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I'm a Korean who studies German. German and Korean basically have different sentence orders. German is the subject verb object, and Korean is the subject object verb. How do people whose native language is German understand 'trennbare Verben'? For example, "Ich stelle"..."fest." If the distance between 'stelle' and 'fest' in this sentence (when the content of the sentence increases), is there a case where the verb in this sentence confused with 'stellen' instead of 'feststellen'? If you're not confused, do you see it as a sentence after "Ich stelle" and perceive the verb in this sentence as "feststellen"? I don't think the Germans will hear all the sentences and think that the sentences have 'trennbare Verben'.

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  • German is only V2 order. It is perfectly fine to make sentences of the type object-verb-subject-object: Dem Kind gebe ich einen Bonbon. Jan 18, 2022 at 12:45
  • It's also about expectations. Once you hear the word after 'stelle', you can probably work out whether the verb is feststellen or not. Ich stelle die Tasse... is 'put', Ich stelle ein Vergehen... is probably 'note', so you'd expect a fest to follow later. Jan 18, 2022 at 12:55
  • @OliverMason You're probably a bit overconfident here: "Ich stelle, soweit mir das nach einer schweren Krankheit vor zwei Jahren, verursacht durch einen Unfall mit Fahrerflucht, bei dem auch meine Frau schwer verletzt wurde,....."
    – tofro
    Jan 18, 2022 at 17:56
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    @tofro I would be very surprised if there wasn't a fest at the end of that. Also: you can of course make up counter examples for everything. That doesn't mean that such utterances are actually realistic. Jan 18, 2022 at 18:38

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A famous example (from Mark Twain's humorous Essay "The awful German language", definitely a recommended read for anyone learning German):

„Die Koffer waren gepackt, und er reiste, nachdem er seine Mutter und seine Schwestern geküsst und noch ein letztes Mal sein angebetetes Gretchen an sich gedrückt hatte, das, in schlichten weißen Musselin gekleidet und mit einer einzelnen Nachthyazinthe im üppigen braunen Haar, kraftlos die Treppe herabgetaumelt war, immer noch blass von dem Entsetzen und der Aufregung des vorangegangenen Abends, aber voller Sehnsucht, ihren armen schmerzenden Kopf noch einmal an die Brust des Mannes zu legen, den sie mehr als ihr eigenes Leben liebte, ab.“

to which he comments

"The Germans have another kind of parenthesis, which they make by splitting a verb in two and putting half of it at the beginning of an exciting chapter and the other half at the end of it. Can anyone conceive of anything more confusing than that ? These things are called “separable verbs.” The German grammar is blistered all over with separable verbs; and the wider the two portions of one of them are spread apart, the better the author of the crime is pleased with his performance"

This is obviously humorously exaggerated, but still a valid German sentence. No, the Germans don't have an inbred crystal ball that tells them at the beginning of such a sentence what the sentence is supposed to say once the second part of the separable verb comes along. We simply "keep the parenthesis open" in our minds until it's closed by the second half of the verb (also a good training to let a speaker finish and not interrupt him ;) ). And just because this is quite demanding, sentences like the example are definitely considered extremely bad style. There are numerous ways how the example above could be expressed in a way more easy to understand.

As mentioned in a comment: German doesn not have an SPO (Subject, predicate, object) word order - OPS is also valid just as any other order that keeps the predicate/verb in second place - which is called a V2 word order.

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  • Good Answer, +1. But: No, the Germans don't have an inbred crystal ball [...]. could come across rude, as it is ambiguous towards implying that this ridiculuous assumption was what the user had in mind. I myself am very sure that you don't mean it rude. But considering the user is new and doesn't know you, I would appreciate if you could rephrase your answer to be more friendly.
    – Jonathan Herrera
    Jan 18, 2022 at 13:32
  • Then, should we continue to listen to or read sentences while thinking about the 'trennbare Präfixe'? and what is the 'inbred crystal ball'?
    – kim
    Jan 18, 2022 at 13:34
  • Don't focus on the separable verb while listening to somebody, because you might miss the point of what they are saying. Like Oliver Mason said in his comment or tofro in this answer, with experience you will roughly know which second part to expect, simply from context. If you read something, don't to that either, the separable part is waiting for you at the end. And nobody reads or writes like Mark Twain did in his humoristic example if they actually want to be understood. Jan 18, 2022 at 13:39
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    @jonathan.scholbach Rest assured there's no intended rudeness. I was just assuming that in the context of Mr. Clemens's essay it would be clear I chose the same aproach of benevolent, but apparently-rude sounding tone. It was understood 150 years ago, so I'd guess it's understood today as well. If not: No, no rudeness intended. Absolutely not.
    – tofro
    Jan 18, 2022 at 15:57
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    @jonathan.scholbach I really think you are a little bit over-concerned here. It would never have come to my mind to consider this answer rude in any way.
    – Olafant
    Jan 18, 2022 at 17:10
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This is more a psycholinguistic question than specifically German.

Utterances in all languages contain less information than they theoretically could -- redundancy is more important than compression (within certain bounds). Additionally, listeners continuosly predict the continuation of the utterances they hear. The sytactic realization of this phenomenon in spoken language is known as projection: a speaker can start with some (possibly ambiguous) syntactic construction, opening a space of potential completions. These can then be expanded or retracted.

Now, when it has become sufficiently clear what is the most probably continuation, the other speaker can (and often will) even co-complete a sentence, as a form of back-chanelling:

((about the poor quality of imported fruit))
    06 a: in der hinsicht is=is sIcherlich ne mEnge äh=äh::–
                juter jeSCHMACK,(-)
          in this respect surely a lot of the good taste uhm uhm
--> 07 b: verLO[ren jegangen;]
          was lost
    08 a:      [für UNS       ] verlOren jegangen;
                for us          was lost

(a spoken example from the paper -- the brackets in chunks 07 and 08 are uttered in parallel!)

While more common in spoken language, the same happens when you read a long sentence with separated verb: a separable verb will project completions, one of which has to be expanded later (retractions of self-corrections are mostly a thing of spoken language). In the meantime, with every new token, you reweigh the expectation of what will follow.

The flip-side of this is that the longer the stuff in the middle gets, the more cognitive load it puts on the recipient -- you basically have to keep a stack in your head. As this kind of short-term mental space appears to be bounded, there is an upper limit of complexity one can reasonably process. Hence it the recommendation to avoid ridiculously long constructions like the examples given by tofro.

This is closely related to the reason why y cn rd txt lk ths, and scripts like Arabic and Hebrew can work without writing vowels: continual projection and knowledge of context.

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  • Please don't use code style for anything else than code.
    – Olafant
    Jan 18, 2022 at 17:13
  • @Olafant I don't. This is code, in the sense of markup. The intendation (vertical alignment) is relevant here. Jan 18, 2022 at 17:57
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Although there are a lot of (in)famous examples how this feature of German language can be (ab)used to create sentences that are hard to understand, pragmatically, this is solved by putting the particle close to the verb.

Taking the example from tofros answer:

Die Koffer waren gepackt, und er reiste, nachdem er seine Mutter und seine Schwestern geküsst und noch ein letztes Mal sein angebetetes Gretchen an sich gedrückt hatte, das, in schlichten weißen Musselin gekleidet und mit einer einzelnen Nachthyazinthe im üppigen braunen Haar, kraftlos die Treppe herabgetaumelt war, immer noch blass von dem Entsetzen und der Aufregung des vorangegangenen Abends, aber voller Sehnsucht, ihren armen schmerzenden Kopf noch einmal an die Brust des Mannes zu legen, den sie mehr als ihr eigenes Leben liebte, ab.

This could just be simplified:

Die Koffer waren gepackt, und er reiste ab, nachdem er seine Mutter und seine Schwestern geküsst und noch ein letztes Mal sein angebetetes Gretchen an sich gedrückt hatte, das, in schlichten weißen Musselin gekleidet und mit einer einzelnen Nachthyazinthe im üppigen braunen Haar, kraftlos die Treppe herabgetaumelt war, immer noch blass von dem Entsetzen und der Aufregung des vorangegangenen Abends, aber voller Sehnsucht, ihren armen schmerzenden Kopf noch einmal an die Brust des Mannes zu legen, den sie mehr als ihr eigenes Leben liebte.

The sentence is still overloaded, because of the many nested relative clauses and the jumping bewtween subordinate clauses, main clauses and enumerations. But at least the separable Verb is no longer a source of confusion.

In spoken language, especially in conversation, it is also quite common to not even finish a sentence fully, without doing harm to understanding. In most cases, the meaning is derived from contextual clues, even if the separable part of the verb would be omitted in total.

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