Wörter: The former designates words in connected speech only, whereas the latter sees words as something that is counted or alphabetised.

Now it is a matter of judgement whether you want to subsume Tale under 2. (a form that died out again) or 3. (a form that exists but is perceived as old-fashioned or poetical).

Finally, note that Middle High German tal belonged to a declension class that had no ending in the plural. Luther, as quoted by guidot, still uses Tal as a plural. Nouns of this class developed plurals ending in -e or -er. Sometimes, both forms have persisted, and, in accordance with 3. above, taken on different meanings. Some examples: Lande, Länder; Bande, Bänder; Denkmale, Grabmäler; Tuche, Tücher; Wort, Wörter. These are taken from Hermann Paul's Deutsche Grammatik, II, p. 27 (see here).

Some references for variation between -e and -n are in my answer to Was ist der Plural von “Forst” (in German).

  • MHG had both tal and teler. – fdb Dec 4 at 13:20
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    @fdb Does that change anything? What I was trying to point out is that that particular class of nouns with Nullplural died out, as the words in it developed plurals ending in -e or -er. – David Vogt Dec 4 at 13:41
3

Alle Tale macht hoch und erhaben, und senkt die Berge und Hügel vor ihm, macht eb’ne Bahn, und, was rauh ist, macht gleich.

All verb forms are in Imperative Mood. So there is no subject needed as it points to the second person (either singular or plural).

About the usage of Tale: This may be something like @replete mentioned in a comment to another answer.

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The DWB gives various historic forms for the plural of T(h)al:

der plur. des n. lautet ahd. diu tal und telir, mhd. diu tal und teler, nhd. die tal (Jes. 22, 7. 40, 4. Luc. 3, 5), thal H. Sachs 11, 200, 20 und thale (eigentlich ein plur. des m.), noch bei dichtern gebräuchlich; auch umgelautet mit übergang in die i-declination (vgl. ↗tag I, 2): die thäl Reiszner Jerus. 1, 22ᵇ. Gryphius trauersp. 65 P., die thäle Kirchhof milit. disc. 101. Kehrein kirchenl. 2, 190, 12

https://www.dwds.de/wb/dwb/thal#tal

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The original English libretto was compiled by Charles Jennens from the Coverdale Psalter and the King James Bible. I found at least one modern rendering of the Luther bible that uses Täler, but I also found an 18th century print that uses thale (page 70 of the PDF file). A 19th-century edition uses Thale.

The translations you link to were both made in the 18th century, so it is not surprising that they reflect 18th-century biblical writing style.

(The actual Luther bible from the 16th century used alle Tal, interestingly enough.)

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In old German "Tal" and "Dal" were used, often with the "e" in the end with no distinction between singular and plural.

"... in dem Tale/Dale" "...alle Tale/Dale" " ... Wege zu Tale/Dale" --> modern form "... Weg zum Tal"

  • Could you please provide a reference for the usage of "Tal(e)" and "Dal(e)" in old German? – Arsak Dec 3 at 8:45
  • Your statement is correct but it does not answer the question. The question was about the plural form. The -e suffix you mean is however only for singular forms. – Christian Geiselmann Dec 3 at 11:33

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