I came across this sentence, and I'd like to understand the grammar.

Es kann sich nicht jemand mit einer staatlichen Garantie Liquidität holen.

I can guess the meaning: "One shouldn't be allowed to use the state guarantee as liquidity".

It would have made more sense if the sentence was written instead as:

Niemand kann / darf sich mit einer staatlichen Garantie Liquidität holen.

How does 'es kann' work here?


4 Answers 4


The full sentence from the link goes like this:

Es kann sich nicht jemand mit einer staatlichen Garantie Liquidität holen, um damit Dividenden auszahlen zu können.(*)

With a relativating following phrase. In that context this is not a strict prohibition, more like an explanatory statement or even a justification for the use of taxpayer's money as a guarantee to keep up otherwise bankrupt companies. The "kann nicht" could be something in between "cannot" and "should not".

"Somebody who has been granted a public guarantee can/should not use that to enable the distribution of a bonus". That cannot be the spirit of the inventor (of the guarantee).

(*)from: https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/oesterreich-will-in-corona-pandemie-wieder-mehr-geschaefte-oeffnen-16710543.html

Edit, reaction to remark:

In this context, it is not possible to translate "es" into proper english, like would be case for "es kann nicht sein ..." which is "it can not be ..." in English.

"Es kann sich nicht jemand etwas holen" here is equivalent to "nobody can obtain something". Gramatically, it is a reflexive verb with negation which could be said in a more resolute tone in German, too: "Niemand kann sich etwas holen".

  • Your answer doesn't explain the function of 'es'. It explains the meaning of the sentence, which wasn't my question. I know the meaning already.
    – PBH
    Apr 4, 2020 at 20:55
  • Sorry for misunderstanding. You guessed the meaning, you wrote, and i applied a little correction, that its not the guarantee that's used as liquidity, but that it could be used to obtain liquidity (e.g. from a bank). Augmented my answer in the spirit of mutual benefit :-).
    – user41853
    Apr 4, 2020 at 21:24
  • 1
    Indeed the translation "it" should be impossible, if es actually stemmed from se, cp Sich kann keiner ..., Bavarian S'. The fact that the translation is impossible proves the point. It's not entirely certain, though. Compare also, es geht doch nicht an versus es geht sich doch nicht an, and similar recursive expressions. compare very distantly French qu'est que ce; est que ce que c'est. very weird
    – vectory
    Apr 6, 2020 at 16:45
  • Yep, it's the construct with reflexive verb to blame, I think. "Sich etwas holen" just has no literal equivalence in English, it is simply "to get/obtain/retrieve something"
    – user41853
    Apr 6, 2020 at 18:04

Es kann sich nicht jemand mit einer staatlichen Garantie Liquidität holen.

understanding the history of kann / can should be instructive here.

Wiktionary informs us that it is cognate with to know, German kennen, Kunde and further e.g. Latin gnosco "I know". First of all, it would lie near to check out DWB (cf. DWDS with link to Grimm's DWB near the bottom) for the recent history, but this is too rich to begin with; likewise, the incongruency between English and German modals is considerable (especially in negation, e.g. must not versus nicht müssen). The point I wanted to make primary is that the connotations kann ("be able") and dürfen ("may") are both derivative; the original sense, whatever it is, might echo in the given example. Equivalent be the example: Das kann nicht sein; the perceived dummy pronoun adds very little, so we might as well suppose the fequent colloquialism omitting any subject:

kannnichsein -- can't be

As a first approximation, assume that this expression maintains an original sense. To understand the expression, consider what I perceive as roughly equivalent: "geht nich", "gibt's nicht" (or in Berliner Mundart: 'tjibsonich!' "Das gibt es doch nicht"); All these have negation in common. The choice of verb may depend on context and register. A Hessian variant, gibbet, appears as if from et (es), but might in fact reflect an old desiderative inflection in -t. Likewise, the a-vocalism in kann is maybe due to umlautung from u (viz Kunde, OE cunnan "to say"), due to epenthetic -i; That should not be confused for the subjunctive (Konjunktiv II) Könnte expressing irrealis with proper umlautung, -t- infix, synchronicly from the preterite (Präteritum) konnte, nor with the subjunctive (Konjunktiv I) könne as used in reported speech. The Konjunktiv II sometimes doubles for desiderative, as the old paradigm with optative and subjunctive had erroded. The optative used the personal endings plus vowel (synchronicly kannstu "kannst du"). The semantics (not necessarily the grammar) of the old optative is usually exemplified with let's; therefore cp. lass, los, Lust and thus Kunst (Kunst kommt von können say the folk wisdom, though that's not certain). Overall, kann would have to be understood as a mood of "to know", probably as an innovation in West-Germanic, as the irregular infinitive können implies for this strong verb. An original sense from transitive "to know" (to say) lies near, if the Proto-Indo-European reconstruction *'gneH- "to know", is accurate--which seems to be the case given copious evidence from languages related as distantly as Gujarati, Bulgarian and Breton.

However accurate, it might be incomplete. It's complicated: a) Latin gnosco is not commonly compared to scio "I know" (cf. science, Wissenschaft); -sc is rather taken as sk-present, seen also in Wunsch for example, akin to want and wähnen or erwähnen. At that it should be notable that kannschtu is proper Swabian (with st > scht in any case perhaps conceived of as a matter of hypercorrection, but also with appreciable Frankonian and Old High German influence). scopo versus spec- is not fully understood either (both "to see", contrast e.g. video "I see", En. wit,Ger. wissen "to know", En. witness; or *sekw- "to see", "to search", *s-k- "to know"; not even related by communis opinio, but seeing is believing). b) Any tentative relation to *'genH- (cf. genesis) is spurious at best, too. c) Comparison between geben, gehen, En. get and the preverb ge- is already daunting (relevant here e.g. genau, Eingebung, Gabe, also Geburt "genesis"), as individual reconstructions have been concocted (cf. wiktionary)--the doubt is all mine and ommitted here for, err, for brevities sake--then further comparison with kann and kommen seems extremely unlikely, if only for the different consonantism. Yet, the derivation of ge- cannot be told--it is reconstructing *'kom "with", as the parallels to Latin co-, cum are most striking. That's it, no further explanation. It's that sense which makes comparison to kommt (zusammen) rather appealing, though phonologicly difficult; the discrepancy in the comparison between *kaput- and *ghebh-, which is a given, is accepted, anyhow (cf. caput, AGr. kephalus, Haupt; cp. behaupten). Reconstructing that far back into time is error prone without certain indicators for chronology, as much as for any other language summarized as a monolith covering many centuries, as the branches broke appart.

Therefore i am not too confident reconstructing to know "to say". On the other hand, the postulated origin in a preverb is untennable, as long as preverbs are poorly understood (though good progress on the basics is made in recent years, cp. Dunkel 2014). The common wisdom says these altered between languages, but tended to affix and become fossilized ("das kann-doch nu-aber wohl-mal nicht-mehr mit* rechten Dingen zugehen), and, most importantly, covered the second place in a clause (I still don't know, what's the first slot?), with certain preverbs terminating the sequence, linking to the third place (prepositions?). English can't also shows contraction.

A third facette could be seen in kein, with the negation rather in the initial, butbthat's a different topic, I suppose.

What does that mean, effectively? The semantics rest on the infinite verb sein; The finite verb kannnich is purely preverb, the head possibly marking passive (mediopassive) participle.

cp. das ge-hört sich nicht

Understanding sein is thankfully a different problem.

This fits into the synchronic view thusly: In the modern language, with the denotional sense "able", the sentence can be understood as a statement of fact. Any inference depends on connotation, and to a significant degree on context. Your propositions arebreasonably correct at that

niemand kann / darf

but that's highly recursive. dürfen for one comes, apparently, from a desiderative to darben (today "to suffer, hunger"; cp. dürftig, bedürftig), but I don't see how--perhaps it has to be understood in context of the negative polarity question marker nu (cp. Gothic nu, Lat. nunc, but also *Hne'k- "to reach, attain", whence nah, nach, genau, cp. nachfragen, and IMHO at least partially naja: also naja, fast): nu durfi viellei aumawatsagen?; I also entertain as idea for example: Krieg ich Brot? Darfst du denn?. The high vowel is perhaps in part due to backed r; cp. *ders- "dry", Ger. Dürre, dorren, (ver)dört Durst, dürsten, next to dearth and derb, (ver)derben, Lat. durum "hard", further starve, Ger. sterben, also starr, sturdy, steif (the latter easily confused with *steH- "stand"). In face of this, I think it's a suboptimal substitute, if it meant to have need for.

Rather, I'd compare kühn. In that sense

Niemand sollt es wagen

But I'm not concinced that this were the intended message. Because, whether the liquidity acquired through stateside guarantees were impossible because of intentional or involuntary restrictions remains ambiguous, effectively a matter of philosophy and economics in the broader context of the script. The choice of words there or in my translation is not particularly detailed. Such cases, that's exactly why the semantic drift herein considered would be possible in the first place. Semantics underspecifies.

The basic message rather rests on the opposition of the direct and indirect object. The staatliche Garantie is inflected in the dative as the indirect object, deeply embedded in the phrase, whereas Liquidität holen is exposed in the phrase as the direct object furthest removed from the subject ... oh this is difficult; I meant to say the opposite, and there are several ways to make "staatliche Garantie" the direct object indeed. The given example just fails that due to perscribed terminology of school grammar. May that as it be.

A simpler phrase would be:

staatlich garantierte Liquidität ist nicht (kann auch nichts werden)

Liquidit ist nicht staatlich Garantiert

however, this would lose nuances, because it was not said that the opposite direction is inavailable: The state might lend short time liquidity--print money, buy junk, inflate the economy; nobody could wan't to be subject to this. (Econ 101)

The indefinite pronoun es (cp. es regnet) leaves open who the subject is. This is required by niemand, because nobody is not no subject. It's different with definite subjects, that would likely cover the first place, shifting the negation to the indirect object or infinite verb, Berlin kann sich .... That's not so much a pronoun, rather an adverb, determiner, whathever, cp *zur zeit, jetzt, hier, in Berlin, ohne Verordnung kann sich niemand ...". I dub this "Es" the indeterminer.

PS: In a comment I suggested reading reflexive *se- in Es. That is difficult, of course, as reflexive constructions arose apparently rather late in various branches. Meanwhile, the constraints on first and second positions seen already in Gothic, Latin, etc, make the case for a dummy pronoun somewhat reasonable, if the first place required a subject, and if *se couldn't act that part. Although, that's especially interesting in light of the sporadic appearance of s-mobile in various roots, which is so far poorly understood. Not only would initial *sC- preserve a following consonant C, but *sk- would be identical with the zero-grade root in scio. We would then regularly expect Ger. sch-, however.


To get an idea, it works here in a similar way as "it cannot be" / "es kann nicht sein".

In German, it's possible to exchange that verb "be" with an object plus its verb, e.g. "es kann nicht jemand sagen ...". In English, you cannot say that as "It cannot anybody say ..." because of strict SPO order, and so you would say "Nobody can say, that ...", but I think you can imagine it as "It cannot be somebody say, that ...".

The given sentence in your question additionally uses the reflexive verb "sich holen" und denies the fact by using of "nicht".

Hmm, my explanation is weak but tries to keep it simple and figurative, but the phrase actually is not really transferable between both languages.


You have to see this in a "historical" context -- lets track down the grammaticalization of that es. German sentences (usually) have, as you hopefully know, this curious property the the finite verb must be in second position (see Feldermodel).

Let's start with a simpler variant, without auxiliaries:

Max schlägt den Hund.

Now, you might, for reasons of (de)emphasis, want to put the object in first position instead:

Den Hund schlägt Max.

Same meaning, but with the object topicalized.

But you can also want to put den Hund to the right. Then you might begin with:

Das schlägt Max: den Hund.

This is what Max hits: the dog.

And this is very close, and might even have been equivalent in earlier times, to

Es schlägt Max: den Hund.

This pattern then generalized. You can always use es as a pseudo-object, indicating the actual object is put to the far right:

Es schlägt Max den Hund.

But the es took life on it's own, and can now be used as a general way to put things to the right. For example, in an intransitive sentence:

Es schläft Max.

Coming back to your sentence, in "normal form"

Jemand kann sich nicht [mit einer staatlichen Garantie] [Liquidität holen].

has the form

X kann sich nicht [mit Y] [Z holen].

and we can reorder this to

Es kann sich nicht X [mit Y] [Z holen].

You see that in this case, the es is used to move the subject, not the object.

The study of why this is done is called information structure. In this example, the ordering is probably used because X is introduced as new information.

An English equivalent would be the following transformation:

X cannot just get himself Y.

It cannot be that X just gets himself Y.

See: the same it :)

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