4

I routinely find myself puzzling for long stretches of time over the meaning of long German sentences, as are often found in academic writing, for example. Here I'm referring to sentences where the meanings of individual words is not an obstacle.

Likewise, and just as frequently, I discover that my interpretation of one such sentence is completely wrong (though plausible in its context).

My problem here has two aspects, both equally important. The most obvious one is that my inability to parse these long sentences makes it very difficult for me to read certain types of German writing. But even when I know what some such sentence means (through some reliable translation), it is still frustrating and disheartening not to be able to understand how one arrives at this meaning from the original. So understanding the basis for such translation is every bit as important to me as getting its final result.

Therefore, I am trying to find ways to improve this skill.

I have little hope of finding a book that would help me with this, because I suspect that the potential market for such a book would be too tiny1.

Therefore, I have searched for an online sentence parser for German. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find one that can clarify the kinds of sentences that give me trouble!

Here's an example of such a sentence:

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen, der seiner Schöpfung jederzeit ein anderes Aussehen geben konnte.

The parsers I've found leave Möglichen out of the parse tree, floating out there. These parsers have the same problem I have!

My best guess as to what's going on here is that the above is somehow a fancy "literary" variation of

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Möglichen Gottes, der seiner Schöpfung jederzeit ein anderes Aussehen geben konnte.

(But I don't know!2 And this drives me up a wall...)


Does anyone know of an online parser for German that can correctly parse sentences like the one above?

Automatic parsing aside, if anyone has any other suggestions on how I can improve my parsing of German, please let me know.


1 This audience would consist of advanced learners of German interested in improving their skill at reading academic-like content, already a smallish market. But, on top of that, the kind of book that would be helpful in this respect to a speaker of English would cover very different topics from one that would be helpful to a speaker of, say, Japanese. This would reduce the potential audience for such a book to a vanishingly small number.

2 In fact, I don't even know if my rendition is even grammatically correct, let alone synonymous with the original.

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  • 2
    This sentence is indeed tricky, especially because one has to guess the case of Gott, and the one possibility which appears plausible at first sight (genitive) is the only one ruled out.
    – RHa
    Aug 14 '20 at 21:30
  • 2
    The sentence is also wrong, because grammatically the “des” after the comma can only refer to “Ausschnitt”, but apparently it is meant to refer to “Gott”.
    – Carsten S
    Aug 14 '20 at 21:40
  • 3
    @Carsten S "des" does not refer to "Gott" as "Gott" is dative.
    – RHa
    Aug 14 '20 at 22:39
  • 3
    @CarstenS It's ... des [dem/einem] Gott Möglichen. The proper name Gott (dative) answers the question Wem ist es möglich?. Aug 14 '20 at 23:15
  • 1
    If you are a self learner you would Cecil Pollard "Key to German Translation" would be very helpful. It is an old book available from Internet Archive for free. He shows the sentence types and does a very good job.
    – M. Farooq
    Aug 15 '20 at 1:58
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Parser:

This online parser is quite good: https://pub.cl.uzh.ch/demo/parzu/
Another one can be found here: https://www.cis.uni-muenchen.de/~schmid/tools/BitPar/ but you have to download and install it. I didn't do that, so I can't tell you if it's good or bad.

And here is a website about parsers, but it is from 2011, so I guess there might be some newer resources available today.


Meaning of your sentence:

From my own experience I can tell that books about philosophy are sometimes really hard to read even for native speakers, because the authors of such books often use sentence structures that are very rare in other types of text. I believe that those authors think, "nobody will accept me as a brilliant philosopher if I write understandable sentences" and so they bend German grammar to its limits and produce sentences as complicated as possible and some of them also use words that are known only to them alone.

So, don't worry if you struggle with philosophic literature. We native speakers have the same troubles. You will find that confirmed by reading the comments under your question.

I googled for your sentence and found it in this book:

Hans Blumenberg zur Einführung
von Franz Josef Wetz
Junius Verlag, 5. Auflage, 7. April 2020
256 Seiten
ISBN: 978-3885066842

The 1st edition was published in 1993, so this is not some old fashioned or even outdated German. It is modern German, and it is correct German. There is nothing wrong, at least in the sentence of interest.

Here is more context that might help to understand your sentence:

In der vorchristlichen Antike galt der Kosmos als Inbegriff des schlechthin Möglichen; außer dem Wirklichen war nichts möglich. Auch im christlichen Mittelalter von Augustinus bis Albertus Magnus und Thomas von Aquin soll das »Was der Welt«, deren essenzieller Bestand, für Gott als Schöpfer alternativlos gewesen sein. Dessen Willensmacht bezog sich lediglich auf das »Daß der Schöpfung«, deren existenziellen Bestand: Es lag in seiner Macht zu entscheiden, ob die Welt sein wird oder nicht, aber nicht, welche Gestalt sie haben soll.

Alle diese Grundaussagen sind nach Blumenberg im spätmittelalterlichen Nominalismus fragwürdig geworden. Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen, der seiner Schöpfung jederzeit ein anderes Aussehen geben konnte. ...

This is a text about what people believed about how powerful god was. In the ancient world people believed, that only this was possible what was real. If something didn't really exist, then it was impossible. Later, in medieval times, people thought that god had the power to decide if the world should exist or not, but god had no choice about its form. People believed, that god didn't have the power to decide what the world should look like.

According to Blumenberg, all of these basic statements have become questionable in late medieval nominalism. The visible world now revealed just a small part of what is possible for God, who could give his creation a different appearance at any time.


Grammatical analysis of this sentence:

The sentence consists of a main clause and a relative clause which are separated by a comma. The relative clause starts with the masculine relative pronoun "der" (engl: who). This means, it gives further information about a male person somewhere in the context, most likely in the preceding main clause. The only word that matches, is Gott (engl: god), so the relative clause describes god: He could have given his creation a different look/appearance at any time.

So, the relative clasue was straight forward, let's have a closer look to the main clause:

The first steps also are straight forward:

In German statements the infinite verb always occupies position 2 of the sentence (very rare exceptions exist, but the sentence in question is not such an exception).

The only verb in this clause is offenbarte which is a form of offenbaren (engl: to disclose, to reveal) which needs a subject (who performs the action? who is revealing?) and an object in accusative case (what will be revealed?).

Every verb needs a subject, and the subject is always in nominative case. And a good place to start looking for the subject is position 1. It is not always there, but it is the most common place. And we are lucky, at position 1 we find something that looks as if it was in nominative case:

die sichtbare Welt
the visible world

Nothing else in the main clause looks like being in nominative case, and our finding also is semantically a good candidate for a subject.

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte etwas
The visible world revealed something

Before we look for the accusative object, let's identify words what might also belong to the verb:

  • jetzt (engl: now)
    This is an adverb and adverbs always directly belong to a verb and modify it's meaning
  • nur noch (engl: just)
    Both words are adverbs, which means, they modify the verb, but they belong together and will be translated as one English word: just (also possible: only)

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch etwas
The visible world now revealed just something

This is left:

einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen

And we have to identify the accusative object that the verb needs. It is easy to see, that einen kleinen Ausschnitt is a nominal group in accusative case. There are two possibilities:

  1. Only the three words "einen kleinen Ausschnitt" are the accusative object. Then "des Gott Möglichen" must be something else that somehow directly belongs to the verb.
  2. All six words together build the accusative object. In this case the three words "des Gott Möglichen" must be some sort of attribute of the core noun of the accusative object which is Ausschnitt.

The first word of "des Gott Möglichen" is "des". This is a definite article in genitive case singular. It could be masculine of neuter. The fact that it without any doubt is in genitive case makes clear, that these three words (des Gott Möglichen) are a nominal group in genitive case. There are two possibilities to find such a genitive group in a sentence:

  • genitive object

    Die Polizei wurde des kaltblütigen Mörders habhaft.
    The police got hold of the cold-blooded murderer.

But genitive objects are rare. More often you find genitive nominal groups as genitive attributes within bigger nominal groups:

  • genitive attribute

    Das Messer des kaltblütigen Mörders war in seiner Tasche.
    The cold-blooded murderer's knife was in his pocket.

The part "das Messer des kaltblütigen Mörders" is a nominal group (here it is the subject), and it contains another nominal group: "des kaltblütigen Mörders" which is a genitive attribute of "Messer".

If "des Gott Möglichen" was a genitive object, then it would belong to the verb. But the verb offenbaren can not be used with a genitive object. So, "des Gott Möglichen" must be an attribute of "Ausschnitt". This means, that all six words together ("einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen") form the accusative object, and this accusative object contains a genitive attribute.

But what is the inner structure of "des Gott Möglichen"?

We already know that des is an article that might be masculine or neuter, and we have two nouns in this group. One is masculine (der Gott = the god) and the other is neuter (das Mögliche = the possible = that what is possible). So, at first sight the article could belong to any of both nouns. But if it belonged to "Gott", the word "Gott" itself also had to appear in its genitive form, but this is not "des Gott" (this is wrong) but "des Gottes". But in the text din't see "Gottes", we see "Gott".

This means: The article "des" can not belong to "Gott". It must belong to "Möglichen", so "Möglichen" is the core of this nominal group. And "Gott" must be some kind of attribute. But attributes can be omitted. This will change the meaning, but the result will always be a grammatically correct sentence. So, let's see what happens, if we omit the word "Gott":

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Möglichen

  1. The visible world now revealed just a small part of the possible
  2. The visible world now revealed just a small part of what is possible

Version 1 is close to German grammar, version 2 is better English.

As you can see, this works and makes sense.

So, only one questions is left:

What kind of attribute is "Gott" in "des Gott Möglichen"?

Now, this is complicated, and I din't find any resource that describes this well, and so I don't have an official name for it. I would call it

Dativattribut eines substantivierten Adjektivs
dative attribute of a nominalized adjective

Here is why:

Look at this sentence:

-A-
Dieser Sprung ist mir möglich.
This jump is possible for me. = I can do this jump.

Here mir is a free dative object. The subclass is dativus possessivus. The person named by the dative (here: the pronoun "mir") is the one to whom is referred what is said in the sentence.

Maybe we will watch a video that shows lots of complicated jumps. Among them is only one that I can perform. When I see it, I can say:

-B-
Dieser Sprung ist der Mögliche.
This jump is the possible. = This jump is the one that is possible.

Note, that now the former adjective has turned into a noun and it inherited it's gender form the subject, so here it is masculine: der Mögliche. Nominalized adjectives can have any gender. But the default gender (if there is nothing to inherit from) is neuter: »Wir versuchen das Mögliche«.

And of coarse I can add, that it is possible for me:

-C-
Dieser Sprung ist der mir Mögliche.
This jump is the to me possible. = This jump is the one that is possible to me.

This is the moment where the magic happenes: The free dative object from sentence A is now bound to the nominalized adjective in sentence C. It has become some sort of attribute of the nominalized adjective.

But this jump maybe also is possible for god, so let's replace the pronoun by a noun in the same case:

-D-
Dieser Sprung ist der Gott Mögliche.
This jump is the to god possible. = This jump is the one that is possible to god.

So, we now have a translation of this nominal group for nominal case, and so it is no longer hard to translate it in genitive case too:

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen

  1. The visible world now revealed just a small part the to god possible
  2. The visible world now revealed just a small part of what is possible for God
3
  • 1
    Not all philosophers write in such a way that is hard to understand. I'm currently reading Karl Popper who uses short, easy to understand sentences. But Popper, despite being of Austrian origin, wrote in English. Typical for German philosophy are people like Heidegger who are (in)famous for bending the German language to its limits.
    – RHa
    Aug 15 '20 at 8:54
  • 1
    Spacy also has a nice visualized dependency parser, which however fails equally bad on this example. Aug 15 '20 at 10:17
  • 4
    Thank you, this is an exceptionally helpful answer!
    – kjo
    Aug 15 '20 at 15:00
3

Die sichtbare Welt offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen, der seiner Schöpfung jederzeit ein anderes Aussehen geben konnte.

The sentence is not easy, but there is no inversion of word order or other fancy stuff.

Reduction of the sentence to its core

We'll try to identify the core of the sentence:

  • First step, try to ignore secondary clauses. In many cases they provide only additional information and are not essential.

  • Second step, remove adjectives. As above, they tend to provide additional information and might be non-essential.

  • Third, remove markers of time, location etc., in particular "jetzt nur noch" ("now only" with a notion that it had been different in the past).

Thus, the sentence becomes:

Die Welt offenbarte einen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen.

The sentence has the default structure subject-verb-object: "Die Welt (subject) offenbarte (verb) einen Ausschnitt (object)." or "The world revealed a section."

The words "des Gott Möglichen" might be irritating. "des Möglichen" refers to "Ausschnitt". It is a "section of the possible". "Gott" is in dative case and refers to "Möglichen". "Ich tue das mir Mögliche" means that I'm doing what(ever) I can. Thus, the core of the sentence means: "The world revealed a section of what is possible to God."

Rebuilding the complete sentence

Now, we can try to reinsert the elements of the sentence which we had removed.

  • First, we add the adjectives. That's easy. We are talking about the "visible world" and a "small section".

  • It's time to reinsert "jetzt nur noch".

Finally, it's time for the secondary clause:

  • There is a verb "geben" plus auxiliary verb "konnte". Who or what could give? It looks as if the sentence is a relative clause introduced by "der". Thus we need a masculine noun in the main sentence. "die Welt" is feminine, "das Mögliche" is neuter. However, "der Ausschnitt" and "(der) Gott" could both be the subject.

  • "geben" can have two objects: "jemandem (Dativ) etwas (Akkusativ) geben" ("give something to someone"). "seiner Schöpfung" qualifies as dative object and "ein anderes Aussehen" as accusative object.

  • We may try to translate: "who could give his creation another aspect". This makes sense, if we are talking about God. It's "his" creation and he should have the power to do so.

Finally, one should examine whether the translation is proper English and try to make it sound more natural without altering the meaning.

-3

I take it that ...

To find out the parts of a sentence it's common to switch the positions of them.

So we can parse the main clause like this:

  • Subject (wer/was?) | Predicate | adv./time | object acc. with extensions.

  • Die sichtbare Welt | offenbarte | jetzt | nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen.

The possible switches of the positions:

  • Jetzt offenbarte die sichtbare Welt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen.
  • Nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen offenbarte jetzt die sichtbare Welt.

List of impossible switches of position

  • Nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt offenbarte jetzt die sichtbare Welt des Gott Möglichen.
  • Des Gott Möglichen offenbarte jetzt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt die sichtbare Welt.
  • Des Gott Möglichen offenbarte jetzt die sichtbare Welt nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt.

... impossible, because if des Gott möglichen would be a part of sentence and you reposition the parts, it changes the meaning of the sentence (further descriptions by using the genitive should be always positioned nearly after the related word for excluding misunderstandings, so you mustn't parse).

--> deductive reasoning:

  • nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen

... is one very complex part of sentence.

Like as mentioned in another answer before, is the verb offenbaren related to accusative, in this example

einen ... Ausschnitt (obj. acc.)

and further:

  • des ... Möglichen (genitive)

... belongs / is related to Ausschnitt

des ihm Möglichen (Gott = dat.)

But of course it's still one part of the sentence:

nur noch einen kleinen Ausschnitt des Gott Möglichen


I deleted the part of my article, which didn't answer the question. Thanks a lot to all patient critic members!

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  • No, Gott is not in genitive case, and no, it shouldn't be Gottes. Gottes would be wrong. And no, to replace Möglichen with Möglichkeiten would be wrong too, and a 4th no for suggesting this was an old text. The Author Franz Josef Wetz was born 1958, and the 1st edition of the book from which this sentence was taken was published only 27 years ago, in 1993. … Aug 15 '20 at 13:24
  • … Correct is Gott in dative case. You can replace the noun Gott with a personal pronoun in dative case: »Die Welt offenbart einen kleinen Ausschnitt des ihm Möglichen.« (= … dessen was ihm möglich ist; dessen was Gott möglich ist) But you get a wrong result if you use the genitive form instead. WRONG: »Die Welt offenbart einen kleinen Ausschnitt des seiner Möglichen.« Aug 15 '20 at 13:24
  • Zusätzlich zu dem, was @Hubert Schölnast schon geschrieben hat: "Jesu" ist seit Jahrhunderten der Genitiv von Jesus (Christus), und schon die Tatsache, dass er eben nicht Jesus lautet, zeigt, dass man den Vornamen auch in den Genitiv setzen durfte. Die feste Phrase "Sohn Gottes" ist ebenso Jahrhunderte alt, und zeigt, dass man auch Gott immer in den Genitiv setzen durfte. Der Genitiv der christlichen Maria lautet traditionell Mariä (nach dem Latein), zum Beispiel in den Namen von Feiertagen wie Mariä Himmelfahrt. "Maria Geburt" ist entweder abgeschliffen oder schlicht falsch.
    – HalvarF
    Aug 15 '20 at 15:16
  • @Hubert Schölnast. ad 1st+2nd) answer in the next comment. ad 3nd) I agree, to compare these words is imprecive and confuses beginners, I'll delete this arguement. ad 4th) the text may be younger, but the style sounds a little antiquated (and I sware, I like this way of using language!). This style is part of the raised language/speech of well-ecucated people, who cultivates meanwhile uncommon and rare words - Wörter + Worte. And this is, what I wanted to say. I'll rework this part of my answer more carefully worded. Thank you for the tips. Aug 15 '20 at 22:37
  • @Hubert Schölnast. ad 1st+2nd) I really dont't want to affront anyone - especially not you. I've read some answers from you - respect! But in this case I would say: Der Dativ ist dem Genitiv sein Tod ;-) Back to serious arguments: Das Mögliche is neutrum, correct genitiv: - Die Welt offenbart einen Ausschnitt Seines Möglichen ("Seines" in the tradition to write God's pronoun with initial + to preserve the meaning). --> So the sentence still makes sense and is still correct, if I delete the word Gott. - I'm rather sure here should be a compound noun, compare das Menschenmögliche. Aug 15 '20 at 22:53

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