3

One of the first things you might notice if you look up German verbs in English Wiktionary is that they include a class number right in the main label. For example the entry for sehen says "(class 5 strong, ... )". English Wikipedia explains this terminology in Germanic strong verb and it's covered in a bit less detail in German Wikipedia under Starkes Verb. I understand it's important to distinguish between strong and weak verbs because they have different conjugation endings in the past tense, for example the simple past tense of a weak verb usually adds a ''t'' (''drehen'' -> ''ich drehte'') but not with a strong verb (''sehen'' -> ''ich sah''). But I've never considered it necessary to learn the class numbers of individual verbs, despite the fact that this information is emphasized in Wiktionary.

My reasoning is that I'm primarily interested in learning Modern German, not the German that was spoken centuries ago, so unless the information is helpful with the modern language there isn't much point to memorizing it, even if it might be interesting from a historical point of view. The class number does not determine vowel changes in Modern German, for example ''meiden'' and ''greifen'' are both class 1, but conjugated ''ich mied'' and ''ich griff''. (I'm sure there was some historical reason for this difference, which may be interesting, but unless it's part of a pattern that helps to memorize vowel changes it's not very helpful.) Some other classes are more consistent, for example class 2 seem to regularly change ''ie'' to ''o''. But it seems simpler to call these "''ie'' to ''o'' verbs" that to say they are class 2 and then say class 2 verbs change ''ie'' to ''o''. Meanwhile, the vowel change does not determine the class, for example ''bergen'' is class 3 and ''brechen'' is class 4, but their vowel changes are the same: ''ich barg'', ''geborgen'' and ''ich brach'', ''gebrochen''. (There may be some subtleties with long vs. short vowels going on here, but if so, it doesn't seem helpful.) I've noticed that German language dictionaries don't include the class number; German Wiktionary gives a very reduced conjugation table compared to English, and DWDS is happy to just give 3rd person singular present and past and the past participle. (With most verbs this is enough information to fill in the tables if you know the general pattern.)

So my questions are: Should I, as a learner, pay any attention at all to these class numbers? Do native speakers, outside a few Philolog(inn)en, pay attention to them?

4
  • “German Wiktionary gives a very reduced conjugation table compared to English”, have you followed the link? Example de.wiktionary.org/wiki/Flexion:meiden
    – Carsten S
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:29
  • @Carsten S: Yes, I noticed that. I like the way that German Wiktionary limits the information in the entry to what you need to know, but it links to the full table if needed. With English Wiktionary it's kind of all or none; if you want to get more than the four endings listed in the label then you click show and it gives you too much information. I know how to conjugate haben so I don't need every combination with a past participle.
    – RDBury
    Jan 8, 2022 at 21:57
  • I'm not saying it is wrong to ask this here, but perhaps you'd get more useful answers on the language learners SE. This is IMHO a more practical, pedagorical than grammatical question. Jan 9, 2022 at 8:53
  • I also think that many parts of the conjugation tables on German Wiktionary are not useful.
    – Carsten S
    Jan 9, 2022 at 9:22

1 Answer 1

3

In short: No.

There's learning a language, and there's linguistics. To do the former, you don't need to master the latter (like: You don't need to be an engineer to drive a car). And Wiktionary, like any dictionary, doesn't always distinguish between essential and marginally interesting knowledge.

German is very much like English with respect to verb forms: There's regular (weak) and irregular (strong) verbs, weak verbs can be grasped as a schema, and the strong ones you need to memorise.

Linguists simply have refused to call the German irregular verbs just that1 because in fact, they follow a number of regular patterns - they fall in the classes you mentioned, and within that class, they are in fact (sort of) regular (and used to be even more during language history). I personally think it's easier to forget about the classes and simply memorise the conjugation as you do - There are just too many exceptions to the rules to make these classes practically useful for a learner. Very probably, after some practice, your brain will recognise the patterns anyways and try and apply them automatically (that's at least how it works for me). So: It does make sense to know about the patterns, but you shouldn't try and memorise the pattern class with the verb which is just one level of indirection too much, at least for me - instead, memorise at least the basic conjugation table of each irregular verb.

BTW: If you have a look at the irregular verbs entry in English Wikipedia or the list of English irregular verbs in Wiktionary, you will find a similar grouping of English verbs (maybe a bit more frayed by the centuries than in German) into pattern classes that you've maybe never learned and still regularly apply. That is actually part of the common Germanic ancestry of English and German.

1: Even if German schooling has just started to slowly take up this habit: pupils are in fact being told there are regular and irregular verbs in German nowadays.

3
  • 1
    The seven strong verb classes lost much of their original regularity over the centuries, which also reduces their helpfulness for a llearner. Maybe less so in German than in Engllish, but still.
    – RHa
    Jan 9, 2022 at 10:34
  • Thanks. This is more or less a I suspected. I don't agree that dividing verbs into groups by pattern isn't helpful for learners. But these groups by historical patterns don't seem relevant today. The irregular German verb categories in Wiktionary have over 1500 entries, and German has more inflections per verb to memorize than English, so it makes sense to learn as much as possible by rule rather than rote. It's very handy, for example, to know that mögen inflects just like können.
    – RDBury
    Jan 9, 2022 at 14:56
  • @RDBury I do actually agree that classification is useful, and you should know the pattern classes. But you shouldn't learn individual verb conjugation by trying to memorise the class a verb sems to fall under - One of the things the human brain is really good at in doing intuitively is pattern recognition and finding analogies. That means that, given enough practice, your brain will find the patterns intiuitively if you memorise just enough conjugation tables (you should be using that ability, and that's very probably how you learnt English in the first place).
    – tofro
    Jan 9, 2022 at 15:05

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.